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Alysha Clark Unpacked Her Bags And Became A WNBA Star

ByGabe Ibrahim|@gabe_ibrahim| March 25, 2021
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A wine glass materialized in Alysha Clark’s hand during our video call. Alysha spoke over Zoom not only due to the pandemic but also because she was playing overseas for Lyon. She had just returned to her apartment from watching the Lyon men play, which constituted one of the few activities she was allowed to do due to COVID-19.

She sat down in front of a bright red wall for the second half of our interview, to pair with her glass of red wine. Of course, inquiring minds needed to know what wine she was drinking. 

“I’m going to show you!” Alysha said as she sprang out of her chair off-screen. She came back with a wine bottle. “It’s a Bordeaux and it has my name on the label. So I’m drinking my own wine.” 

Alysha took a sip and we laughed. At that moment, she was perfectly comfortable and confident in herself and her place in the world. She had recently signed a lucrative contract with the Washington Mystics after two championships and being named to WNBA All-Defensive First Team for the Seattle Storm.

After nearly a decade in the league, Alysha Clark was finally feeling like what she is: one of the best players in the WNBA. Today, among players that see the court for over 25 minutes per game, Alysha ranks first in defensive rating at 90.6 — lightyears above her peers.

Not too long ago, all of this seemed like a fantasy to Alysha, after she was cut twice by the San Antonio Stars (now the Las Vegas Aces). She almost gave up on the WNBA and gave herself an ultimatum before entering the Seattle Storm’s training camp in 2012: Make the team or leave the WNBA behind. Even after she made the Storm, she still didn’t feel right.

“In my first three years in the WNBA, I didn’t unpack my suitcases,” said Alysha. 

Despite her long list of accomplishments, Alysha was battling an invisible enemy that many of us face: imposter syndrome, the feeling that you don’t belong and everything you have worked so hard to earn is just a mirage.

Alysha eventually unpacked her bags and became the two-time WNBA champion we know today. She knows how much value she brings to her team as a player and to the world around her as an activist. However, it took her years to get to where she is now. Her story of personal growth shows why she’s so good at basketball, but more importantly, can provide a blueprint for anyone feeling the same way.

Alysha Clark’s basketball evolution

Alysha Clark’s basketball journey began when her family moved from Kansas to Tennessee during her sophomore year of high school. Alysha’s athleticism in track and volleyball excited basketball coaches at Mount Juliet high school just outside of Nashville. However, it quickly became apparent that Alysha had a long way to go on the basketball court. 

“I saw Alysha Clark in her very first [basketball] practice,” said then-Shelbyville High School Head Coach Rick Insell. “She couldn’t even hit a two-footer.” 

Alysha didn’t even know what a bounce pass was. But she got to work. With the help of Mt. Juliet head coach Chris Fryer and assistant coach John Simms, she learned the fundamentals of the game. She started with the footwork necessary to succeed in the post, and learned how to pivot to gain an advantage. The intricacies and complexities of the game sparked something inside Alysha. 

“I just fell in love with the process of the game, the process of learning,” said Alysha Clark. “It was exciting for me because it was challenging. I was able to put in the work and see the results. I was like, ‘okay, so if I keep doing this, I’ll continue just to get better.’” 

She found out that she could score through sheer athleticism early on. Then, she started refining those skills. By her junior year, Alysha made a name for herself at Mt. Juliet. She led the team to a 22-1 record by averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds a game. Coach Fryer went so far as to tell The Tennessean that she was the most athletic player in school history. Getting a basketball scholarship seemed like a possibility for the first time. 

On January 30th, 2004, Alysha hit a major roadblock. She fell going for a steal and landed hard on her hip. A trip to the emergency room would reveal that Alysha had a cracked acetabulum. Doctors told her that her season was over and feared that she may never play again. After all, a cracked acetabulum injury ended Bo Jackson’s career. 

Alysha Clark was back on the court within two months. She cheered on her teammates as they made a run to the Regional Semifinals when she rejoined them. Mt. Juliet would lose in the Regional Finals, due in part to Alysha spraining her ankle. The ripple effects of the injury would linger far longer than the physical toll. 

“A lot of the schools that were recruiting me were talking about how important I was for their program. [But] after I got hurt, they were like, ‘oh, what happened?’ And I was like, ‘if I’m important to your program, like, you should know what happened,’” said Alysha with a tone of exasperation. “As soon as it happened, [Belmont assistant coaches Donna brown and Beth Stark] immediately texted me and called me and were like, ‘we hope you get well and we’re so sorry to hear this.’ For me, that really like that really hit home. That’s why I went to Belmont.”

