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How Cappie Pondexter paved the way for the WNBA’s ‘Make Way’

Upon her retirement, two-time champion and multi-time All-Star Cappie Pondexter deserves credit for creating the current culture of the WNBA. Her off-court ventures, along with her on-court talent, demonstrate the multidimensional abilities and interests that define today’s WNBA stars.

5:31 Jerome - Presentation - Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2015
During her thirteen-year WNBA career, Cappie Pondexeter’s influence extended beyond the court.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Prior to the WNBA Draft, the league introduced a new logo, slogan and advertising campaign. Featuring Essence Carson, Natasha Cloud, Stephanie Dolson, Imani McGee-Stafford and Renee Montgomery, the WNBA demands the world “make way” for its players, their priorities and their possibilities.

Intended or not, the ad also serves as a fitting tribute to the career of Cappie Pondexter.

Cappie calls it a career … and what a career it was

After a 13-year career, highlighted by seven All-Star selections and two WNBA titles, Pondexter announced her retirement via Instagram last week.

The Chicago native distinguished herself as a collegian at Rutgers University, dominating the Big East from 2002-06 as a dynamic, playmaking point guard for C. Vivian Stringer’s Scarlet Knights. The Phoenix Mercury then selected Pondexter second overall in the 2006 WNBA Draft.

She instantly showed her professional potential, proving a perfect fit for the “run-n-gun” style of Paul Westhead, the former NBA coach who assumed the helm of the Mercury before Pondexter’s rookie season. She and Diana Taurasi formed a high-scoring tandem, with both finishing in the top five in field goal attempts, field goals made and points scored.

On the style of play Westhead implemented in Phoenix, Pondexter told Sports Illustrated:

He wants us to go 110 miles an hour, all the time. His style is fun to play and exciting to watch. It’s a learning process, but once the fans see us at our best, I think they will really like it.

Pondexter propelled Phoenix to a pair of titles, and also propelled the women’s pro game

The following season, the WNBA’s version of “Paul Ball” achieved its apex, much due to the play of Pondexter. With a league-leading pace and offensive rating, the Mercury finished the regular season with a record of 23-11. Phoenix then romped through the Western Conference Playoffs before defeating the Detroit Shock, 3-2, in the 2007 WNBA Finals.

After averaging 22 points and more than five assists, Pondexter was named Finals MVP. The next summer, she would head to Beijing and win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games as a member of the United States Women’s Olympic Basketball Team.

In 2009, Pondexter and Taurasi fueled Phoenix to its second title in three years, once again overwhelming almost all challengers with their offensive firepower. The 2009 Finals, where the Mercury faced the Indiana Fever and Tamika Catchings, appeared to inaugurate a new era of women’s professional basketball.

As put by Karen Crouse in the New York Times:

Before the Phoenix Mercury was crowned the WNBA champion Friday night ... a clear winner already had been declared: women’s basketball. The series between the high-scoring Mercury and defense-minded Fever was pixie dust for the league.

In Sports Illustrated, Kelli Anderson echoed this assessment:

The 2009 WNBA Finals were what every sports’ championship series aims to be: a back-and-forth, suspense-soaked battle between equals.

Pondexter’s playing style certainly contributed to this sense of excitement. Running and gunning alongside Taurasi, as well as Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner, she helped to progress of the women’s game, demonstrating the stylistic diversity, cut-throat intensity and creative ability possessed by the second-generation of WNBA stars.

Cappie’s New York state of mind

Before the start of the 2010 season, a blockbuster trade would put Pondexter in the Big Apple, situating her as the singular star for the New York Liberty. Although she would earn three All-Star selections during her five-year stint with the Liberty, her squad could not sustain the championship-level success she enjoyed in Phoenix.

Yet, New York provided Pondexter with the platform needed to begin to make her mark off the court. Upon her arrival in New York, she asserted:

I’m very ambitious. If I believe strongly in something, I’m going to do whatever it takes to pursue it and get it done.

In 2006, she co-founded an image consulting firm, 4 Seasons Style Management. A few years later, she described her company’s calling to Dime Magazine:

Me and my business partner, we’ve known each other for seven or eight years, probably more than that, and she’s a celebrity stylist. And we both came up with the idea of starting this company because, as athletes, especially females in particular as well as males, with our body types and sizes, it’s hard for us to kind of find fashionable clothes, so helping athlete’s develop their image is something we take pride in.

Being in New York allowed Pondexter further to pursue her fashion interests and, in doing so, introduce and legitimate the fashion sensibilities of women’s basketball players.

In 2010, New York Magazine declared, “Meet Cappie Pondexter, the Liberty’s WNBA LeBron.” Such a claim may appear an absurd exaggeration. Yet, like James, Pondexter is “more than an athlete.”

She has flaunted her array of interests proudly. She has transgressed and, thus, transcended the expected, accepted and conventionally-appropriate identity of a women’s basketball player. Since its establishment, the WNBA prioritized presenting its players as culturally legible young women. They were to be doting daughters, motivated mothers or supportive sisters.

Pondexter, however, did not oblige. She embraced and asserted her identity as young woman of color who did not obey normative gender expectations.

She also has backed up her style with substance, speaking out on issues from equalized pay and mental health to gun violence.

All the while, Pondexter continued to take her talents to courts outside the United States. She accumulated an impressive international resume, playing for Fenerbahçe and UMMC Ekaterinburg, among others, during 12 international seasons.

From Chicago to LA to Indy, Cappie was Cappie

In 2015, Pondexter returned to Chicago and would play three seasons for her hometown Chicago Sky before finishing her career with the Sparks and Fever in 2018.

Even as her impact on the court decreased due to the vagaries of aging, her influence on the league, its culture and its identity increased.

Her drips dominate. Her styles scintillate. Her messages resonate.

Appreciation for Pondexter demonstrates her impact

Pondexter’s power is reflected in the response to her retirement. Her Instagram post inspired tributes from players past and present.

Brittney Sykes wrote:

It was dope to see a tatted up bucket...appreciate you Aunty Cap and everything you did for the game and the blessings you spread off the court too!

Natasha Cloud commented:

Thank you legend for all you’ve done for not only myself, but for this league and even more so this game. You the OG, one of the best to ever to this.

Ticha Penicheiro noted:

You had an amazing career and your contribution goes beyond what you did on the court!!

In short, it was Pondexter who helped show her fellow female hoopers how to “Make Way.” She forced the WNBA to “Make Way” for women whose interests and influences extend beyond the hardwood.

Cappie made the WNBA “Make Way”

In debuting the league’s new logo and slogan, WNBA COO Christin Hedgpeth announced:

The WNBA is showing the world what basketball is on our terms. With a new look, new voice and a whole new approach to storytelling, we’re elevating not just the game but also the social and pop culture movements around it. We’re making space for our game, our players and our fans to shine and show the world who we really are — badass ballers and dynamic women who challenge convention and shape culture.

Hedgpeth’s words almost perfectly encapsulate the influence of Pondexter. The statement issued by the NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum underscores her cultural significance:

Cappie Pondexter is one of the greatest players and fiercest competitors in WNBA history. She made her mark on the league with her vibrant personality and distinctive style, earning two WNBA championships and seven All-Star selections along the way. We expect more great things from her in whatever she does next and wish her nothing but the best.

Dynamism, badassery, vibrancy, autonomy, creativity.

These values have become enshrined in the WNBA thanks to Cappie Pondexter.