Former hoop star Valerie Still: 'It's no longer about being successful but being significant'

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Valerie Still is the leading scorer and rebounder in the University of Kentucky's basketball history for both men and women.

Eight years ago, former WNBA player Valerie Still's mother, Gwendolyn, unexpectedly died. Still, the leading rebounder and scorer in University of Kentucky basketball history, turned to writing to help cope with her mother's death. 

"We lived in Camden, New Jersey, which is one of the poorest and crime-infested cities in the United States. My mother was raising 10 children and I don't know how she did it besides having the spiritual fortitude," Still told espnW. "Her spirituality kept her going. My mom didn't leave us any monetary inheritance and yet every day I live by her philosophy. I've survived because of that."

Still's story, told in her new memoir, "Playing Black and Blue: Still I Rise," which is out now, touches on her upbringing, her rise to basketball fame and the importance of understanding vulnerability.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

espnW: As an elite athlete who has had many successes -- for example, you were the first woman to have her jersey retired at the University of Kentucky and inducted in the charter class of Kentucky's Hall of Fame -- what does success look like in the form of writing a book?

Valerie Still: I thought success would be having the book published and having it out there, but success now is about how it can help someone else. For me, it's no longer about being successful but being significant. Everything I do now is about how can I be significant because success is all about yourself and ego, whereas significance is about giving to others.

espnW: You played pro basketball in Europe and then you moved back to Lexington, Kentucky, where you met Bernadette Locke-Mattox -- at the time she was the assistant coach to Rick Pitino. Commenting on her in the book you write, 'Many wondered if gender discrimination was beginning to crumble in sports.' Why has so little changed since then?

VS: You have to wonder if it was just based on a publicity stunt, and I write about this in the book. I look to Becky Hammon being possibly the first female head coach of an NBA team and we have not based the process on her gender. Differences and misconception about race, gender, sexuality and any of those things are socially constructed and it is hard to break those kinds of misconceptions down. When you break them down like we were able to do in 1983 with the woman's basketball team, it's noteworthy because we did it at a school which is a male-dominant powerhouse.

espnW: You also write that 'the secret of life isn't about what was externally happening but discovering one's authentic self.' How prevalent is this for elite athletes who come from nothing to abundance, who are so focused on the physical part of their career?

VS: I think a lot of the athletes are going through what I went through. You are being told all you are needed for is your body. That is physical and that is kind of like enslavement without consciousness. How many professional athletes end up with nothing? You are constantly judged by what you can do physically. Followed by what you have. For instance, you get asked what kind of house do you live in? What kind of car do you drive? This is supposed to tell them who we are. I look at LeBron James and admire him so much. Even in his situation of being a top-ranked elite athlete, he has chosen to take a stand on social and political issues and events. You look around and they love you now for what you can do for their schools, but you are not going to be around forever and you can be replaced.

espnW: What should new athletes do differently in the future going into college or the WNBA in order to attain this level of consciousness? Taking into account your full consciousness didn't come until later.

VS: Whether you are athletes or not, I think each person is looking for peace, love and harmony. When you look on television, you see so many people being bombarded and so many negative things in play. True nature wants a place where you can enjoy peace.

espnW: You talk about knowing vulnerability, a skill you once thought to be a weakness. It seems easier in retrospect; how does vulnerability help an athlete at the peak of their performance?

VS: My mother used to always say this, 'don't mistake my meekness for my weakness,' and that is vulnerability. Being vulnerable is not being weak. Vulnerability is being strong. It is saying I recognize I'm humbled, and in this way I'm more empowered. This is like going into the zone for athletes. People always respected me for being the oldest player in the league and it had nothing to do with my ability, but my mental fortitude.

Joshua Odoi is a writer living in New York City. He holds a Master of Science degree from Cleveland State University, where he studied Industrial Engineering, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from the University of Kentucky. Currently, he is earning a Master of Science in Technology Management at Columbia University.

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