When she developed into an AAU All-American and was named Miss Basketball in her senior year, Alysha stuck with Belmont, a school that had never made the NCAA Tournament. The choice paid off as she immediately became a star for the Bruins.

She led the team in scoring and rebounding in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, en route to back-to-back Atlantic Sun Player of the Year awards and the school’s first NCAA tournament bid in 2007. At one point in her sophomore season, she was averaging more rebounds than Angel McCoughtry and Sylvia Fowles despite being several inches shorter than either player. 

While the accomplishments flowed in, Alysha still didn’t see a future in basketball. She focused on her major in journalism and minor in psychology. But, she admitted that she didn’t know what career path those majors would take her down.

“It wasn’t until my sophomore year and having a conversation with [assistant coach] Beth Stark about my potential and she was like, ‘you can really do something special. I think you have a chance to play professionally,’” recounted Clark. “That was the first time I had a conversation about potentially being a professional.”

Step one toward professional basketball would be transferring to a more prominent university. Alysha Clark wanted to stay in-state. She chose Middle Tennessee State over Vanderbilt due to their style of play and her familiarity with head coach Rick Insell, whom she had tortured as an opponent in high school.

Step two would be working harder than she ever had before to revamp her game. At 5’11”, she could dominate down low in college. But it would be a different story in the WNBA. She needed to move to small forward and start playing more on the perimeter. To hear Insell tell it, Alysha was built to work hard. 

“I don’t think there is any doubt that she is the hardest worker I’ve ever coached,” said Rick who has coached future WNBA players Chrissy Givens and Amber Holt over his 30-plus year career. “She never took a rep off in the entire time that I coached her.”

Alysha had to sit out the 2008 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but she took that time to start rounding out her game. In practice, she would play the role of the other team’s best player, no matter her position. When the team left on road trips, Alysha would go on her own road trips to Nashville to work on her game with Beth Stark and her husband. 

One time after the team played at Troy, Coach Insell heard a ball bouncing in the gym at 1:30 AM and found Alysha shooting threes. When the Blue Raiders were getting ready to play their first game in Mobile, Alabama for the 2008 Sun Belt tournament, Coach Insell was shocked to see Alysha on the bench after she made the seven-hour trip on her own. All the work paid off as Alysha won back-to-back Sun Belt Player of the Year honors. She led the nation in scoring both years at Middle Tennessee State and was named to multiple All-American teams. 

However, she still had yet to prove her ability as a perimeter player since MTSU needed her to be in the post. Alysha Clark’s college career ended in heartbreak as the Blue Raiders gave up a late lead to Mississippi State in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. The outcome could never change what her coaches and teammates thought of her or the impact she had on them. 

“My biggest regret in coaching [is] that I didn’t sit back and enjoy what I’ve had playing out there in front of me because [Alysha Clark] was a masterpiece and I didn’t even know it,” said Coach Insell.

Alysha Clark’s early struggles in the WNBA

By the time that Alysha Clark entered the WNBA Draft in 2010, she had already beaten the odds. After just four years of playing basketball in earnest, she was one of the best players in college basketball despite being an undersized power forward and suffering a potentially debilitating injury in high school.

She is also the only player to ever win conference POY honors in two different conferences. And to cap it off, she finished her career with the fourth-most double-doubles and 12th most points in NCAA history. Her stunning work ethic and belief in herself brought her to the pinnacle of college basketball. 

Yet, the next chapter of her career would be marked by challenges that would shake her confidence. Coming into the draft, Alysha still needed to turn the corner as a perimeter player. Carolyn Peck and Rebecca Lobo both thought that she would go in the first-round while acknowledging the tough transition ahead. 

Alysha slipped to the San Antonio Stars with the 15th overall pick in the second round. Like many second-rounders, she was cut in favor of veteran options by future Seattle head coach Dan Hughes. Alysha Clark had good company as Allie Quigley would also get cut by the Stars in 2010. She admitted to crying after getting cut, but vowed to get better in Israel and come back to the WNBA. She did so and still got cut in favor of third-round pick Porsha Phillips. 

“After the second time I got cut in San Antonio, I was depressed,” said Alysha Clark. “I was just so down because I worked so hard. I did these things and like something out of my control took it away from me. Then I was just like, I’m gonna give it one more shot.” 

