Sugar Rodgers had come too far to fail.
She had survived losing both her mother and her family home before she turned 16. She had survived seeing her older brother and sister being sent to prison for selling drugs. And almost two years ago, the Liberty’s fourth-year guard survived a frightening home invasion in which four men broke into the home where she was sleeping, forced her to the floor and stuck a gun to her head.
So when Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer told Rodgers that the team was going to give her some big-time minutes this season while Epiphanny Prince was out rehabbing her torn ACL, Rodgers knew that she was going to have to produce some big-time numbers.
“I knew when I stepped on the court for the first game this year that if I didn’t show them what I had, they were going to get someone else,” Rodgers said. “After all the hard work and tears, I was getting my opportunity. The lights came on and I shined.”
The Liberty heads into the final weeks of the WNBA regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the performance of Rodgers has been a major reason why. Rodgers, a top candidate for the league’s most improved player award, has given the Liberty a much-needed offensive complement to superstar Tina Charles. Through 28 games, Rodgers has averaged a career-high 14.5 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three-point range, the fifth best in the league.
“This young lady is driven,” said Teresa Weatherspoon, the Liberty’s director of player development. “She went through some things no 14-year-old should ever have to see or do. She’s been through a lot in life and she wants to be an example for her community, to show that anyone can get it done no matter what you’ve been through.”
There are plenty of players in professional sports who come from difficult circumstances, but few have endured the heartbreak and poverty that marked Rodgers’ journey to the WNBA. It’s a journey so unlikely that she regularly speaks to youth groups about her experience and plans to write a book to inspire young people dealing with difficult home situations.
“Basketball saved my life,” Rodgers said after a recent practice. “I say that every day. It gave me something to concentrate on and stay focused on.”
Supportive mother dies
Rodgers’ story begins in Suffolk, Virginia, where she was born Ta’Shauna Rodgers and nicknamed Sugar by an uncle when she was a toddler. Her mother, Barb Mae, was 42 when Rodgers was born, old enough to have figured out what’s important. Though Barb Mae had played basketball herself, she believed there was more of a future in golf. She enrolled her daughter in a program in which Sugar did so well that she was the top-ranked girl golfer in her area and appeared in a television commercial with Tiger Woods when she was 10.
And then Barb Mae, who had worked two jobs to support Sugar and the three children of her older daughter, got sick. She couldn’t come out to the golf course to watch Sugar play anymore. In fact, she was so sick with complications from Lupus that she couldn’t get out of bed.
“I was 14 when she got really sick, 15 when she passed away,” said Rodgers, 26. “I was her nurse and changing her. I knew how to change a diaper from changing my nephew’s. It was the same thing. Just more body weight.”
Rodgers quit playing golf when Barb Mae got sick, she said, because it was too painful to be out there without her. She spent what little free time she had on a makeshift basketball hoop her brother Deshawn had erected in the street in front of their house. Rodgers’ oldest sister, Sharon, was in prison on a drug charge and couldn’t help out, she said. Deshawn, now supporting the family, also was arrested and jailed on a drug charge.
Several months before Barb Mae died, there was a drug bust at the house, Sugar said. Barb Mae was taken to a nursing home, where she quickly went downhill.
The family home was condemned and torn down. At 15 years old, Sugar was both motherless and homeless. Her father, who was in his 60s when she was born, did not play a major role in her life, she said.
Sugar spent her high school years bouncing from house to house, living with various friends and relatives and a basketball coach.
“I didn’t want to get put in the foster care system,” she said. “I would forge my mom’s name at school even after she had passed for a while. I didn’t want anyone to know anything about me.”
Talent and chance at college
\The one thing that everyone seemed to know is that she could play basketball. Sugar blossomed into a McDonald’s All-American at Suffolk’s Kings Fork High School and an AAU star for coach Boo Williams, whose sister Terri Williams-Flournoy was then the women’s coach at Georgetown University. Sugar never had thought about going to college; she basically was just barely attending high school. But she and Williams-Flournoy developed a tight bond and off to Georgetown she went.
“She had such unbelievable talent. She could just shoot the lights out,” said Williams-Flournoy, now the coach at Auburn. “Sugar is a very smart young lady and a very determined competitor. You put all of that together and there’s not much she’s not going to get accomplished.”
Georgetown, at first, was like stepping on another planet. While many of her classmates looked down on the cafeteria and had the money to go out for dinner every night, Rodgers said she remembers being so happy the first couple of weeks of school because she could get all the hamburgers and chicken tenders she wanted.
She also struggled at first with school, but she eventually learned to reach out for help. This is something she often stresses when she speaks to at-risk youths.
“I tell kids I didn’t know what a complete sentence was when I got to Georgetown, but I stayed with it and worked hard,” she said. “You never know who will help you. Don’t be scared to ask.”
Rodgers graduated in 2013 with a degree in English and totaled a school record 2,518 points, surpassing Sleepy Floyd and Patrick Ewing. She was taken with the 14th overall pick by the Minnesota Lynx, but averaged less than seven minutes a game her rookie season. After she was traded to the Liberty before the 2014 season, things started looking up.
And then she decided to go visit a close relative in Virginia, whom she identifies only as Tanya.
Rodgers said she was sleeping on the couch and her 11-year-old nephew was sleeping on the floor next to her when four men kicked in the door and began screaming about money. A man in a red hoodie put a gun to her head and she lay on the floor to cover her nephew with her body.
“I could hear them in the backroom using a tazer on Tanya,” Rodgers remembered. “All of the sudden, the gun lifted from my head and I heard people running out of the house.”
Rodgers said that Tanya’s boyfriend had been able to get to a registered gun he kept in the house for protection and chased the men out. “The police never caught the robbers,” she said. “And where I’m from that’s not uncommon.”
Rodgers is a religious person, and she believes there is a reason that she has made it to where she is. Her one wish is that her mother could see how it all turned out, that she could share her success and see how well the family is doing. Sharon, she said, has started her own nursing business since getting out of prison. Deshawn, she added, also was recently released from prison. And the family remains close as Rodgers often goes back to Suffolk to visit with family and talk to kids.
“I love to go back and let kids know there is a way out, no matter what you go through,” Rodgers said. “For me, it was basketball, but it doesn’t have to be that. You just have to keep believing in yourself and not let other people kill your dreams.”
Guard, No. 14
Given name: Ta’Shauna Rodgers
Born: Dec. 8, 1989, in Suffolk, Virgina (age 26)
Drafted in 2013 by Minnesota Lynx (second round, 14th overall)
Traded to Liberty in 2014
*Saturday’s game not included