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How Skylar Diggins is building a brand that transcends the WNBA

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Diggins builds brand on and off the court (1:58)

Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins is one of the few WNBA players who doesn't need to play overseas in the offseason to make money. The two-time all-star discusses what has lead to her success in building her brand off the basketball court. (1:58)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 23 WNBA Issue. Subscribe today!

SKYLAR DIGGINS IS sitting in a booth in an empty restaurant near Manhattan's West Side Highway, telling stories about a subject that's intimately familiar to any woman who spends time on the internet: male trolls. The difference between Diggins and most women, of course, is that she has more than 600,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1 million on Instagram, which is more than any other female basketball player on the planet. It's more than the WNBA. So when she says she isn't terribly bothered by guys being rude to her online because "there are too many to count," I believe her. But that doesn't mean she ignores them. "I block people," she says, laughing. "I'm like Dikembe Mutombo."

I ask whether people ever give her crap in real life. "Rarely do fans come up to me and say" -- she impersonates a gruff male voice -- "'Diggins, I think your shorts should be a little shorter.'" She rests her arm on the banquette. "Ain't no man coming up to me and saying that."

When the waiter approaches, he fidgets a little, and I wonder whether he's trying to place her. At only 5-foot-9, it's not immediately obvious that Diggins is a professional basketball player, much less a WNBA All-Star. She's wearing a hoodie and leggings, with a light dusting of makeup (she just left a photo shoot), and her hair is pulled into a low, smooth ponytail. The waiter takes her order -- turkey burger, salad on the side -- then pauses, clearing his throat a little. "Um, are you by any chance Skylar Diggins?"

She nods. "I am."

"You are!" he says, something like relief seeping into his voice. "I recognized you right away. I'm a fan."

"I appreciate that, man," Diggins says. "What's your name?"

"Johan."

"You hoop?"

He smiles shyly. "I dabble."

"That's awesome," she says, beaming. Diggins has a jock's cool disposition, so when she smiles, it's transformative, like a ray of light passing through stained glass. In person, she is disarmingly beautiful, with hooded eyes, Ginsu knife -- sharp cheekbones and the kind of lips people pay for in Beverly Hills.

None of this has anything to do with Skylar Diggins the athlete -- the 25-year-old point guard who was shooting 45 percent from 3-point range before tearing her ACL last year, the terrifying competitor who once told her alumni magazine: "I lead with fear, not love." But it is certainly relevant to Skylar Diggins the brand. Since signing with Jay Z's Roc Nation in 2013 -- she's the sports agency's only female client -- she has done deals with the likes of Nike and BodyArmor, posed in Vogue and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and twerked on MTV's Wild N' Out. She's an advertiser's dream, the kind of celebrity who tests off the charts on public opinion surveys. "She's relatable. She's cool. She's relevant," says Michael Yormark, the president of Roc Nation. "She's incredibly marketable."

And yet, Skylar Diggins the athlete plays in the WNBA, which means that unlike the Serenas and Sharapovas and (every four years) Wambachs of the world, very few people watch her do what she does best. Her fame isn't a side effect of her labor, transmitted passively to millions via their TV sets at night. Instead, her brand is a project -- a job that she approaches with the same intensity she displays on the court. She has to work at it.

After Diggins leaves the restaurant, Johan, the waiter, tells me he recognized her from watching her play in college. Diggins led Notre Dame to two NCAA championship games. Although they lost both times, she graduated as the program's career scoring leader.

I ask him whether he's seen her play in the WNBA.

"What team is she on?" he replies. "I don't even know."

IT'S 7:30 A.M., and families are pouring into a park just north of Dallas, where Diggins is leading a March of Dimes walk. The city recently adopted her team, the Tulsa Shock, and renamed it the Dallas Wings. She's been here only a few days and has already made a number of public appearances -- a uniform unveiling, a draft party, a basketball camp.

Near the entrance to the park, a small crowd gathers in the sticky heat to watch as Diggins gives an interview to a local TV anchor. "What I think is fantastic is that you are a role model," says the reporter, a blond woman with a deep Texas accent. "In this day and age, you don't see that very much."

Diggins bounces on the balls of her feet, hands burrowed into the pockets of her warm-up pants. "I think it definitely comes with the territory," she replies. She glances past the camera at a little girl standing a few feet away, gaping with bashful awe. The kid's mother nudges her forward.