The second cut put Alysha Clark’s WNBA hopes in jeopardy. She set the ultimatum. Alysha had dabbled in broadcasting, modeling, and other career paths that could coincide with her overseas basketball career. But she kept working on her game overseas and the ultimatum pushed her over the hump. 

“I think setting that goal of being like, ‘okay, this is the last time I’m going to do this, this is the last time I’m going to put myself through this emotional physical process’ gave me something to see as the end goal,” said Alysha. 

She got a change of scenery when Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler signed her to a training camp contract on the recommendation of assistant coach Jenny Boucek. The Storm needed a player like Alysha after Swin Cash, a player who successfully transitioned from post to perimeter, was traded in the offseason.

Brian Agler was “hard” on Alysha, he shared. But Agler’s challenging style fit well with Clark’s tireless work ethic and she finally made a WNBA team. However, making the team didn’t relieve the pressure on Alysha. She felt like the dream could end at any moment, hence why she never unpacked her suitcases.

“A lot of days, in the beginning, I would go home and I would cry. I would just be feeling like I’m not good enough, that I was a failure, and that any day now I’m going to be cut or released,” explained Alysha Clark. 

Her battle to make it to the WNBA was over. But her battle to stay in the WNBA had just started. She couldn’t just out tough those feelings. Working hard made Alysha Clark feel at peace with any outcome. But she needed time and success to overcome the nagging feeling that she wasn’t WNBA-material. Most importantly, she needed people to lean on and show her that she belonged.

Jenny Boucek would be the first person to fill that role. Boucek was the driving force behind Alysha’s signing with Seattle. As a Tennessee native, Jenny was familiar with what Alysha brought to the table. She thought Alysha had the “It Factor” to be a championship player. But Jenny also realized what Alysha was going through. 

“It’s hard to put your heart out there again. You start to doubt yourself. I think that’s what every player would do that has been cut,” explained Jenny Boucek, who is now an assistant with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. “I just wanted her to see herself the way that I saw her. I know what champions look like and I knew that she had what it took to be a real important contributor on a WNBA team.” 

Jenny aimed to be an accurate mirror for Alysha and created an environment that fostered support, along with Brian Agler and the entire Seattle organization. Having an unselfish superstar in Sue Bird certainly helped, but so did the crew of wise veterans like Camille Little, Katie Smith, Tina Thompson, and Tanisha Wright. They helped pick up Alysha when she doubted herself. 

“When I go through things, I very much go through them alone. I internalize things a lot,” said Alysha Clark. “So, one of the biggest assets through all of that was having just amazing teammates that constantly were encouraging, and made you feel important – made you feel like you did belong.”

Tanisha Wright showed Alysha how to be a professional and find her niche in the WNBA. Like Alysha, she made the transition from being a primary scorer in college to a defense-first role player in the WNBA. Tanisha’s biggest contribution may have been helping Alysha grow her spirituality. 

“That was the one thing for me in my career that early on in my career I didn’t have so for me, it was really important that I be that voice for younger kids coming into their career,” explained Tanisha. “In Seattle, we had an atmosphere that really encouraged our spirituality, and Alysha was somebody who really, you know, grabbed on to that.”

Alysha pointed to her Bible study with Tanisha in Seattle and overseas as a major reason for her mental shift. It helped her find an anchor in her life. Jenny said that one of her objectives as a coach was to help players to find those “anchors for the soul,” whether faith was involved or not. Tanisha and Camille Little poured into Alysha in this regard. 

Throughout Alysha’s first two years in the WNBA, she was still swimming in a sea of doubt. Jenny, Tanisha, Camille, and the rest of the organization helped her grow her game and feel at home. But she still didn’t quite believe that her spot in the WNBA was secure. After all, she was still a reserve playing 10-15 minutes a game and putting up a meager 4 points per game. 

One of the greatest players in WNBA history would help Alysha turn the corner. Tina Thompson joined the Storm at the same time as Alysha. The first-ever WNBA draft pick was winding down her career after 13 years in the league. She saw what kind of teammate Alysha was by watching her take charges, fight for every rebound, and try to get better each day.

“Being a founding player of the WNBA, it took a lot of work to create a foundation of longevity,” said Tina, who is the head coach at the University of Virginia. “When you see a player like Alysha, who desperately wants to be [in the WNBA] and have a lasting career, it is an endearing quality for a player that had been around since the very beginning.” 

