The star of B/R's She Got Game—a twist on the 1998 Spike Lee classic He Got Game—is a fan of the Jesus Shuttlesworth flick. But Jewell Loyd admits it's not her favorite sports movie. That would be Space Jam.
"To me, that's the only movie that really shows the respect between the women's game and the men's," says the Michael Jordan-era Illinois native. "Lola Bunny comes in and is like the feminine ideal, but she's getting buckets. When you see that you're like, Man, girls can do this too! It's a small snippet of what can be, and that pushes things."
So far the quest for parity has been a big part of Loyd's career. That career caught fire as she left Notre Dame early to become the No. 1 pick in the 2015 WNBA draft, and it has continued strong, with the now-24-year-old receiving mentorship from Kobe Bryant and Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird.
At Notre Dame, fans honored Loyd with the nickname "Gold Mamba," which she earned for writing Kobe quotes on her kicks—and draining buckets. After an unlikely Twitter follow from the Black Mamba in 2014—she got a few of her DM'd basketball questions answered—Loyd, a lifelong Lakers fan, became one of Bryant's protegees. Though she admits at times his advice can be frustrating.
"'Keep it simple,' that's it?" Loyd says, laughing. "That's how you got to have two jerseys hanging in the rafters, just keeping it simple? He's like, 'Yeah. People overcomplicate things, but basketball's a very simple game.'"
She's trying to bring those fundamentals to the Storm. Loyd won Rookie of the Year in 2015 and has increased her shooting percentage—especially from the three-point line—each year. But Loyd's career-high 17.7 points per game last season weren't enough to keep the team from losing in the first round of the WNBA playoffs for the second year in a row. She's hoping this will be the Storm's year, because, fittingly, her goals are simple: "I always wanted to win a WNBA championship, and I always wanted to win a gold medal." She began the latter project in April at Team USA training camp.
On and off the court, the former film major is just trying to get used to life in front of the camera. "Even now, I basically don't think I've made it," she says. "It hasn't actually hit me yet that I'm verified on Twitter. Like, dang."
Before filming began on She Got Game, Loyd shared an insider's perspective on what it's like to play in the WNBA, what Twitter trolls don't understand about the relationship between the men's and women's games and why she thinks the league is ready for the spotlight.
Bleacher Report: Do you think some of the excitement around the NCAA women's tournament will percolate into the WNBA season?
Jewell Loyd: It was great for women's basketball—this Final Four was just amazing. This is what our game is like, and now everyone can see it. All these great NBA players retweeting [video of Arike Ogunbowale's buzzer-beater]...she is basically, like, famous now. It shouldn't be that complicated to promote the game because we have so many different outlets, like social media, we can use—someone just has to be motivated to use them.
These kinds of games happen all the time overseas, but no one has footage. They happen all the time in the WNBA, but no one really sees them because they're not often on ESPN. This is what we've been trying to say: These games are competitive. We can play just as well as the guys. Games are even more competitive, in a sense. The last couple WNBA Finals have been unreal. The rivalry between Minnesota and L.A. is the closest thing we have to the Celtics and the Lakers, right?
B/R: Are there downsides to promoting the women's game on social media, though?
Loyd: There are always going to be people who say, "Oh, go make me a sandwich." That's, like, the thing on Twitter. But then you have Marina Mabrey, who just tweeted for everyone who hates women's basketball to go make her a sandwich. Now, it's an inside joke.
B/R: How can we get people to stop thinking that way?
Loyd: The biggest difference between women's sports and men's sports is the coverage—how they're portrayed. I've never heard of anyone who's actually watched a women's game and come away saying, "Oh, man, this is the worst thing ever." That doesn't happen. Instead, they say, "Man, that was an amazing game." They don't see the players as women athletes—they just see them as great athletes.
That's the core of it: getting people not to think, "Wow, here's a woman who can dunk," but instead, "Wow, this is a great athlete." Like, yeah, she has a 30-inch vertical and she's athletic—why would she not be dunking? No one says, "Man, he's dunking!" She's 6'4" and he's 6'4"; they can both dunk. It's a no-brainer.
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B/R: Professional men's basketball players, though, seem to have a lot of respect for what you do.
Loyd: Sue [Bird] was talking about how, at the Olympics, it's not like, "OK, women's team on this side, guy's team on this side." They were basically best friends. It really is like a brother-and-sister kind of relationship. That's not really known. Instead it's almost like people think that when guys talk about women's sports they're just doing it because they have to or they're getting paid to. No. Kyrie [Irving] is saying he learns from Sue because he actually knows Sue. He just respects game.
B/R: Are there NBA players you learn from besides Kobe?
Loyd: I'm actually really close with Kyrie. He's friends with Sue, and he came to Seattle to watch a couple games. I had a question and so I was like, "Hey, Sue, do you think Kyrie would hit me back?" And she was like, "Yeah, he's cool." So I hit him with a question, asking, "What do you do to work on your floater?" After that we just started talking.
B/R: What do you want to see change about the WNBA?