"She's been dying to meet you," she says. Diggins beckons the girl over, pulling her in for a photograph.

"You comin' to some games?" she asks, ever the ambassador. "I hope so."

When the interview wraps up, Diggins bounds over to her entourage. There's Daniel, her boyfriend, a tall graphic artist who played football at Notre Dame. (Whenever Daniel -- or "Honey," as she calls him -- makes an appearance on her Instagram, Diggins' female followers comment: "Goals.") There's a camera crew filming her for a short documentary for Jay Z's music streaming company, Tidal. There are her two trainers -- her aunt, Mona, and Mona's fiancé, Rick. And hovering nearby is one of her agents, Roc Nation's Jana Fleishman. Before Fleishman took on Diggins as a client, she had never represented an athlete. She's handled Jay Z's publicity for more than a decade.

Diggins scrolls through her various social media accounts and then corrals the group for a selfie. Over the course of the day, she will take a number of photographs and videos, posting a few of them online. She isn't precious about it; I never see her check her appearance or touch up her makeup beforehand. But she is purposeful, taking care in the ways she curates her public image.

Diggins learned this lesson early. In 2011, when she was just a sophomore, Lil Wayne tweeted before the Final Four: "Good lukk to my wife Skylar Diggins and the Fighting Irish." She replied, playfully: "Haha thanks Wayne! Mmmuah to my husband!" That day, Notre Dame stunned UConn; Diggins scored 28 points, besting player of the year Maya Moore in the process, and Wayne (who later appeared onstage in one of her jerseys) tweeted at her again. So did singer Chris Brown. Diggins' public profile exploded. When the tournament began, she had 5,000 followers. By that fall, she had more than 100,000.

She was still a college kid, but she was also a phenomenon. Notre Dame's women's games started to outdraw the men; the school added a security detail to follow the team on the road. After the Irish lost to Texas A&M in the 2011 final, she was scrutinized in the media for leaving the floor before the postgame handshake, retreating to the locker room in tears. "I don't know if I love winning more than I hate losing," she says.

A few months later, someone posted nude photos of a woman who looked like Diggins online, prompting Notre Dame's lawyers to reportedly issue cease-and-desist letters. When I ask her about the incident, she sits in silence for a minute, then finally replies: "There's no reason to address things like that."

When Diggins returned to the championship the following year, this time losing to Brittney Griner and Baylor, she dealt with the attention carefully, always quick to refract the spotlight to her teammates. But there was no denying her star power. After college she signed with Jay Z's fledgling sports agency. At the time, Roc Nation had only two clients: Robinson Cano and Victor Cruz. She says it was an easy decision: "Everything that Jay touches turns to gold." Later, when he gave her a gleaming white Mercedes as a graduation present, Diggins tweeted, "I got 99 problems but a BENZ ain't one."

Since then, she has shown up in places where you don't typically see WNBA stars: the Grammys, Fashion Week, BET's 106th and Park. When Kanye West performed at the Roc City Classic last year, she hosted alongside fellow Roc Nation athlete Kevin Durant and popular New York radio host Angie Martinez. After Drake posted a series of photographs of her on Instagram, captioning them, somewhat creepily, "Amen," she performed a skit with the singer at the 2014 ESPY Awards.

"Those are all things we've done strategically to put her in a position to raise her visibility," Yormark says. In addition to her deal with Nike, Diggins has worked with Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Sprint. She's developing a children's book and a documentary, both of which will come out this year. Yormark says he'd like to see her break into the beauty and automotive sectors. (Roc Nation declined to reveal the value of Diggins' endorsements.)

He takes pains to stress that Diggins has broad appeal, noting that with Nike, she's released a training app and promoted sports bras and headbands -- fitness accessories, not just basketball gear exclusively. Roc Nation's goal, Yormark explains, is to grow her audience beyond the limited number of people who watch the WNBA. "We felt she could transcend the sport."

SKYLAR DIGGINS IS very, very good at basketball. This should be clear by now, given the aforementioned accolades, but it bears repeating, because when we see a beautiful female athlete on a billboard or on the cover of a magazine, we've been conditioned to doubt the reasons for her being there. We're taught that God doesn't give (to women) with both hands.