Despite coming into the WNBA as one of the most heralded prospects ever and immediately winning four straight titles in Houston, Tina saw a lot of herself in Alysha. The two came from family-focused backgrounds and had a similar sense of community. They bonded over trips to the nail salon and “car dates,” as Alysha refers to them, where the two would just talk in the car after dinner. Alysha felt like she could be vulnerable with Tina, who reciprocated with advice and encouragement. 

“I think back to our conversations and she’s like ‘you need to act like you belong here’” said Alysha of her time with Tina during her rookie year. “That was probably the first and most powerful conversation in terms of me feeling like I didn’t belong and her helping me see that I did. That was like the start of the process for me.”

Tina took it one step further in Alysha’s second year. Tina announced that she would retire after the 2013 season. The two continued to develop their relationship and Tina continued to pour into Alysha. However, Alysha still wouldn’t unpack her bags despite Tina and others telling her that she belonged. Tina decided to push the issue in her retirement speech in Key Arena. 

“In front of thousands of fans, I told her that ‘you can unpack your bag because you deserve to be here and you’re going to be here for a really long time,’” said Tina with a laugh and the satisfaction of being right in hindsight. 

“That was the first time that I started to have a glimpse of understanding that ‘okay, yeah, you should be here.’ Now you need to really start believing that [because] if she can have that belief in me then I need to get my act together and start having that belief in myself,” explained Alysha.

Alysha Clark’s stages of growth

By the end of her second season, Alysha Clark was finally starting to feel confident in the WNBA. Her coaches and teammates helped her see what they saw: a contributor on a championship team. However, it still took a while for her to feel fully comfortable. 

“I didn’t feel like I belonged until honestly, probably until we won [the championship] in 2018,” said Alysha.

There were stages to Alysha’s growth. Tina’s speech marked the end of the first stage. Alysha finally felt like there was a chance that she belonged in the WNBA. Another big step came in her third season. When the Storm signed her to a full-season contract, rather than a training camp contract.

She could still be cut at any time, but the contract showed that the team had plans for her. She grabbed a starting role in 2014 and Seattle rewarded her with a multi-year contract entering her fifth season. All of these “layers,” as she calls them, helped her feel better. Until she played a big role in the Storm’s 2018 championship run. For a competitor and a team player like Alysha, team success would always define how she felt about herself. The championship made her realize how much value she has as a basketball player. 

Throughout Alysha’s journey to that point, a few things remained constant. She continued to lean on and listen to her teammates, coaches, family, and friends. Learning how to be vulnerable with her support system was a big step. Her spirituality also played a huge role in keeping her grounded. The work she continually put in had the overarching effect of allowing Alysha to feel at peace with any result. 

“Whatever I do in life, I’m going to give it my all, put my best foot forward, and do all the right things,” said Alysha Clark. “If something doesn’t work out, I can sleep at night because I did everything I possibly could and I left it all out there.”

Stubbornness also kept Alysha going. She knew that she had enough talent and work ethic to be a factor in the WNBA. In part because Beth Stark, Jenny Boucek, and Tina Thompson told her that she did. Alysha had to be headstrong to continue thinking that in the face of failure and obstacles. 

Luckily, she had that trait. In her second season at Middle Tennessee State, Alysha told Coach Rick Insell that she had a lab on Mondays that would make her late to practice. And he said that it was fine. Well, Rick forgot (despite telling Alysha otherwise afterward).

When Alysha showed up late for practice, he yelled at her and told her to leave with the team’s strength coach. She responded that he was wrong and wouldn’t leave the floor. At the urging of her teammates, she left with the trainer after about five minutes of refusing.

The trainer put Alysha through a brutal 45-minute workout. She did the workout perfectly despite fuming the entire time. According to Rick, Alysha went to the coach’s office after practice, slammed the door, and let him have it. She knew that she was right, wanted to be vindicated, and wouldn’t stop until she was.  

“I love a challenge. When people tell me that I can’t do something, I’m gonna do it. Once I set my mind to it, it’s gonna happen,” said Alysha, when asked if her stubbornness has helped her. “I am super grateful that I have inside of me because not everybody has that.”

Alysha Clark’s blueprint to overcome imposter syndrome required hard work, stubbornness, vulnerability, and leaning on others. She also said that she incorporated a tried-and-true method to developing confidence: faking it ‘till you’re making it.

She would put on a front in practice and games to convince herself that she belonged in the league. Eventually, she was able to convince herself that she belonged. The vast majority of us will never know what it’s like to hit a game-winning shot in a playoff game. But a lot of us will go through the feelings that Alysha overcame and may be able to replicate some of what she did to beat them.

