By Rachel Ward
Shekinna Stricklen and Tiffany Hayes sat in the same room in Bristol, Connecticut on April 16, 2012. Nine years before they first played on a court together as teammates in Atlanta, Stricklen and Hayes waited in anticipation to hear their names called at the 2012 WNBA Draft — a moment that changed trajectories, altered futures and eventually brought them together.
It was a moment their families got to experience in person with them, too. Both Stricklen and Hayes give credit to their family members, and especially their parents, as integral keys to their basketball success. When they talk about what family means to them, it’s only right that those were the people by their sides.
“My family drove — my dad, my grandfather, two of my uncles, my mom — they literally drove from Arkansas all the way to Connecticut just for that one night and then turned around and drove back that next morning back,” Stricklen recalled about the over 20 hour drive between the two cities.
The Conway, Arkansas native and Tennessee star was coming off a senior season where she led the Lady Vols in scoring, averaging 15.4 points per game. A First Team All-American her senior season and SEC Player of the Year the season prior, Stricklen’s versatility set her apart — and helped her to become the second overall pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft.
Nine years later, Stricklen still remembers details about the call she got during the early hours of April 16. It was a call from Brian Agler, then-head coach for the Seattle Storm, that gave her insight as to what her soon-to-be future would look like.
“I just know I got a call at two or three in the morning from Brian Agler. He was like, ‘You asleep?’ and I said, ‘Nah, I can’t sleep.’ He said, ‘Alright, I think you would look good in a Storm uniform, so go get some sleep,’” Stricklen said. “So I kind of knew, but I still didn’t get any sleep. I was just so anxious and just happy. I was saying like, ‘I’m about to live a dream.’”
For Hayes, the night didn’t go the way she envisioned, but she knows now that she landed exactly where she was supposed to be. Racking up numerous awards over her career at Connecticut and helping to lead the Huskies to two National Championships and four Final Four appearances, falling to the second round of the draft wasn’t what Hayes predicted.
“I was sitting in the room the whole time because I didn’t get picked until the second round, so everybody left and I was just in there. It made me nervous because I was like, ‘shoot, what if I don’t go at all?’” Hayes recalled.
When Hayes thinks of people she wants in the stands cheering for her, her mom is always the first to come to mind. During Hayes’ college years, her mom moved to Connecticut to be closer to her. Natives of Lakeland, Florida, the closest WNBA team to their hometown was the Atlanta Dream — a team that would allow a mother to be as close as possible to her daughter.
“My mom was always talking about how she wanted me to play for the Dream because that’s the closest to Florida and she could drive up to the games, and then it ended up happening. She was like, ‘I knew all along. I knew all along,’” Hayes said. “So I was happy for that. I was definitely sad that I was still sitting there because I have high expectations for myself obviously, but I think that’s been the biggest blessing in disguise of my whole life going to the Dream.”
Hayes’ mom, who she describes as “her person,” ended up moving to Atlanta for a few years once Hayes put on the Dream jersey — the kind of move that’s not surprising to either of them by now.
With Stricklen signing with the Dream in February of 2020 and Hayes opting out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice reform, the two are new to being teammates but each have experience playing veteran leadership roles. And now they’re accompanied by another veteran with 16 years of experience in the league — seven-time WNBA All-Star and 2014 WNBA Champion Candice Dupree.
Despite moving to a brand new city and playing with a brand new team, there is familiarity in Atlanta for Dupree with head coach Darius Taylor. She first met Taylor during her collegiate years at Temple University where he was an assistant coach under head coach Dawn Staley. Dupree noted that Taylor helped her get ready for the WNBA and joked that she’s never heard him talk this much — he was quieter during his years at Temple and would never let Dupree leave practice until she scored on him three times during their one-on-one matchups.
With flashbacks to their collegiate years, Stricklen, Hayes and Dupree share a commonality. None of them thought seriously about playing in the WNBA or saw it as a possible reality until their junior years of college. For Stricklen and Hayes, there were hints of how successful they could be when college coaches started making trips to their hometowns.
“College just took it to another level. I think when Pat (Summitt) came all the way to the small town where I’m from, it opened my eyes even more. Like I got Pat to come down here in Arkansas?” Stricklen said.
“Same! I was like, ‘I got Geno (Auriemma) in Lakeland? I got Geno in L-Town? That’s crazy,’” Hayes recalled, bouncing off of Stricklen.
The first time they attended a WNBA game was during their junior years of college. Hayes attended a game in Connecticut because of the proximity to campus and Stricklen watched fellow Lady Vol Candace Parker play in Atlanta when she was with Los Angeles — a prophetic moment of what was to come for her years down the road.
Growing up, Dupree never watched the WNBA. Sports were always on in her house, but always being so busy playing sports, she was never home. It was during her junior year of college that playing in the WNBA became a heavy focus – in part made a reality thanks to college coach Dawn Staley, who started coaching at Temple while she herself was still playing in the league. Staley’s professional experience and success made her the perfect role model for Dupree.
Stricklen, Hayes and Dupree are part of an exceptionally small percentage of athletes who make it to the WNBA, and it’s been their story of success for years now. With 12 roster spots on 12 teams, there are a maximum of 144 roster spots in the league. The opportunity to be one of 144 is one none of them take for granted.
