On Saturday, February 26, the first season of Athletes Unlimited basketball came to a close. It was the culmination of five weeks of hoops, with the league’s unique scoring system and player-first approach universally lauded by participants and media members alike.
Point guard and Washington Mystics player Natasha Cloud, who had drawn the later game on the night’s schedule, arrived hours early, filling a seat courtside. Or, rather, standing in front of it, joking with each player that came towards her corner of the floor. With her contagious enthusiasm, it was immediately obvious why AU sought her out when debuting their inaugural hoops campaign.
Natasha continued to bring that energy in pregame warmups. Outside of her well-documented chemistry with Connecticut Sun guard DiJonai Carrington, she seemed to be most in sync with the DJ. As team captain, Natasha carried the team through each exercise, celebrating every swished shot with a dance interlude.
Where Athletes Unlimited truly excelled was in diagnosing the simple formula that creates good basketball: equal parts competition and fun. You saw it in the point bonuses earned by winning quarters, adding late-game strategy to every ten-minute stretch. You saw it in the ever-changing leaderboard, updated in real time. You saw it in the aftermath of a loose ball scramble, when players donning either color would help one another to their feet, sharing the one-of-44 bond that had seen most combinations as teammates at one point.
The intersection of this pick-up ball atmosphere and good-natured competition created a nostalgic brand of hoops that rang familiar with anyone who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and played in the halfcourt. An anecdotal example: on Friday night, Natasha earned a pair of free throws. From the opposing bench, Kalani Brown tossed lighthearted heckles her way, attempting to distract. After hitting the free throw, Natasha turned Kalani’s way and blew a kiss before backpedaling upcourt to play defense.
Natasha was the league’s first convert, having experienced AU first as a fan, when her wife, Alesia Ocasio, joined up for softball. She thought then that this formula could translate to basketball, and that belief found resounding confirmation this past month. In fact, CEO Jon Patricof already confirmed AU Hoops will return next year. On the final day of the season, in which she would finish as runner-up to Tianna Hawkins, Natasha Cloud took time to talk to us about her AU experience in Las Vegas. Here’s what she shared.
QBC: Last winter, in one of Khristina Williams’ Clubhouse rooms, you talked about how this was something you wanted to see happen. Alesia’s involvement on the softball side had you on the sidelines first, and now you’ve seen this come to fruition. How has AU Hoops met your expectations in the first season?
Natasha Cloud: It’s exceeded beyond what I think all of us thought this could be. You know, this took a year to make happen, to come together. And I think we all had an idea in our head of what it would look like, what it’d be like. And obviously, with me seeing my wife play in it firsthand, I knew that the blueprint was going to be successful, but this just exceeded our wildest dreams. It’s the environment that we’re playing in. We’re getting a chance to really see great relationships that will last a lifetime with 44 women. It’s the elite level of play that’s been on the court, the competitiveness that’s been on the court, the fans, the support. It’s just been phenomenal. And I think in our first year, we surpassed everyone’s expectations of what this could be.
We have to ask you about DiJonai Carrington and that friendship, or Tashanai. Did you guys know each other well before this or this bloom here?
We did. We knew each other before this, but being able to play with each other for five weeks, really having to depend on each other, it just really established a much deeper connection, a much deeper friendship between the two of us. And I’ve been blessed to spend these last five weeks with DiJonai. She’s not only helped me as a player, but as a person off the court, too. And that’s my road dog. I love that girl.
Were you sweating a little bit when Lexie [Brown] had the first pick ahead of this final week, worried that she was going to take DiJonai?
No! ‘Cause I knew Lexie was going to go with her duo in Taja [Cole], so I knew we were gonna keep all of our stuff the same. But yeah, I was a little nervous when DiJonai popped up in fourth place [on the leaderboard]. I was Lexie’s biggest fan in that next game. She needed to make it happen to keep us together.
A couple of weeks ago, when Kelsey Mitchell stepped out for USA Basketball, she said this felt like playing basketball like she was a kid again. Does this bring you back to growing up playing hoops?
I’ve been saying that since week one, it’s like AAU. We all stay in the same hotel, all 44. We come in, we’re changing teams every week, changing jerseys. Your family gets to be here, your friends get to be here. And this is the most fun I’ve had hooping in probably the eight years that I’ve been a professional. And I think that speaks volumes, for not only the women here and what we’ve been able to create and the elite level that we’ve been able to play at, but also AU and the environment that they foster for us to just be ourselves and just have fun.
I hated it.
Note: As Natasha told Ari Chambers during episode three of All on the Table: “If you’re going over there, you don’t get proper care, proper treatment. They be acting crazy in a lot of these countries: They don’t respect women…So that first break, I usually be coming home and be like, ‘I’m not going back!’” She also details her first overseas experience, in Turkey, after her rookie season in the WNBA – which ended with her coming home injured, and with no money:
So what does this opportunity mean not just for you, but for W players in their offseasons? It’s a big issue that the WNBA salary doesn’t allow you to compete in just one league, but if you’ve got to play year-round…
Absolutely. The reality is that our season’s only about five months. And then in the offseason, we would have to go overseas and for seven months be away from our family, our loved ones. Without proper care of your body, without proper protection of us players. You’re put into really bad situations overall.
