“Minnesota knows that they have a piece of my heart,” Seimone Augustus said, a tapestry featuring the logo of the Los Angeles Sparks undulating gently behind her.
It was late into last week’s retirement press conference when a question by Charles Hallman, a longtime reporter for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, brought her to tears. Six days before, Augustus — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, a four-time champion with the Minnesota Lynx, an eight-time All-Star and top-10 all-time WNBA scorer — announced her retirement, for reasons familiar to any athlete lucky enough to experience career longevity: the body.
To prepare for training camp in her second season in L.A., Augustus worked with a trainer on cardio and conditioning. Asked to run 48 sprints, the Baton Rouge, La. native obliged, but not because it was easy. “My ego got me through the 48 sprints,” Augustus said. “But then when I got to my car, I couldn’t even crank my car because I was just, like, exhausted. I was just, like, so tired. And I was, like, ‘What are you doing?’ And then I constantly had that battle — that day until the day I decided (to retire).”
“As athletes, that’s the amazing thing — we’re able to have our minds command our bodies and have us do amazing things,” she added. “But once my mind could not tell my body to do what I wanted it to do … It really starts to tug on your heartstrings about where you’re at with the game.”
At age 37, Augustus had amassed an illustrious career that also includes three Olympic gold medals. Her perspective had shifted; she began weighing the pursuit of extra gravy and cherries on top against the risk of long-term injury. And, in a twist uncommon to competitive athletes, Augustus was thinking of her younger peers, considering the ramifications of clinging to one of the league’s 144 roster spots for another year.
“If I’m not able to give what I’m used to giving, then I have to allow someone else to carry the torch so they can live out their dreams,” she said.
And two players came immediately to mind: Nia Coffey and Bria Holmes, two of her Sparks teammates. But Augustus had not given strong consideration to coaching, outside of what she’d heard from a stranger in a grocery store and from a friend at a social gathering. Now, however, her body begged her mind to show it a little mercy and Augustus heeded the call.
Her parents, Seymour and Kim, had been stewards of her basketball journey from age five. Any decision would go through them.
“It’s time for you to get some rest,” Kim told her, noting that her daughter had achieved everything that could be achieved.
Augustus’ next call was to Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher.
“I didn’t want to throw a monkey wrench into the final roster of the team,” she said. “I wanted to be as open and transparent as I could about where I was, and if this was going to affect someone else’s opportunity on the team, then let me go.”
But Augustus should have been afforded the dignity of retiring in Minnesota, where she played the first 14 years of her career and brought four championships to Minneapolis.
“It’s been two weeks, and I’m still fucking crying,” she said in an Instagram video in March of 2020, about her departure from the Lynx. “Some part of me is still confused and a little bit frustrated. Things happen for a reason, and there’s always something good on the other side. What is it? I don’t know. The unknown is very scary for a lot of people.”
The future Hall of Famer disclosed that she had taken a pay cut to play in L.A. after contract negotiations with the Lynx turned bitter. She was hurt about the tone of the negotiations, shocked that her years of sacrifice did not inspire the franchise to show her the same loyalty she had shown it.
“It was never about the money,” Augustus said in the video. “It was about the way you engage with people — especially someone you spent so much time with.”
Undoubtedly, this is not a battle other WNBA veterans experience. After being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft, Sue Bird has played all 19 of her seasons with the Seattle Storm. That her contract was the last for the Storm to be settled this year — and considering the franchise’s choice to part with Natasha Howard (the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year) and Alysha Clark (unanimous selection to the 2020 All-Defensive Team) rather than pay them max salaries — suggests Seattle’s willingness to keep an aging, knee-troubled Bird at any expense. It shows their willingness to move on from elite players who brought championships to their city.
Why is Bird worthy of keeping but Clark, a fan favorite known as “The Eraser,” and Howard, who also won a championship with the Lynx in 2015, are not?
Diana Taurasi, the top pick in the 2004 WNBA Draft and teammate of Bird at Connecticut, is similarly situated. Taurasi has played all 17 seasons in Phoenix. In 2020, she signed a multi-year deal that ensures she will retire with the Mercury, even though her most recent seasons have been marred by injury. On May 25, the team announced that she will miss the next four weeks because of a fractured sternum.
SEIMONE IS NOT ALONE
Yet, the same goodwill, good fortune and loyalty were not bestowed upon Augustus — or Angel McCoughtry, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, for that matter. McCoughtry played 10 years with the Atlanta Dream and in 2020 signed with the Las Vegas Aces.
On Media Day 2020, her first with the Aces, McCoughtry expressed a similar sentiment, and one imbued with deeper meaning.