“Man, that’s something that I really will be thinking like, ‘I made it 10 seasons in this league’. It’s not easy,” Stricklen said. “There are so many good players that can be playing in this league and just being part of 144, that’s truly a blessing and I will still be like, ‘Man, I made the team…that’s crazy.’”
Shortly after Dupree was drafted as the Chicago Sky’s first ever Draft pick, she missed her college graduation to stay and train with the team. She knew she couldn’t miss even a minute of potential learning opportunities. Sixteen years later, the sacrifices have paid off.
“I think that says a lot about me and my game to have been around this long because it’s extremely rare,” Dupree said. “I know my first few years in the league, they were like, ‘the average WNBA career spans no more than four years’. So I’m definitely not the norm, but it’s been great.”
While they are all settled into their veteran roles and enjoying watching players like Courtney Williams grow from a rookie to an All-Star, memories of being rookies themselves aren’t too far gone.
Hayes can’t recall her first game exactly, but she remembers her former teammate Armintie Price asking her if she was nervous. She told her no, noting that being able to play off the bench allowed her to watch first and enter the game later to make a difference.
Stricklen’s first game as a rookie was on her then-home court in Seattle against Los Angeles, and nervous energy built up quickly.
“Oh man, I think I was shaking my first game. I remember Tanisha Wright came up to me and hit me in my chest so hard. I was literally shaking before the game,” Stricklen said. “But then Tina (Thompson) was like, ‘just go out there and do it and play and have fun.’”
In her third game as a rookie, Stricklen had her first double-digit scoring game with 12 points. She still remembers how great it felt to have her older teammates encouraging her and getting excited. Now, she’s that older teammate who gets the opportunity to make the rookies feel special. With years of experience in the league, all three players have pieces of advice to share with young WNBA players today.
“Definitely don’t take it for granted. There are players being left off of rosters that are really, really good. It’s a privilege to be here,” Dupree said. “The amount of work that goes into staying here is even harder, but you’ve got to enjoy it. Soak up as much as you can, learn from these older players, find ways to separate yourself because so many players can do the same thing so it’s like, ‘what makes you different?’ You’ve got to give these organizations a reason to want to keep you.”
Stricklen and Hayes both agree that being a good player goes beyond just what you can do on the court — it’s about being coachable, showing up with a positive attitude and being a supportive teammate. Hayes noted that you can be a great player while also being a great teammate and it’s not hard to do both. It’s the ability to do both that makes the difference.
Not many players stay on the same WNBA team their entire career, but for Hayes, playing for the Dream in Atlanta has been the only stop in her story. It’s something she regards as special.
“It means a lot. I know different people have different stories, but for me that’s kind of a big deal just to be on the same team that I got drafted to just because I know my worth and I know I always go hard, so I think that’s why I’m here,” Hayes said. “That just goes to show young people, like, you do your job, you come to work every day, you go hard – you don’t have to score many points in games for people to want you. Like I’ve been here for a reason all my career. I think that’s a big thing for me.”
Before Dupree got to Atlanta, Stricklen and Hayes were the most experienced players on the roster and therefore, leaders on the team. And the past couple of seasons have been by no means easy. There has been change Atlanta players fought hard for – bravery and resilience most recently recognized when the Dream was named the ESPN Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year as they illuminated racial injustice and voter suppression throughout the 2020 season. There has also been change the team has had to adapt to amidst coaching changes and COVID-19 uncertainties. According to Hayes and Stricklen, though, things are starting to turn around.
“It’s definitely hard. I mean, it’s a lot. Teams go through stuff, but we’ve grown through so much in just one, two years. I mean, even last year, I feel like it started last year in the bubble,” Hayes said. “…It’s been a lot for us and that’s really hard to go through for anybody and especially a team who was already struggling. We’ve been taking it a day at a time. We’re actually really trying to hone in and make things better and turn things around for this organization, and it’s going to have to take every single one of us to do that. But I think everybody here who is in practices every day are really focused on doing that, so we’re headed in the right direction.”
Since her Atlanta arrival in 2020, Stricklen is experiencing some emotions that she’s been waiting for.
“Before the break, things had been so tough and these last few days have been the most fun I’ve had – I’m not going to lie – since I’ve been here,” Stricklen said. “The practice, the energy, everyone’s vibe, attitudes – it’s all been there and I’m hoping it stays that way.”
Between the three veterans, they have 33 combined years of experience in the league and none of them plan on taking their feet off the gas pedal anytime soon.
For Stricklen, every day on the court and every morning she wakes up as a WNBA player is counted as a blessing. For Hayes, she takes it day-by-day, living in the moment and giving it her all each time she pulls on her Dream jersey. And for Dupree, each game day is accompanied by nervous jitters that aren’t shaken until tip-off – a reminder that this game still matters to her just as much as it did during her rookie season 16 years ago.
“I guess I look at it as the minute I’m no longer nervous, I probably don’t need to be playing anymore,” Dupree said. “It’s excited nervous.”
The earliest memory Hayes has of playing basketball is from the third grade – a memory she recalls only because she got in trouble and couldn’t go to practice that day. The thought of not getting to play the sport she loves is a thought that tortured her back then, and not much has changed now.
“I’m just happy to be playing basketball. I’m a gamer, so I love to be playing basketball,” Hayes said about the opportunity to wear a Dream jersey. “So any time it’s game day, I’m already just ready to go and ready to give 100 percent. I’m ready to give my body, all my energy and leave it on the court. That’s just it.”