Juanita Ward with Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman during the 2010 Big East Championship -photo courtesy of Associated Press
When 6'2" forward and former Syracuse basketball player Juanita Ward woke up today in Tulsa, you can be sure she breathed a sigh of relief.
Why, you ask? She is one of the lucky ones who went to the Tulsa Shock open tryout and worked her way onto the training camp roster, where she is still alive to play another day. Ward and four other ladies made it through a grueling two-day process to get her shot at her childhood dream of playing in the WNBA.
And now only one remains.
"I'm just playing from day to day," Ward says of her experience. "Coach [Nolan] Richardson says - what he says in meetings is ‘play as if this is your last chance' and that's what I'm doing. I wear that on my heart actually."
And her heart has been full of basketball since she hit the ripe old age of three years old. Playing the game with her older siblings has influenced her basketball and her dream.
"My brother was a role model for me growing up. My brothers, Joseph and Jerrod and Thomas and my sister - all of them played basketball," Ward reflects. "So to see those people do something that I love to do helped me continue to achieve, follow my dreams and say one day I'm gonna be there. I'm going to be the person that my family says 'look, my little sister made it'."
And it's not just her siblings that have made an impact on her dreams, her parents have been another catalyst of her drive to succeed.
"My father's always told me once you go to pursue something you make sure you continue to keep [pursuing your dream]. That's what my mother and my father always preached," says Ward. "I've always said one day that's going to be me [playing in the WNBA] and [my parents] have always instilled in me to keep striving and push through your goals and continue to set new goals."
The preaching and praying, along with her lofty goals have paid off for Ward with the dividend being her experience at camp, learning the nuances of the game from Richardson every day in practice. This learning experience is, to Ward, one of the richest parts of the experience.
"I love the fact that [Richardson] teaches so much because basketball is about learning and if you're a basketball player you want to learn and you want to know how to get yourself better," says Ward. "He's about teaching and he's about helping people bring the talent out of them that has talent in them. He's on the court teaching and he's on the court interacting with us and letting us know where to be, how to do it. He's more about just teaching and that's something that you have to love with him."
But Ward's learning is not limited to teachings from just her coach, as some of the vets have stepped in to guide her on the court as well. Plenette Pierson, Alexis Hornbuckle and others on the squad have become the recipient of Ward's probing on what to do to improve her game.
"I'm always asking questions because they've played this game and they know exactly what it takes to make it in this league." Ward continues, "I'm forever asking questions, 'how can I get better, what can I do, what should I have done at this play', things like that."
Ward is not taking her experience for granted, rather continuing in her day-by-day approach, grateful to have each day to grow her game, especially after her initial fears that she wouldn't even be allowed to try out after a two-day car ride from Syracuse, New York resulted in little sleep and problems finding the gym.
"My adrenaline was pumping and I was so excited and scared," Ward says of her first moment on the court. "Once we got on the floor I just let everything - I just let it go. I was like, 'you know what, this is it. There's no turning back. This is what I've been wanting to do since I was three years old since I started playing basketball. This is it' . . . from that moment it was a life-changing experience."
After making it past the first session, through to the second "more intense" evening practice and on to a second day of tryouts, it was time for Ward to sit in front of the coaches and wait yet again for her name to be called to keep her dream alive.
"There were so many good girls there and I was just sitting there praying like, 'God, please let it be me. I hope I did what it takes to make this team, I hope I'm doing what it takes to make the team.' And when my name was called, that moment I could have just cried," Ward said. "My passion that I've had built up for so long is really coming true. People are really starting to see what's inside of me."
As she continues to live out her dream, her passion for the game becomes more and more evident for all to see. Her desire to achieve and her will to succeed even has her willing to miss her college graduation if a roster spot has her name on it.
"Being here has opened up a lot of opportunities for me as a person and taking this experience and helping me to grow up a little bit faster than I would have if I wasn't playing here has helped me out tremendously. I'm understanding the game of basketball better since I've been playing [at training camp] and it's just been like a whirlwind. It's been unbelievable and I wouldn't change it for anything."
The whirlwind continues, but for how long no one knows. On thing is certain, until her journey stops - wherever and whenever that may be - Ward is not losing sight of the awesome opportunity in front of her, playing like it's her last chance with every opportunity she gets.
- Ward's basketball influences include Cynthia Cooper (whom she has modeled some of her game after), Michael Jordan, Doctor J, and her brother.
- After the first open tryout practice Ward didn't even hear her number called. A fellow competitor had to tell her that she was one of the selected few.
- Upon hearing that she made the training camp roster, Ward made the 8-hour drive from Tulsa to Mississippi to tell her family the good news in person.