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Hoops Happening: Ahead of tonight’s Instagram takeover, Imani McGee-Stafford discusses what it’s like to play in China

McGee-Stafford will take over the Atlanta Dream’s Instagram account and give fans a glimpse of life behind the scenes on gameday in China. Plus, a look at the new-era Chicago Sky, C. Vivian Stringer’s singular greatness and more! This is today in women’s basketball for Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

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Imani McGee-Stafford
Photo by Kevin Liles/NBAE via Getty Images

As happens at the end of every WNBA season, players packed their bags in search of riches in foreign lands.

This may sound dramatic, but it is literally what happens. With the maximum WNBA salary capped at $125,000, players compete abroad to maximize their earnings — bringing in as much cash as they can, while they can, as being a professional athlete requires. For Atlanta Dream center Imani McGee-Stafford, the destination was Liaoning: a province in northeastern China, in near-geographic proximity to the border with North Korea.

McGee-Stafford plays for the Henye Flying Eagles and is averaging team highs in scoring and rebounding, with 15.7 points and 8.9 boards per game. Tonight, she will take over the Dream’s Instagram account and give fans a glimpse of gameday in China.

Ahead of tonight’s behind-the-scenes adventure, McGee-Stafford kindly shared a bit with me about what life is like for her in China this season. Here’s what she had to say:

Tamryn Spruill: What are your favorite and least favorite things about playing overseas this season?

Imani McGee-Stafford: Favorite things — that’s a hard one this season.

McGee-Stafford did not elaborate, but she has been vocal on Twitter about this season being the hardest of her basketball career. “This is easily the hardest overseas season I’ve had. Probably the hardest season in my career in general,” she tweeted.

Some of those difficulties may revolve around what many would consider extreme practice conditions, such as flipping tires on gameday or her teammates being forced to run 28 flights of stairs as punishment for not grabbing rebounds in a game. Additionally, McGee-Stafford shared that her translator has pulled her into soda-drinking behaviors, and that she has lost 10 pounds she didn’t want to lose. The latter issue could be due, in part, to limited access to preferred foods.

McGee-Stafford started by listing her least favorite things, which include difficulty acquiring certain foods.

IMS: Language barrier. I oftentimes never know what’s going on until I figure it out firsthand. I miss butter — it’s a commodity out here — and fa!rlife milk.

But her favorite things seem truly soul-nourishing and basketball-positive.

IMS: I actually play, which is nice when you have an off-the-bench role in the [WNBA].

In the starting five for the Flying Eagles, McGee-Stafford certainly tallies more minutes than she gets with the Dream, which is reflected in her production for the Chinese team. While the isolation of competing abroad — away from family and friends — may be difficult for some, that doesn’t seem to be the case for McGee-Stafford.

IMS: I like to drop off the face of the earth from time to time, so it’s nice being able to. I didn’t even get a Chinese SIM [card] this year. I rely strictly on WiFi.

TS: How do you spend your time in China?

IMS: Been devouring books.

McGee-Stafford is an avid reader and poet, so this response is on message with what her fans have come to know and adore about her — fans who also often thank their favorite 6-foot-7 human on social media for her uncommon realness and open vulnerability.

For anyone who loves to read, these circumstances may seem dreamy. However, the other conditions she described — especially the language barrier — would be difficult for anyone to manage, especially if alone.

Also, there’s that ghastly dearth of butter.

The grind side of playing abroad

McGee-Stafford is not alone. More than 80 WNBA athletes (out of 144) are competing overseas in the league’s offseason to supplement their WNBA salaries, with players currently competing for teams in Australia, Belgium, China, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Korea, Poland, Russia, Spain and Turkey.

One of those players is Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson, who averaged 30.6 minutes per game in her All-Star first season in the WNBA, in which she also won the Rookie of the Year award by unanimous vote, amidst an inaugural season many have referred to as one of the best in league history. The only player to log more minutes per game for the Aces in 2018 was Kayla McBride, who averaged 32.3.

A travel debacle followed by a strong push for the playoffs, which the Aces narrowly missed in a contest against the Dallas Wings, brought Wilson’s first professional career to a close. But then she suited up for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, coached by her former South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley, and helped Team USA win its third consecutive gold medal at the FIBA World Cup.

Then, she shipped out to her Shaanxi Flame team in China. By the gentle stretch of anyone’s imagination, that’s a lot of basketball and the chief downside to year-round play for WNBA players. And, now, Wilson has returned stateside — to her native South Carolina — to rehabilitate a knee injury. Wilson has averaged just over 37 points per game for the Flame this season, and hopes to return to the Chinese club once she’s healed up. The injury is reportedly nothing serious, but some Aces fans would prefer it if Wilson could skip competition until training camp scrimmages in the 2019 WNBA season.

The grind of year-round play has inspired some players to seek stateside gigs in the WNBA offseason. For Los Angeles Sparks superstar Candace Parker, her time with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia was characterized by frozen seas, bone-rattling cold and do-all mommy mode. This WNBA offseason, however, she will be in full-time broadcaster mode at Turner Sports. Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver is skipping playing overseas to serve as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, and other players are also working in positions as coaches or business owners and in other capacities with hopes of preserving their bodies and building their skills for the next WNBA season.

Then again, Diana Taurasi famously sat out the 2015 WNBA season to be healthy for her forthcoming season with Ekat, placing her loyalties where the money was free-flowing and her financial future was more secure: Russia.

Other news from the world of women’s hoops

The Chicago Sky usher in a new era

The Chicago Sky have a new head coach, general manager and logo, with James Wade — former assistant coach to Cheryl Reeve’s Minnesota Lynx with an extensive basketball resume — fulfilling two of those three duties.

In an interview with Sherron Shabazz at Women’s Hoops World, Wade expressed as his top priorities: 1) keeping veteran sharpshooters Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, 2) implementing a system in which ball movement is central, with playmakers making plays, and 3) having the Sky be competitive from the outset of the 2019 WNBA season.

For more about the new logo of the new-era Sky, click here.

C. Vivian Stringer stands alone

Rutgers University Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer on Tuesday became the sixth coach in Division I history to reach 1,000 wins. She joins the most accomplished coaches in college basketball history in a club reserved only for the elite of the elite, including Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt.

Yet, Stringer stands alone, as the first African-American coach to ascend to this peak and, therefore, the first African-American female coach to do so.

Bet on women

The Players’ Tribune has joined forces with BreakingT in support of WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike’s call for the NBA, and society at-large, to bet on women.

Click here to get a BreakingT shirt and support the players of the WNBA.


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