The primary time Seimone Augustus realized what she was able to wasn’t when, as a 14-year-old, she landed on the duvet of Sports activities Illustrated for Ladies subsequent to the query, “Is She the Subsequent Michael Jordan?”
When Augustus, a W.N.B.A. legend who retired this 12 months after 15 seasons, displays on the moments that made her perceive her potential, she thinks of the stands at Capitol Excessive Faculty in Baton Rouge, La. She led the group to back-to-back state titles, scoring 3,600 factors and shedding simply seven video games in 4 years.
The college is on the middle of the predominantly Black neighborhood the place she grew up, a neighborhood she described as close-knit and filled with “a bunch of individuals that you’d by no means know who helped make my sport the best way it’s.” With every win, although, the crowds that gathered to see Augustus play on the Capitol gymnasium began to look totally different.
“The identical white people who, had we seen them driving down the road a 12 months in the past, would have been hitting the locks with their elbows and zooming by have been instantly embracing coming to the fitness center, desirous to expertise no matter it’s that they skilled whereas watching me play,” Augustus mentioned.
Solely then did Augustus begin to notice the sort of change her preternatural skills on the court docket would possibly allow her to push for off it. “I believe it hit me then,” she mentioned. “It was only a melting pot of individuals, essentially the most lovely surroundings I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Augustus’s legacy as a participant — a girls’s basketball pioneer, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the cornerstone of the four-time champion Minnesota Lynx, certainly one of basketball’s nice dynasties — isn’t in query. However she can be certainly one of sports activities’ most forward-thinking and undersung activists. Now, as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks, Augustus is working to assist her gamers discover the identical solace and freedom that she did on the court docket and discover methods to make use of their affect to advocate for themselves and their communities exterior basketball.
“How can I make this a secure house so that you can simply be at liberty and specific your self by basketball?” she asks them.
Basketball has lengthy served as that sort of refuge for Augustus.
“Simply being me was exhausting, to be trustworthy,” she mentioned, explaining that she was bullied in highschool. “Day by day strolling down the hallway it was like: ‘She’s homosexual. She’s homosexual.’”
Augustus’s dad and mom and household supported her, however others have been hostile. “You had dad and mom coming as much as my dad and mom and saying, ‘As a result of your daughter is homosexual, she’s received my daughter feeling like she’s homosexual,’” Augustus mentioned. “Individuals I’ve by no means met in my life are blaming me for one thing that their little one is now selecting to precise.”
On the similar time, Augustus was racking up nearly each accolade a highschool basketball participant may hope for — and making an attempt to contemplate how the racist legacy of the Deep South neighborhood she grew up in would form the place she selected to play in faculty. Louisiana State College, her hometown faculty, didn’t make use of a Black professor, Julian T. White, until 1971. “The entire recruiting course of, I had so many individuals that have been like, ‘Don’t go there,’” she mentioned.
Finally, she determined to attend L.S.U. anyway: She needed the prospect each to remain near house and to construct a profitable program as an alternative of becoming a member of a longtime powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut. “I had lots of aged Black folks that mentioned, ‘Simply to step on this campus was loads for me, and I did that for you,’” Augustus mentioned. “I believe it helped give them a launch. Like, a minimum of we’re at peace sufficient to have the ability to get pleasure from this second.”
These experiences laid the groundwork for Augustus’s transition to public-facing activism, which demanded self-assurance and sensitivity. Her first foray into advocacy was fittingly private: She got here out publicly within the L.G.B.T.Q. journal The Advocate in Might 2012, detailing her relationship with, and plans to marry, LaTaya Varner, who’s now her spouse.
Augustus’s profile had by no means been increased, provided that she had simply led the Lynx to their first title, in 2011, and had been named essentially the most useful participant of that 12 months’s finals. However the determination was nonetheless dangerous. It could be years earlier than the W.N.B.A. began a leaguewide L.G.B.T.Q. pleasure program, in 2014, and the timing was essential since Minnesotans would vote on a state constitutional modification banning same-sex marriage that November.
