Inside the WNBA with Adrian Williams, Nicole Ohlde and Tamika Williams
By Susie Magill
Behind the screaming fans and autographs, the televised games and SportsCenter highlights, the contracts and growing fame, the life of a WNBA player isn’t what it seems. It goes much deeper than stardom. When the adrenaline subsides, there are real challenges facing the women about which few ever read. There is loneliness from being separated from friends and family. There are insecurities about being traded or injured. There are pressures to perform and win.
What, then, keeps these athletes going day in and day out? Why do they push themselves beyond their preconceived physical and emotional limits? For Adrian Williams, Nicole Ohlde and Tamika Williams of the Minnesota Lynx, it is their security in Christ and the support system provided by their team’s chaplain, Michelle Backes.
“Not many people in this world will understand the life of a professional athlete,” explained 6-4 forward Adrian Williams, who was picked up as a free agent by the Lynx this season. “We are less than 1 percent of the whole world. We have to deal with the specific stresses of being a professional athlete; but together through God we know we can encourage each other.”
It is this encouragement that is so important when developing relationships with other players. In such a short season, which lasts only four months, there is very little time to cultivate relationships. That is why Backes, who is in her sixth year as the Lynx’s chaplain, feels her job with the team is to provide a catalytic environment for such growth.
“An hour before tip-off, both teams come to chapel,” said Backes, whose husband, Ron, is an FCA area representative for North Metro Minnesota. “Even though it’s an hour before game time, these ladies come in, they’re sweating from warm-ups and they are hugging one another. Most of them have played with or against each other in college. They come to chapel, do their quick greetings and lose any animosity they might have. They are sisters, and for 15 minutes they are free to be sisters. They need that. They are ripped from a lot of their support groups and know they can find encouragement here at chapel.”
Not only are the ladies pulled from their friends and families during the season, they are constantly on the go. When they are not on 4:00 a.m., cross-country flights and bus rides, they are practicing and training for the next game.
Position: F, C
Born: February 15, 1977
College: Southern California ‘99
PPG: 7.2, RPG: 4.7
2003 WNBA All-Star
“It is a very fast life,” explained team captain Tamika Williams, who broke the WNBA single-season record for field-goal accuracy in 2003 (66.8%). “As we speak, we’re on a bus to the airport, and we’ll make our phone calls and then be on the plane. We will fly at least once a week. It’s kind of like bouncing back and forth.”
This fast-paced lifestyle can, and often does, take a toll on the players. Being physically tired and weak can affect their spiritual lives. As Backes has noticed, “When a player is tired and her coping skills are down, if she is not in the Word and not sharp with other people on the team holding her together, she can get worn down and make decisions that aren’t the best.”
That is why team accountability is so important to the Lynx. In addition to chapel before each game, Backes hosts weekly Bible studies. Through these studies the athletes are able to dig deeper into the Word, discuss real issues and hear godly advice.
“Sometimes I may not get that quiet time in, but I know that I am having a Bible study with Michelle, and I am still getting the Word in somehow, someway,” said the 6-5 Ohlde, now in her third season with the Lynx. “If we have any questions, no matter what the case may be, she is there for us. This helps because we are listening to someone who isn’t on the team and who has an outside perspective. And being with other people who may not want to fall into temptation helps you not to fall.”
As is the trend in professional sports, the WNBA is full of temptation, providing easy access to sin. From drugs to alcohol to sex, avoiding the “party scene” is easier said than done. When athletes are fighting loneliness, the last place they want to be after a tough game is in their hotel room alone.
“We go on the road and see a lot of our friends that we have on other teams, and we may want to go out with them,” said Ohlde. “A lot of people go and hang out, and that is the biggest temptation, just being around stuff I may not want to be around.”
Position: F, C
Born: March 13, 1982
College: Kansas State ‘04
PPG 10.5, RPG 6.4
Started all 34 games in 2005
“Sometimes not doing something is a great testimony,” added Adrian. “But it isn’t like I am going to be anti-social and just pull away from the team and not ever talk to them. I have out-grown the party scene, and I don’t feel that is the place where God wants me to be. I am sure at the right time my stance is going to help somebody.”
Backes continues to encourage the players to make right decisions—to be aware of Satan’s tactics and to find social activities that are God-honoring. “I just bring the ladies back to the Word and say, ‘Hey, God’s best is the best for us.’ We’re not perfect, but we have to be aware of the enemy. We talk about Satan setting ‘moving screens’ and how frustrating that is. But if we can identify him, we can deal with it.”
The “usual” temptations are not the only struggles facing these women. There are many ups and downs, wins and losses and pressures associated with their level of competition.
“What we go through is mentally challenging,” says Adrian. “If you don’t play well, not only do the fans get on you, but the players and the coaches, too. You start to doubt your abilities, doubt whether you should be in this league. And injuries are always your fault. I had a stress fracture and couldn’t play for three months, and it [felt] like I wasn’t strong enough. And then there is the chance of being traded. You never know what’s going to happen; you aren’t safe. There is always something that can change.”
Such uncertainties can cause players to turn to unhealthy relationships and negative habits in order to find consistency. But these women have realized that real confidence comes from a foundation in God.
“We are less than 1 percent of the whole world. We have to deal with the specific stresses of being a professional athlete; but together through God we know we can encourage each other.”
-Adrian Williams, pictured here (far left) at a Lynx Bible study
“The last couple of years I felt like I had to handle my confidence issues myself. I never really gave it to Him,” explains Tamika. “But my [pre-season] knee injury this year was the first time the game was taken away from me, and it made me think about other things. I don’t think God injured me, but it was something I had to go through and pray about. I really had to depend on my foundation.”
And Backes has noticed Tamika’s growth during this time, as well. “How she handled herself—with leadership—they were all watching, and she was awesome. She is very positive and has really grown comfortably into her leadership role.”
With Backes’ support through chapel and Bible study, the other players have deepened their spiritual relationships with Christ and one another, as well. Backes provides each of these ladies with opportunities to not only strengthen their spiritual lives, but to become better teammates and friends.
“It’s not just that they get to go to church through Sunday chapels, but they get to grow as women and be better people—to complete themselves,” adds Backes. “Tamika, Nicole and Adrian all know that as much as it’s about basketball, it’s not about basketball. They have a great perspective—they have basketball, basketball doesn’t have them.”