What’s next for Alysha Clark

As Alysha sipped her own wine, expressing how excited she (an avid cook) was to get out to check out Washington D.C.’s food scene, she seemed a far cry from someone who didn’t think they belonged anywhere. She’s proud of the space that she has created for herself in the league. During free agency meetings, she got to see first-hand the respect that her play and leadership have garnered around the league. Her challenge now is to find ways to continue growing. 

“I’ve worked my tail off to be a factor in this league, [but] there are days where I feel like I’m falling short in terms of development. I don’t want to ever be complacent or comfortable,” explained Alysha. “That mentality keeps me from thinking about, ‘oh, I don’t belong here’ and keeps me forward-thinking about ‘this is what you need to work towards to continue to be a factor in this league.’ So that’s a different type of motivation.”

Alysha will be in a similar situation in Washington, to the one she was in with the Seattle Storm. The Mystics have championship expectations, a perpetual MVP candidate in Elena Delle Donne, and an organization committed to success.

She may be expected to be more of an on-ball creator to fill Aerial Powers’ explosive play. But her defensive role of disruptor and eraser will not change. Her arrival in Washington is expected to have a huge impact on this year’s title race. 

“When Washington signed her, I called or texted [Washington head coach] Mike [Thibault] and I said that’s an unbelievable signing,” said Brian Agler, who is now the Athletic Director at Wittenberg University. “That signing right there might influence the league more than anything else in regard to the WNBA championship.”

One area where Alysha may be expected to grow is as a mentor. Seattle typically had veteran-laden teams. But she still found opportunities to help younger players grow and pass down the lessons that she learned. Alysha built an especially great relationship with Jordin Canada. With Sue Bird out in 2019, Jordin Canada needed to step up. And Alysha played a major role in her development. 

“When Sue was out, [Alysha] really took that leadership role to another level. She was always hard on me at that point because she knew that I knew what I was capable of. If I didn’t put in 100%, ever, she was always there to let me know it,” said Jordin Canada. “Then at the same time, she was always giving me confidence and encouraging me. I definitely think she was a big part in my growth these last couple of years.”

Alysha also helped Jordin feel at home off-the-court. The two developed inside jokes and pranked each other by secretly filming each other in the Wubble. Jordin has flourished, becoming one of the most exciting young point guards in the WNBA. If Alysha influenced Jordin’s growth, then the Mystics should be excited about how she can help Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, and potentially Stella Johnson. 

Alysha’s confidence has also pushed her to be more vocal off the court. Last season, she played a big role in the WNBA’s social justice initiatives. And dedicated the Storm’s championship to Black girls.

More recently, Alysha, who is Jewish according to Jewish law and has Israeli citizenship, took part in an “Athletes against Antisemitism” panel. She took time to make sure that she was informed by reading books on racism and antisemitism.

She also participated in the talks with Michelle Obama, Stacey Abrams, and others set up by the WNBA in the Wubble. While she has never been someone to bite her tongue in the face of injustice, Alysha didn’t feel ready to use her platform for social change until she felt educated on subjects such as racism and voter suppression. 

“It was just having the confidence to say something publicly. I never want to have attention on me. Because it makes me really uncomfortable. And could put the limelight on me rather than the issues. I think [educating myself] gave me the confidence to feel like I can speak on this,” said Alysha. 

Alysha’s activism will fit in perfectly with the Mystics’ “District of Change” mantra this season. In fact, the opportunity to grow her activism in the Nation’s capital was a selling point for Washington in free agency. She will also be playing and working alongside Natasha Cloud, one of the league’s most outspoken players in terms of social justice. 

Alysha Clark, the player and the person, has landed in a great place. Playing in Washington D.C. should help her find a new path in the next and potentially final stage of her career as she enters her 10th year in the WNBA at age 33. When asked where she sees herself in five years, unsurprisingly, she shared she wants to pass down what she has learned to the next generation.  

“Hopefully retired with a little one running around, hosting a cooking show, and heading up my foundation that does mentoring for kids. Obviously, stuff with basketball, activism, and confidence building with young kids,” said Alysha Clark. 

Getting cut from the league twice, the depression it brought, and the times where she thought that her WNBA dream would end seem like distant memories. Frankly, they are. Her bags have long been unpacked and her confidence is only growing.

Up next, learn more about Alysha’s previous teammate, Jordin Canada.

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