Life Is Finally Sweet For Sugar
When Sugar Rodgers was 14, the roof and floors of her family’s house in Suffolk weren’t the only things caving in. Her life was, too.
A budding basketball star who now plays in the WNBA, Rodgers watched her mother, Barbara Mae, grow deathly ill from lupus, an autoimmune disease that can lead to major organ failure.
Rodgers’ older sister Sharon was in jail for cocaine distribution; her brother DeShawn would soon be there for the same crime. The family had no insurance, no adequate medical care.
Their home on Second Avenue, condemned by the city that year, was also shared by two of Rodgers’ nephews and a niece. But the task of tending to Barbara Mae, a janitor, warehouse worker and single mother, fell to her youngest child – Ta’Shauna by birth, but “Sugar” always thereafter.
“If I wasn’t going to do it, nobody was going to do it,” Rodgers says now. “I’m not going to leave her in a dirty diaper and filthy sheets. I knew at some point in my life I was probably going to have to take care of her. My time just came sooner than expected.”
Barbara Mae died at age 56 on July 14, 2005. As homage, Rodgers wore No. 14 at Georgetown University and wears it today as a starting guard for the New York Liberty.
Back then, Rodgers was approaching her freshman year at King’s Fork High School. She had no idea what she would become: a McDonald’s high school all-American, just the second from South Hampton Roads; Georgetown’s all-time leading scorer, among women and men; a writer with a degree in English and an autobiography she’s writing; one of the premier long-range shooters in women’s basketball.
And a willing role model for anyone trapped, she says, like a crab clawing in a bucket.
“Back in some neighborhood, I know somebody like me is struggling, looking for a way out,” says Rodgers, who finished her fourth WNBA season in October. “It’s about having confidence and having someone believe you can do it.”
After her mother died, Rodgers was hardened and homeless, adrift in a section of Williamstown rife with drugs, gunfire and other street violence. Her father, who never married her mother and has since died, was 80 and did not take her in. “That wasn’t even an option for him,” she says. “That hurt me for a long time.”
Through high school, where she showed up enough to stay eligible for basketball, Rodgers sought shelter for long stretches with family members, friends and coaches. She was an interloper in other lives, counting down to when she could enlist in the military. For spending money, she sold pot.
But she’d always been a natural and fearless athlete. She played organized tackle football with boys, and scrapped with dealers and ex-cons in rough basketball games at the ramshackle hoop outside the house. There she’d gamble the spare dollar bills her mom would give her. Rodgers would have to decide between buying candy or betting on herself. By far the neighborhood’s best shooter, she won more than she lost.
Before her mom’s death, she even played golf and was one of the state’s best junior players. She was on a Tiger Woods-sponsored youth team and even appeared in a Coke commercial for his charitable foundation. “You can change the world,” she says in the ad. “I can do it.”
But basketball is where she really shone. A 5-foot-9 guard, Rodgers was unstoppable at King’s Fork and for Boo Williams, a local Amateur Athletic Union coaching legend. She scored 23 points as a freshman in her first high school game and never slowed that pace.
She began to surface on national recruiting lists, and offers from schools came in. But she trashed the first recruiting letters she received. Kids from her neighborhood didn’t do college. “Those people don’t want me for real,” she thought.
But Boo Williams sensed something in Rodgers early on and persuaded her to consider college. She was coachable. Respectful off the court, a fiery demon on it. People liked her, cared about her.
“Let me tell you about Sugar,” he says. “When we won the national AAU championship, Sugar was voted MVP, and she wasn’t even a starter. Most kids, they’re all pissed off they’re on the bench. But there’s Sugar coming off the bench and winning MVP.”
As a senior she averaged 28 points, winning local and national honors. By then, Williams had connected her with his sister, Terri Williams-Flournoy, who was then Georgetown’s coach. She and Rodgers felt an instant chemistry. For the first time, Rodgers got serious about school. To meet Georgetown’s entry requirements, she retook multiple English classes her senior year and scored higher grades.
“I don’t know that college was always the first thing on her mind,” says Williams-Flournoy, now coach at Auburn University. “But she had so many people close to her telling her college was the best thing for her. And Sugar has always been the type, she’s going to listen. She appreciates everything everyone does for her.”
Rodgers started all but one game in her career and led the Hoyas to an unprecedented run of success that included three NCAA tournament bids and one regional appearance. Rodgers was Big East freshman of the year, became the only Georgetown woman named first-team all-conference four times, and scored the most points (2,518) in Hoya basketball history.
The Minnesota Lynx chose her in the second round of the WNBA’s 2013 draft, but while the team won the championship her rookie season, Rodgers was stuck behind veterans and averaged fewer than eight minutes a game. She was traded to the New York Liberty before the 2014 season. Since then, given more responsibility and expectation, she’s gone from substitute to stalwart.
She is recognized as one of the WNBA’s most explosive shooters, although her athleticism can be deceptive. She often moves about the court with a shuffle, as if she’s trying to keep her slippers on.
Yet she is a scoring assassin and draws natural comparisons to NBA MVP Stephen Curry for her ability to catch the ball and launch a shot in a flash, from any distance. This combination of skills helped her emerge last season as a steady complement to the Liberty’s all-star forward Tina Charles. Rodgers
averaged 14.5 points and made 86 3-pointers – 2.6 per game, the second most in the WNBA. Her 41.3 percent accuracy from long range ranked fifth.
Those statistics likely would have propelled Rodgers to her first all-star game, but that event wasn’t held because the league took a break for the Summer Olympics. Still, Rodgers was chosen for an 11-player developmental squad that practiced with the gold-medal winning U.S. team before those Games.
Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, a famous former player for the NBA-champion Detroit Pistons, says Rodgers is far removed from the “chucker” she was when she entered the WNBA. “She would shoot every time, and bad shots,” he says. “But that was her responsibility in college, and she carried that mentality into this league.”
With the Liberty, Rodgers relentlessly tries to expand her game, Laimbeer says, working to create more shooting space for herself off the dribble, for instance. That focus has made fast friends of Rodgers and the team’s director of player development, Teresa Weatherspoon.
A Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, Weatherspoon says she is never surprised to get a text from Rodgers requesting a personal practice session, even after a game or a return from a road trip.
“Sometimes I have to stop her, because she already plays so many minutes for us,” Weatherspoon says. “But when you want to be great like she does, that’s what you do.”
Rodgers knows that the greater she plays, the greater stage she will have to share “her truth” as inspiration for others, Weatherspoon says. “She wants everyone to see her dream and her desire every night. Sugar Rodgers wants more out of this game than anyone can imagine.”
Basketball is her vehicle, but talent alone isn’t why Rodgers has overcome, says Williams-Flournoy, her coach at Georgetown. “It was more her mindset to not let her surroundings hold her back from all that was out there waiting for her,” she says. “Because at any point, she always could have gone the other direction.”
Sugar knows this, which is why she shares her message with anyone who will listen: Go to school. Stay in school. Circumstances don’t define you. Define yourself. That’s what she tells kids at the rec center on her visits home. And it’s the moral of the memoir A Bitter Sweet Life that Rodgers began writing during college and continues to work on. She’ll use that, too, to engage, lift and empower with her personal triumph.
“My mom always said there’s going to be cloudy, rainy days, and it’s all about how you get past them,” Rodgers says. “It was hard, but I’m past them.”