“That was like the primary time I truly stepped out and used my voice,” Augustus mentioned. “I felt like I used to be at a spot in my life the place I used to be able to be open with individuals. I don’t assume it was an enormous shock, however for the folks that wanted it, it actually helped them. I had so many individuals that came to visit, like, ‘I used to be in a position to inform my mother after 40 years.’”
She continued to talk to the information media concerning the difficulty, telling her personal story as a rebuke to the proposed Minnesota modification. It was defeated, and same-sex marriage grew to become authorized in all 50 states soon after Augustus and Varner were married in 2015.
“When she got here out in 2012 after which began doing a lot intentional work in Minnesota round marriage equality, we noticed Seimone after which different gamers inside the W.N.B.A. kick off conversations that grew to become actually paying homage to the athlete activism of the ’60s,” mentioned Anne Lieberman, director of coverage and packages at Athlete Ally.
These conversations have been by no means extra influential than in 2016, when the celebs of the Lynx — together with Augustus — started to publicly help the Black Lives Matter motion. They spoke out towards police brutality and wore shirts throughout warm-ups that bore the motion’s slogan within the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling earlier than Colin Kaepernick, for a similar trigger, made waves by taking a knee throughout the nationwide anthem at N.F.L. video games.
For Augustus, each killings resonated deeply. She had spoken out about racial profiling by the police in suburban Minneapolis in 2012, the place Castile was killed 4 years later; the nook retailer the place Sterling was killed was the identical one the place she used to purchase snacks when she was rising up in Baton Rouge.
“Clearly, we’ve all been stopped by the police earlier than,” Augustus mentioned. “My dad has been on the town in Minneapolis and gotten stopped by the police. That would have very nicely been my father or cousin or uncle or anyone.”
The W.N.B.A. fined gamers for sporting the shirts, earlier than rescinding the fines after participant and public outcry. Four Lynx security guards, all off-duty police officers, walked out throughout a sport in response to the gamers’ actions.
“We had cops stroll out on us and go away the Goal Middle broad open for individuals to only — in the event that they needed to return in and do one thing to us, we didn’t have anybody there to guard us,” Augustus mentioned. “As a result of we wore T-shirts. As a result of individuals don’t need to be held accountable for his or her actions.”
Within the wake of George Floyd’s homicide final 12 months, the W.N.B.A. extra proactively inspired participant activism as part of its id — 4 years after the Lynx first took a stand. “Now it’s like, ‘We’re celebrating you!’ And we’re like, ‘Uh huh, you’re celebrating now, however in years prior, it was sort of exhausting to get you to embrace it,’” Augustus mentioned.
She nonetheless remembers conferences the place the league, she mentioned, tried to goad gamers into sporting extra make-up and skimpier uniforms, and the way in her first years of enjoying it was the gamers with husbands and kids who appeared to get all of the publicity. “They’d say, ‘We don’t have a cool issue,’ and I’m like, ‘We cool, what are you speaking about?’” Augustus mentioned. “It’s insane the conversations we needed to have.”
In an emailed assertion in response to Augustus’s feedback, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert cited the emphasis on L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights by the league’s Social Justice Council, which was established final season.
“The W.N.B.A. has lengthy been one of the inclusive and welcoming sports activities leagues when it comes to its dedication to gamers and followers,” she mentioned, including, “Immediately, that dedication continues to develop with numerous demonstrations of inclusivity and with an understanding that there’ll at all times be extra work to do.”
Augustus has at all times prioritized the sport itself, and that’s no totally different now that she’s a coach. However the seemingly easy means wherein she has built-in combating for herself and her neighborhood into her basketball profession appears prone to rub off on her protégés.
“She performed the sport with a aptitude and a confidence that may inform you that she needs to be the loudest individual within the room, however she actually doesn’t,” Sparks Coach Derek Fisher mentioned. “She simply needs to assist individuals get higher and serve others.”