Loyd: My brother, if he sees me struggling, he's gonna find ways to make things better for me. So if we're the sister league of the NBA, there are a lot more things that the NBA could help us with. Everything the NBA has, the WNBA should have. If there's a G League for the guys, there should be a G League for the girls. The league only has 12 teams, the roster spots are short—so what do you do with all the girls who are really WNBA-caliber players? We lose a lot of them overseas, and then no one stateside hears about them.
Plus, you're not making that much money in the WNBA. Overseas there are girls making twice as much as Diana Taurasi—she's only making, what, $115,000 in the league with her max contract—and they'd never play in the WNBA. Are they better than her? No, but the market...it's complicated [laughs].
B/R: What is the culture like around women's basketball when you're playing overseas?
Loyd: You're treated like you're an NBA player. There's almost even more respect. You're never worried that no one's going to be at your game. [The Storm] have played in D.C. and it's, like, an empty gym. But not because they're not good! It's just that no one comes out. You have [Elena] Delle Donne! An MVP, and no one wants to see her? Overseas if she comes to a city for a day, the airports are packed with people just wanting to take pictures of her. What's the difference? The respect level for women's sports.
We're treated like royalty overseas, and then when you come here…the WNBA is the best league, organization-wise, with the best players in the world. But you see Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi—like, the greatest to ever play the game, winning all these gold medals—and they're not even making half of what an NBA player makes. And they're not getting respected, either! Here, you're constantly fighting the battle of, like, I am the greatest. And people are just like, "You're not the NBA."
B/R: Despite all the issues you're talking about with the WNBA, you decided to leave Notre Dame early to go pro after your junior year. You've spoken about how your struggle with dyslexia made being a student-athlete particularly difficult. Why do you think it's important to talk about this as an athlete?
Loyd: Being an athlete, you're supposed to be tough. If I'm a fan, I don't want to see you at your worst. But people forget we're just as human as everyone else. Looking back at my journey at Notre Dame, my friends know me as a person who's super friendly and joking around. But in school, I just would sit in a room, totally isolated. I never felt like I connected to anyone. I obviously joke around about it now, but I had basically the three worst things you could have going to Notre Dame: I was a black student-athlete, I had a learning disability, and I was never in class.
I felt like a burden to the teachers. I lost my appetite, and I would do extra workouts just to feel the pain. We weighed in once a week, and because I wasn't eating, I was always underweight. The trainer would say, "Go take a protein shake and chug it so you can make weight," when that's basically the unhealthiest thing you can do. That anxiety that I had around having to make a certain weight and look a certain way…
It's a hard situation in which to be successful, and obviously there are kids that do it. But they tell athletes, "Hey, I need you at 100 percent for us to win this game. In your best shape and mentally ready." You're like, "OK, I can do that. Practice, film, all that stuff." Then the teachers say, "Hey, I need you at 100 percent to pass this test." But I'm not even there. How can I be great at two things?
At the time, I didn't really realize I was going through anything. I didn't want to talk to anyone because I didn't feel like anyone knew me. If I would have said something, maybe my objective for leaving would have been different. Now I go back to Notre Dame, and it's not that I totally hate it, but I feel that anxiety and depression again every time I'm on that campus. I don't think about us going to Final Fours.
B/R: Why did you wait until now to share your experience? Why do you think more female athletes haven't come forward about their mental health issues?
Loyd: If I'm getting criticized all the time about being a woman that plays basketball, why would I tell you I struggled with depression so now I can get criticized for that? So I can get sympathy? So I can get some new fans just because I told my story? Like, no, you should have been a fan before—we don't want a sympathy vote. That's a lot of it.
But to grow as a person, you have to be vulnerable. You have to be able to open up and tell your story so that someone else can open up and tell their story. You hope someone will think, "I had those same symptoms—maybe I should go get checked out."
B/R: With the Storm, do you feel like you have a stronger support system?
Loyd: The Storm has the best organization by far. They support all their athletes off the court and on the court, no questions asked. Plus, our team is super close. We hang out every day. If you wanna do something or go somewhere, you're not going by yourself. We went whale watching—random stuff, it doesn't matter. That's rare to find on any team.
Stewie [Breanna Stewart] or Sue and I go play pickup on Fridays in Bellevue. It's Sue Bird, and still, when she makes a shot, [the guys there] are like, "WOW, you made a jump shot!" They just don't put two and two together. They think a girl should not be able to do this. They're amazed at a girl scoring on a guy, instead of being like, "She just did a great move." Sue is like, "I don't understand. What else do I have to do to show you that I can play basketball?" If she has to deal with this, then we're really struggling. It's just crazy to think about: She's been playing in the league for 15 years. Why would she not be able to make a jump shot?
That's our motivation: Play for Sue, you know? I'm trying to give Sue one more championship. Not saying that she's not going to play next year. Her body's like a 20-year-old's. She's probably going to play longer than me. But I think it's time. Everyone's ready. The league is getting so good, it's crazy—but so are we. Let's battle for it.