“When I first got drafted, my goal, of course, was to retire in Atlanta, and play in the city where, you know, Martin Luther King originated,” McCoughtry said of departing the Dream for the Aces. “But that didn’t happen.”
Candace Parker, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, was afforded no such grace either. After 13 seasons in L.A., winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020 at the age of 34 and bringing the Sparks their third championship in 2016, Fisher, in his third season as head coach and in his first as general manager, did not see fit to retain her services so that she could retire with Sparks.
And just ask Tina Charles where loyalties lie. She played the first four years of her career in Connecticut and demanded a trade that would return her to her hometown of New York. She toiled for six years as the franchise changed coaches, owners and, worst of all, arenas — moving out of Madison Square Garden and into a gym in Westchester County. She stayed true to the franchise, but when upstart head coach Walt Hopkins was hired, Charles, essentially, was fired. Sacrifice to the New York Liberty, even as an Olympic gold medalist and All-Star, were not enough to keep her on the team. New Yorok is Sabrina Ionescu’s team now. With more left to give and still seeking a championship, Charles signed with the Washington Mystics in 2020.
“They know they always have a piece of my heart,” Augustus said of fans at the Target Center in Minneapolis. “I gave them everything I had to give in 14 years and I felt that in return. And the fans were always amazing, and they still are. I know what my decision to leave, how it impacted some people. But for the people that know and respect and love what I’ve done has been amazing.”
No mention during her retirement press conference of the Lynx franchise or its front-office decisions that led to her departure. In the wake of her move to the Western Conference rival Sparks, Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said via team statement: “Since 2006, Seimone has given the Lynx franchise countless thrilling moments on the court and has had an enormous impact in our community. Coaching Seimone Augustus was one of the greatest joys of my coaching life, and I wish her the best as she says goodbye, for now, to the Twin Cities.”
Well, it wasn’t enough of a joy to inspire Reeve to keep Augustus for a final season. Augustus did her part, stating in that March 2020 video: “I waited out the rough patch to get to the dynasty, and enjoyed seeing every moment of the growth. We went from a team that people didn’t want to (play for) to everybody was banging on the door to get to Minnesota.”
Augustus’ inability to retire where she built her legacy left her mother in tears. “She took it very hard,” Augustus said of her mother, calling her “invested” in her career in Minnesota. “When I saw how Mom cried about this situation … it really bothered me.”
Sports is a business, with loyalty not guaranteed. Yet, for those players who stick with franchises through good times and bad — especially when those players bring the best of times to the franchise — it is not unreasonable to expect a reciprocation of dignity and respect with, perhaps, a hint of allegiance. “It was unfortunate, and very unexpected for me,” Augustus said in the video. “I was hoping to go back to the Lynx. It really shocked me and confused me. All the feeling that (the fans) had, were the same feelings I had. The confusion, the frustration, the disappointment … everything.”
For now, Augustus can enjoy the Southern California sunshine with an organization that made a way for her to stay in the game after retiring from playing.
Teams, meanwhile, must examine how deals are done, and why allegiance is preserved for some and not others. It is not a good look that Bird and Taurasi (both white) get to retire where they started but Augustus, McCoughtry and Parker (all Black) do not.
Augustus spoke for 46 minutes at her retirement press conference, reflecting on a career of accomplishment and a life well-lived. Here’s more of where her mind is at this early junction of her retirement:
On what she’s most proud of:
“The impact that I’ve had on people. I was the big fish in a small pond coming from Louisiana. … The highest human act is to inspire, so to be able to inspire — whatever age group, whatever race … to do whatever it is that they’re passionate about.
“Everybody kind of lives through me. … Now, like those little Black and brown kids that grew up in my hood and kind of find it hard to get out of there got somebody to look to, like ‘well, she made it, so I can too.’”
On the “wubble” season and whether it contributed to her retirement:
“It was tough, in general, and it would be a stressful situation for anybody, and your body is affected. Everybody has a trigger … My body swells and it aches … There were a lot of injuries throughout that time that we may or may not have been able to prevent. Physically and mentally, it was draining.
You know, I felt like I had got the wubble out of my system, but it might still have a little residue in areas.”
On her relationship with Maya Moore:
“We were a people of little words. We didn’t say much, me and Maya. We didn’t need to say much. We were ultimate competitors. So, we pushed ourselves in ways that probably other people wouldn’t even be able to process. … You had to rise to the occasion and to the challenge anytime she presented herself.”
On who inspired her career most:
“I can’t give nobody but my parents, man. They were the examples. They were the sacrifice. They were everything. My parents have been on this journey with me since I was five. They are my everything when it comes to what life, and basketball, was gonna be.”