Undrafted Miami native Erica Wheeler scores 25, named MVP of WNBA All-Star Game

WNBA star Erica Wheeler hosts basketball camp

Miami native Erica Wheeler, from Little Haiti and Liberty City to WNBA All-Star. She is the only non-drafted player in this weekend's WNBA All-Star Game and just the fifth in league history.
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Miami native Erica Wheeler, from Little Haiti and Liberty City to WNBA All-Star. She is the only non-drafted player in this weekend's WNBA All-Star Game and just the fifth in league history.

Mid-July is the time of year Erica Wheeler usually retreats into a shell, in no mood for chit-chat or social situations. Her mother, whom she worshipped and whose image is tattooed on her leg and back, died of cancer July 17, 2012, just after Wheeler’s junior season at Rutgers University.

Wheeler was so devastated she sank into a deep depression, nearly quit college and lost all motivation for basketball. She still has a hard time talking about it.

But this July, for the first time in seven years, she is in a giddy mood.

Wheeler, who grew up in Little Haiti and Liberty City, was named Most Valuable Player of Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas after scoring a game-high 25 points with seven assists. Her seven three-pointers tied an All-Star Game record. The Indiana Fever guard was the first undrafted player in league history to win MVP at the All-Star Game.

She got emotional accepting the MVP award and dedicated it to her late-mother.

At the post-game press conference, wearing a t-shirt that said “UNDRAFTED” in large, bold letters, Wheeler said: “My confidence was through the roof because I had a chip on my shoulder. I knew I was the only undrafted player, I don’t have a shoe contract. For me, it was to make my point, and I think I did that because I’m a no-name. So, I think I left today with a name everyone can remember.”

Even before the game, Wheeler was feeling inspired.

“This month is super sensitive and touchy for me, so getting this news right around the same week my Mom died is a reminder that God is on time,” Wheeler said by phone last week. “He comes when you need him. He knew this is the moment when I usually shut the world out, and he was like, `Nah, we’re not going to let you do that this time. We’re going to take a different route.’’’

Reaching this milestone is especially remarkable considering the path Wheeler, 28, took to get here.

She spent her early childhood with 12 family members crammed into her grandmother’s three-bedroom house in Little Haiti. Her mother, Melissa Cooper, ran a beauty salon at the Liberty City Flea Market. At age 11, Wheeler, her mother and two sisters moved to Liberty City, where they lived near the Scott Housing project and Liberty Square project (colloquially referred to as “Pork ‘n’ Beans”). By the time she turned 17, she had seen two friends killed — one by gunshot, one stabbed.

Football was her first love, but once the boys started getting too rough, she switched to basketball. Coach Tony Hill introduced her to the game at Range Park. She played for Coach King at the Gwen Cherry Boys and Girls Club team, and eventually joined an AAU team. She played as a freshman for coach Adam Hopkins at Monsignor Pace High and followed him to Parkway, where they won two state titles and she was named McDonald’s All-American.

After initially committing to the University of Miami, Wheeler decided a move from Miami was in her best interest, so she went to Rutgers to play for Hall of Fame coach Vivian Stringer.

“Vivian came to my house and met my Mom and told her, `Your daughter’s going to have a degree. She’s going to learn etiquette, learn how to talk and carry herself.’ That is what I needed. I’m from Miami, Liberty City, pork ‘n’ beans, rough around the edges. You know how we talk, so Rutgers definitely molded me into the woman I am now, and Vivian has a lot to do with it.”

When Wheeler lost her mother and called Stringer to tell her she wasn’t planning to return to school for her senior season, Stringer got on a plane and flew to Miami for a heart-to-heart. “I told her I didn’t see my purpose anymore with my mom gone. Vivian said, `I made a promise to your Mom and that was to make sure you graduate. We can’t have her upset at us.’”

Wheeler also got a pep talk — and a sizable donation to help pay for her mother’s funeral — from former NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer. The two shared a trainer and had met a few weeks before her mother died.

“I barely knew Booz, but he said he was impressed with my passion for the game, and he liked that I treated him like a regular guy, not an NBA star,” Wheeler said. “He sent a check to help cover our costs, and reached out to me when I was named an All-Star too, told me he was proud of me.”

Wheeler returned to Rutgers and earned a 3.9 GPA the fall semester of her senior year, her highest GPA over the four years. She graduated with a degree in Labor Studies in 2013, but went undrafted.

She worked two jobs at a True Religion clothing store and as a youth counselor at a drug rehab facility in New Jersey. Later that year, her friend Dayshalee Salaman invited her to join her pro team in Puerto Rico for $200 a week. Although it meant a giant pay cut, Wheeler accepted the offer.

“I knew it was my calling,” she said. “God was putting me back into my dream. It wasn’t about the money. It was about getting back to what I loved the most. The team was 0-7 when I got there, and we won the championship. I averaged 30 points, had a real chip on my shoulder. I was hungry and angry, and took it out on everyone in front of me.”

From there, she played a half season in Turkey, and then moved to a team in Recife, Brazil, where she played alongside de Souza, who recommended her to Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper.

And, so began Wheeler’s WNBA career. In four seasons with the Fever, she has become the fifth undrafted player in league history to score 1,000 points and get 500 assists.

“For me to get blessed with this accolade is beyond just being an All-Star; for me, it’s bigger than that,” said Wheeler, who is 5-7. “Nobody in Miami has ever done what I’ve done. Sylvia Fowles is from Miami, and she’s an All-Star, but she got drafted. Nobody’s done it my way. So, it’s super special. I am really proud of it.”

Wheeler said she “nearly passed out” in the locker room when she got the news from the league office last week. She asked if they were pranking her. When they assured Wheeler they were serious, she broke down and cried.

“The strife in her early life has served as motivation,” Fever coach Pokey Chatman said. “She’s small, but she has fight like a little pit bull. She’s not going to be deterred. She’s extremely coachable. Some players can only be patted on the back. You can pat her on the back, poke her in the chest, coach her hard. Also, she gives positive energy to others. You’d think she’s a first-round draft pick and eight-time All-Star the way she gives positive vibes to everyone else.”

Asked how her Mom would react to the news, Wheeler said: “She’d be crying, doing backflips, going nuts. She’d probably be bragging a lot. She’d be on top of the world.”

Last winter, Wheeler held a camp for girls in Miami and 130 showed up. She plans to do it again this year.

“I shared my story,” she said. “I told them, `I was one of you guys just recently, chasing my dream.’ I hope it gives the youth hope that you can achieve greater things despite where you come from. Don’t use where you come from as an excuse because I could have easily used where I came from as an excuse, but I didn’t. I found a way to persevere and create a future for myself.”