The first time Seimone Augustus realized what she was able to wasn’t when, as a 14-year-old, she landed on the duvet of Sports Illustrated for Women subsequent to the query, “Is She the Next 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 High School in Baton Rouge, La. She led the crew to back-to-back state titles, scoring 3,600 factors and dropping simply seven video games in 4 years.
The college is on the heart of the predominantly Black neighborhood the place she grew up, a neighborhood she described as close-knit and stuffed with “a bunch of people that you would never know who helped make my game the way it is.” With every win, although, the crowds that gathered to see Augustus play on the Capitol gymnasium began to look totally different.
“The same white folks who, had we seen them driving down the street a year ago, would have been hitting the locks with their elbows and zooming through were suddenly embracing coming to the gym, wanting to experience whatever it is that they experienced while watching me play,” Augustus mentioned.
Only then did Augustus begin to notice the type of change her preternatural talents on the courtroom would possibly allow her to push for off it. “I think it hit me then,” she mentioned. “It was just a melting pot of people, the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Augustus’s legacy as a participant — a ladies’s basketball pioneer, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the cornerstone of the four-time champion Minnesota Lynx, one among basketball’s nice dynasties — isn’t in query. But she can also be one among 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 courtroom and discover methods to make use of their affect to advocate for themselves and their communities exterior basketball.
“How can I make this a safe space for you to just feel free and express yourself through basketball?” she asks them.
Basketball has lengthy served as that type of refuge for Augustus.
“Just being me was hard, to be honest,” she mentioned, explaining that she was bullied in highschool. “Every day walking down the hallway it was like: ‘She’s gay. She’s gay.’”
Augustus’s mother and father and household supported her, however others have been hostile. “You had parents coming up to my parents and saying, ‘Because your daughter is gay, she’s got my daughter feeling like she’s gay,’” Augustus mentioned. “People I’ve never met in my life are blaming me for something that their child is now choosing to express.”
At the identical time, Augustus was racking up virtually each accolade a highschool basketball participant might hope for — and attempting to think about how the racist legacy of the Deep South group she grew up in would form the place she selected to play in school. Louisiana State University, her hometown college, didn’t make use of a Black professor, Julian T. White, until 1971. “The whole recruiting process, I had so many people that were like, ‘Do not go there,’” she mentioned.
Ultimately, she determined to attend L.S.U. anyway: She needed the prospect each to remain near residence and to construct a successful program as an alternative of becoming a member of a longtime powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut. “I had a lot of elderly Black people that said, ‘Just to step on this campus was a lot for me, and I did that for you,’” Augustus mentioned. “I think it helped give them a release. Like, at least we’re at peace enough to be able to enjoy this moment.”
Those 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 May 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 helpful participant of that 12 months’s finals. But the choice 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 first time I actually stepped out and used my voice,” Augustus mentioned. “I felt like I was at a place in my life where I was ready to be open with people. I don’t think it was a big surprise, but for the people that needed it, it really helped them. I had so many people that came over, like, ‘I was able to tell my mom after 40 years.’”
She continued to talk to the news media in regards to the subject, 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 came out in 2012 and then started doing so much intentional work in Minnesota around marriage equality, we saw Seimone and then other players within the W.N.B.A. kick off conversations that became really reminiscent of the athlete activism of the ’60s,” mentioned Anne Lieberman, director of coverage and applications at Athlete Ally.
Those conversations have been by no means extra influential than in 2016, when the celebrities of the Lynx — together with Augustus — started to publicly assist 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.
“Obviously, we’ve all been stopped by the police before,” Augustus mentioned. “My dad has been in town in Minneapolis and gotten stopped by the police. That could have very well been my father or cousin or uncle or anybody.”
The W.N.B.A. fined players for wearing 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 game in response to the gamers’ actions.
“We had cops walk out on us and leave the Target Center wide open for people to just — if they wanted to come in and do something to us, we didn’t have anyone there to protect us,” Augustus mentioned. “Because we wore T-shirts. Because people don’t want to be held accountable for their actions.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s homicide final 12 months, the W.N.B.A. extra proactively inspired participant activism as part of its identification — 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, but in years prior, it was kind of hard to get you to embrace it,’” Augustus mentioned.
She nonetheless remembers conferences the place the league, she mentioned, tried to goad gamers into carrying extra make-up and skimpier uniforms, and the way in her first years of taking part in it was the gamers with husbands and kids who appeared to get all of the publicity. “They would say, ‘We don’t have a cool factor,’ and I’m like, ‘We cool, what are you talking about?’” Augustus mentioned. “It’s insane the conversations we had 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 long been one of the most inclusive and welcoming sports leagues in terms of its commitment to players and fans,” she mentioned, including, “Today, that commitment continues to grow with countless demonstrations of inclusivity and with an understanding that there will always be more work to do.”
Augustus has at all times prioritized the game itself, and that’s no totally different now that she’s a coach. But the seemingly easy manner during which she has built-in combating for herself and her group into her basketball profession appears prone to rub off on her protégés.
“She played the game with a flair and a confidence that would tell you that she wants to be the loudest person in the room, but she really doesn’t,” Sparks Coach Derek Fisher mentioned. “She just wants to help people get better and serve others.”