So, to have a league here, to establish another league here in the States, where women don’t have to go overseas and be away from their families, where they don’t have to put their bodies through year round-play. Just five weeks playing competitive basketball. It means everything for me to be an intricate part of bringing this here, because it’s a progression of women in sports. When we talk about investing in women, believing in women, valuing women and what they bring, AU is a prime example of that.
How do you make adjustments from one game to the next playing three games in four days?
It’s really hard. It’s been challenging. I think everyone thinks being a captain is really fun. And I think all of us [who have been captains] have been like, “No, it actually sucks.” It’s really hard because, like you said, it’s such a quick turnaround. You play Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Have Sunday off, but you’re still doing the draft. And then Monday you’re right back into it.
You have to be quickly adjusted. You have to watch film in just a few hours before you go into practice or a game the next day. It’s definitely been a challenging experience for me, but I’m gonna be such a better player, such a better point guard, such a better leader because of it. But that’s what makes AU what it is. It’s special in its own sense that you have complete control, and then puts a lot more pressure on us as captains because it’s your game speed, it’s your practices, it’s your ideas.
Do you have coaching tips now for Mystics’ head coach Mike Thibault when you go back?
Absolutely. [Laugh.] No, I actually texted Mike and Eric [Thibault]. And I was just like, “Oh, after week one, I have so much admiration for y’all now because I’m ready to drink. I’m ready to drink after these games.”
As a point guard, you’re already a captain on the floor. But now you’ve got to add in the live substitutions. [Note: In AU, only the captain can make on-court decisions like player subs, challenges, or timeouts.] So you have to be on top of everything. Yesterday you were just backpedaling and gesturing to the sideline.
Yeah, I’m yelling at the bench, I’m like “AB [Antoinette Bannister], come on, come on!”
And then, when you know when a call is wrong–
And they need to review it, yeah.
If I could do anything, I would add the reviews to the W because refs have the hardest job. They’re human, they’re gonna make mistakes. But, when it comes down to it, the importance of the game, the importance of one possession, to be able to review it, it’s been amazing and phenomenal here.
Is there anything else that AU has done that you would love to see the WNBA adopt?
The production, the set-up, the challenges, and really giving players a voice. Not only selling five players’ stories, there’s more than five players. There’s 144 players in the W. And every single woman has a story of her journey. And what she’s been through to get to this point and that’s special, that’s unique. So if anything, yes, from a game standpoint, I want review and I want players to have more of a say. But, from just a human standpoint, I want the W to focus on more than five players, more than just the one percent, because every woman has a story of her own.
On-court, we need to talk about your game here in Vegas. In six out of the 15 games you played, you’ve hit three or more threes.
Tell Mike Thibault, I am shooting! Tell the W they’re not going under me this year.
We saw you tweet that the other day!
You also broke your assist record. [Note: Natasha Cloud’s WNBA career-high in assists is 12; in the last game of the AU season, she handed out 19 dimes.] So, what do you think has been the strongest growth point for you? Are these sets at the same level of difficulty as in the WNBA, since you only have about three days to put them together?
No, they’re still really difficult. I know, for me, I took a lot of plays from my Mystics playbook. I implemented them in and everyone is so smart here. Everyone’s played basketball their whole lives, so they’re able to pick up similar offenses. It’s not that hard.
I think overall, Athletes Unlimited has just allowed me to be me. And I keep saying it’s brought my dog out. You’ll see me out here, I’ll be jawing, I’ll be talking to players, but I love it because that adds to the entertainment of the game. AU has just allowed me to be myself, allowed my confidence to grow to where, I’m like, I say that tweet. The W is not going under all me this year because of AU, I’ve just been able to work on what I need to work on and implement it into live action. I’m feeling super confident.
Some of these players that W fans might not have known, such as Taj Cole or Lauren Mincy, have now gotten WNBA training camp deals. So how can this be an opportunity for players to grow and does the W support that growth?
Absolutely. I feel like coming into this, we knew what it was going to mean for those players that haven’t gotten their opportunity. And I think for me, that’s the most prideful thing: Taja Cole deserves to be on a training camp roster, Lauren Manis deserves her chance at the W. There’s a lot of other players here. For Kalani Brown, just to be back on a W team. [Note: Taja signed a TC contract with the Connecticut Sun, Lauren signed a TC contract with the Seattle Storm, and Kalani signed a TC contract with the Las Vegas Aces.]
I think sometimes with the W, things can be too political. But here people are just playing, they’re just hooping. And you have to respect them. I’m gonna fight for Lexie Brown. I’m going to advocate for her. She has proven herself. She’s proven that she’s grown, and she’s been able to show it here.
Defensively, too. Shoot, she should win Defensive Player of the Year, in my mind. [Note: the award went to Izzy Harrison, but she was one of five players named to AU’s All-Defense team.] But I think AU has just presented that opportunity for them to be seen, for them to really showcase who they are.
And this was what the CBA was trying to push, right, to bring hoopers back stateside?
Yeah, you didn’t want us going overseas! Now we’re staying home, so we need [the WNBA] to support, we need you to be a part of it. It’s hard when players go overseas. They don’t get the attention or the respect that they deserve. To be going one-on-one against W players, you have to respect that. And it’s mutually beneficial for the W to keep players here domestically. Absolutely. This league protects the W’s investment in every shape, form, and facet. So I hope that they continue to support it, because it should be like a sisterhood between the two leagues. It’s not a competition. It’s a protection of their investment.
Header photo captured by Jade Hewitt Athletes Unlimited.