Erica Wheeler still remembers vividly what Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, standing in the Wheelers’ home, told Wheeler’s mother would happen if her daughter came to play for her.
“She told my mom, ‘She won’t just be a basketball player,’” Wheeler recalled of the conversation between Stringer and Wheeler’s mother, Melissa Cooper, who died in 2012. “‘She’s going to know how to speak in front of the camera, she’s going to know etiquette, she’s going to know how to carry herself, and she’s going to be a young woman when she graduates college.’”
Wheeler, who turns 30 in May, has worked to become the woman Stringer promised Cooper she would be. She has shown a toughness that has carried her on her professional journey to 14 teams overseas after she wasn’t selected in the W.N.B.A. draft, to regular playing time with the Indiana Fever and now a multiyear deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.
A parallel story unfolded in the life of Betnijah Laney, 27, in her case a second-generation Stringer player. Laney’s mother, Yolanda Laney, took Stringer’s Cheyney State program to a pair of Final Fours, playing at a level Stringer said would have made her the top pick in the W.N.B.A. draft had the league existed when she graduated.
Instead, Yolanda became a lawyer and poured her basketball knowledge into Betnijah, who came to know Stringer like a second mother and chose to play for her as well, at Rutgers. Betnijah Laney, like Wheeler, struggled to find a foothold in the W.N.B.A., getting cut twice before blossoming with the Atlanta Dream in 2020 and winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award. This off-season, she signed a multiyear deal with the Liberty, and she is expected to take on a key role for a revamped team featuring guard Sabrina Ionescu and the newly acquired center Natasha Howard.
That’s not to say that Laney’s familiarity with Stringer — from basketball camps where Yolanda coached and visits during family vacations — protected Laney from what she described as “moments she’s testing you mentally.”
“You’re either going to come along,” Laney added, “or get left back.”
That’s part of the bargain, too, one that both Laney and Wheeler credit for giving them the strength to persevere through some early setbacks in their professional lives. It’s a common Rutgers story: An overlooked Stringer player sticks around and proves herself in the league. Such was the case for Chelsea Newton, picked 22nd over all in the 2005 draft before making an all-rookie team and, two years later, an all-defensive team, and for Tammy Sutton-Brown, who was picked 18th in the 2001 draft and became a two-time All-Star.
But Stringer isn’t certain whether a Rutgers player is born or made. She didn’t even set out to recruit Wheeler, before getting a close look at the 5-foot-7 sparkplug in the huddle at an A.A.U. tournament. Wheeler’s teammates had their heads down after the opposing team made a run, but Wheeler was in their faces, reminding them of what they could do.
When Wheeler took her official recruitment visit to Rutgers, Stringer wanted to make sure that A.A.U. version of Wheeler would be a part of the package.
“I said, ‘Can you speak truth to power?’” Stringer said. “‘Because you’re going to be a freshman. Can you say the things you need to say, as a member of this team?’”
Wheeler assured her that she could. Soon, Wheeler’s mother called Stringer while the coach was on vacation at Walt Disney World, and delivered the news for her daughter, asking Stringer to “make her tough, so that she can tackle the world.”
It was different for Laney, who had all but decided to play for Sherri Coale at Oklahoma instead. But a phone call from Stringer, Laney said, reminded her: “I know this woman. I’m sure that she’ll take care of me, that she’s going to be everything that I need in a coach.”
Laney and Wheeler played together under Stringer for two seasons. Laney knew what to expect because of her mother’s experience, but Wheeler had a rough adjustment period. Stringer asked Wheeler, a longtime shooting guard, to learn to play the point in her sophomore year. Playing time was scarce as she struggled with the new position. Wheeler said she considered transferring.
But both Wheeler and Laney spoke highly of Stringer’s trademark intensity, and her approach to helping them overcome physical and mental barriers — “breaking them down to build them back up,” Stringer would say, meaning constantly questioning them to make them think and to act with purpose.
Stringer recalled Wheeler vociferously objecting to a rare time that Stringer went easy during conditioning drills. Wheeler insisted that she and her teammates finish. And Laney offered to switch positions from the 3 to the 4, simply because, as she explained it to Stringer, “she was the one who could get those 10 rebounds a game we needed.” And she did, averaging 10.7 per game in her senior year.
Wheeler and Laney have stayed in close contact since college, with the two texting each other encouragement throughout their free-agent processes, and connecting by FaceTime after each one signed a new contract. And they are there for current Rutgers players. Guard Arella Guirantes, who Stringer said should be the top pick in the 2021 draft, said she hears from Wheeler and Laney all the time.
“We like to call it a secret society,” Guirantes said. “Because we understand: You come here, you hold yourself to a standard, really. And those who we have in the league now, we always have our sisters.”
That standard led to the Sparks signing Wheeler this off-season to take over starting point guard duties, after she increased her assist percentage for three straight seasons. But Wheeler did not play in the 2020 season after learning she had Covid-19, with complications leading to fluid around her heart. She tested positive for the coronavirus in the spring but wasn’t cleared to resume playing basketball, she said, until October.
It was Stringer’s voice in her head reminding her that she could overcome this as she had so much else. Stringer’s voice, too, reverberates in Laney’s head every time she gets into a defensive stance, the fruit of years of drills and operating in Stringer’s famous “55” defense, where all five players are engaged in full-court pressure.
The coach’s voice is clear in their minds off the court, too. Wheeler said she could hear Stringer when she achieved her goal last year of buying a house by the time she turned 30. And she channels Stringer whenever her foundation, the Wheeler Kid Foundation, holds another basketball clinic.
Is she as demanding of the young players as Stringer is on Rutgers players?
“No, I’m not that hard on them,” Wheeler began. But then she sounded an awful lot like her former coach. “I do demand a certain presence when you’re in my camp. When you’re not willing to work, or you want to joke around, you can get out of my gym.”