Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler wanted to be unforgettable at WNBA All-Star weekend. She was.
LAS VEGAS — Erica Wheeler used the plane ride from Indianapolis to Las Vegas to decompress from what has admittedly been a tough year. A nap during the four-hour trip helped her reset, leave the concerns and disappointments of the season behind, and get ready to enjoy her moment in the spotlight.
In fairness, there was a lot for Wheeler to distance herself from mentally. Not only the Indiana Fever’s 6-13 record, but the seventh anniversary of her mother’s death, and the self-doubt that frequently creep into the mind of the undrafted journeywoman. Awaiting her in Las Vegas at All-Star weekend was not respite, but fear that she might not receive the level of respect she believes she deserves from other WNBA stars.
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Naturally, Wheeler had a hard time feeling excited about the honor. Before the journey, after another Fever loss in Phoenix, Wheeler told High Post Hoops, “I’m excited, but I’d rather be with my team and winning games. It’s a major accomplishment and it’s very important to me, but it’s bigger than me, I’m a person of everybody, not just myself.”
Wheeler had to force herself to have fun and enjoy a weekend in the desert among the WNBA’s best, despite making the trip with teammate Candice Dupree, an All-Star for the seventh time. “I’m going to enjoy my moment, I think I deserve that,” Wheeler told High Post Hoops in Phoenix. “If my mind is back in Indy, I’m probably not going to enjoy myself.”
So Wheeler slept away the frustrations of the Fever’s rebuild, thousands of feet in the air. The weekend would be an opportunity to showcase the strides she’s made, culminating in a season where Wheeler is averaging 16.9 points and 8.0 assists per 36 minutes on a .572 true shooting percentage.
It got off to a rocky start. In the Three-Point contest on Friday, the ball wasn’t finding net, as Wheeler managed just 12 points and was eliminated in the first round.
Still, as Wheeler would later recount, she told Dupree she wanted to be “unforgettable.” Perhaps she snuck into the arena and unhinged that stifling lid before the All-Star game on Saturday afternoon, or got hold of a flamethrower, because she caught fire in the first half. Wheeler made her first six shots, all three-pointers, scoring 18 first-half points. She went on to make big shots every time Team Wilson needed one in what became an incredibly competitive game down the stretch. The final three to push the lead to six, just out of reach for Team Delle Donne, sealed the deal on an MVP performance.
Wheeler felt anonymous heading into the game. Her goal was to put herself on the map, to prove she deserved to be among the class of the league. By the end of the day, she had demanded the attention of everyone in the building with 25 points and seven assists in just 19 minutes. Wheeler’s infectious play lit up Mandalay Bay Events Center, and as the MVP accepted her trophy, many of the other All-Stars were brought to tears.
“The first thing I said to myself was like, “Mom, thank you,” because more than ever I know she’s watching me, and like I tell everybody, what I do and how I do it, I do it for my mom,” Wheeler said.
The support from above helped Wheeler announce her arrival as a WNBA star. Her journey to this league was long, but with an explosive performance on the big stage, the message was clear: She is here now.
“What’s really important to me is that my peers who I compete with every day, day and night, reach out to me and tell me how proud they are of me and that I belong,” Wheeler said postgame, “because everybody got drafted, I didn’t get drafted, so for them to show that respect level is amazing.”
Respect is earned in moments like these. No one, though, seemed to be more proud than Dupree, who was not surprised. As they embraced after the final buzzer, Dupree told her teammate, “I always know that you belonged.”
An accomplishment is measured by the pride one feels afterward and the impact it has on others. Certainly it is reasonable that, in the abstract, an All-Star bid would matter little in the scope of Wheeler’s life, which has already seen her climb out of poverty to become a pro athlete and rise to the highest levels of basketball.
The validation from those Wheeler respects mattered far more. That list includes the fans watching who may not see the lowly Fever much, but most importantly, her competitors. Wheeler didn’t want them to ever forget what she did. No one will.
“Thinking about what she went through and how she can come down here and do so well, get All-Star game MVP, and just know that her mom is celebrating up there with her unfortunately got the best of us,” said starting guard Allie Quigley.
What awaits Wheeler in Indianapolis is not the celebration she left behind in Las Vegas. But the forces that drive her effort and passion won’t dissolve when the break ends. Plus, there’s another plane ride to get back to helping the Fever get on the right track, even if regrouping might be a little tougher this time.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to decompress after this one, this might take a little minute,” Wheeler told High Post Hoops late Saturday evening. “I’m gonna get my mind back right and focus back up and try to block out everything. I got another job to do. The Indiana Fever, we need that seventh win.”
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