After a slow rookie season in Tulsa, Diggins broke out in 2014. Her player efficiency rating jumped to 21.3 (10th in the league), and she averaged 20.1 points per game, second only to Maya Moore. One of her teammates, Plenette Pierson, says Diggins is extremely adept at reading defenses. She remembers a game last season in which the point guard surprised her by urging her to immediately hand it off after receiving a pass, creating an opportunity for Pierson to get open for a layup. "Skylar has a huge basketball IQ," she says.

"She's always been a great penetrator," says Greg Bibb, the Wings' GM, "but she's added an additional threat: She can hit that outside shot on a more consistent basis." In 2015, Diggins was playing at an MVP level, Bibb says. Then in late June, Diggins collapsed with 44 seconds left in a game after scoring a season-high 31 points. A few days later, the Shock announced she had torn her ACL. She spent the next few months rehabbing at Notre Dame, near her childhood home in South Bend. "Let us never speak of that again," she jokes when asked about it.

Now that she's back on her feet, she can't hide her pent-up energy, even during this charity walk. We're schlepping next to each other, hoisting a big purple March of Dimes banner, and Diggins shudders as we're passed by jogging dads and kids on roller skates. "We could finish this thing and run it," she tells me.

A few seconds later, she takes off.

Bibb says that despite Diggins' injury, re-upping her contract in March was a no-brainer. "The way she has approached rehabilitation, to get herself back to that level, has been really impressive -- her work ethic is elite," he says. He adds, unprompted, that while "the general public awareness around her and her brand" will surely help the team, the decision to extend Diggins "was solely made based on basketball."

It's undeniable that the league is still looking for an effective marketing message. The WNBA needs stars to draw people to games. But those same players also need the league to keep them relevant. "If you're a professional basketball player and people aren't watching basketball, it's limiting," says Matt Delzell, managing director at the Marketing Arm, an agency that negotiates endorsements for companies like AT&T and Unilever. His company commissions weekly surveys to gauge perceptions of celebrities and found that while Diggins scores extremely high in categories like appeal and trust (next to NFL star J.J. Watt), she ranks low in awareness. "She's looked at as an aspirational person, but she just doesn't have the reach yet," Delzell says.

The league's push for recognition is hindered, Diggins explains, by logistics. Because the season lasts only a few months, many spend the rest of the year overseas. "That's where the money is," she says. "But it's hard to get someone to endorse a product when they're not here." Before her injury last year, Diggins was planning to play in China for a few months. She's considering it again, though she says it's important to her to spend part of the offseason in the U.S. focusing on her team, her new city and her business.

Last year WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes told espnW that while Diggins was clearly good for the game, she "has got to start doing more for the league." But such criticism is hard to reconcile with the point guard's activities off the court. Over the course of a single day, I saw her plug the Wings at least a dozen times, in tweets, photos and casual conversation. Pierson says that while Diggins has achieved notoriety, she puts the game first: "She knows basketball is the reason she's gotten here."

Diggins says she cares about growing the WNBA but rejects the idea that its survival rests on her shoulders. "It can't just be us -- that's a lot of pressure," she says. "And it takes away from you building your individual life. I'm gonna be in this league through 2019 at least, right? Could be five years after that. It could be one year after that and I'm done. Then what?"

She isn't sure what she'll do when her playing days are over, but she thinks it'll be in the business realm. She admires moguls, citing a recent meeting with Magic Johnson as inspiration. Diggins studied entrepreneurship in college, and it's clear -- from the way she crafts her social persona to the sponsors she chooses to work with -- that she's eager to put those lessons to use. When I ask her what kind of company she'd like to build, she gives me an isn't-it-obvious look.

"I am my brand," she says.

LATER THAT NIGHT, at UT Arlington's basketball gym, Diggins is shooting a commercial for a sports drink called BodyArmor. (Mike Trout, Dez Bryant and James Harden are also endorsers.) She heads to the locker room for hair and makeup.

Diggins says she doesn't mind the attention paid to her looks, but it irritates her when she's presented as an exception to some unwritten biological rule. "'You don't look like a basketball player' -- what does that mean? What's a basketball player supposed to look like?"

I ask Diggins why she uses the hashtag #BATB, which stands for Beauty and the Beast. "A lot of times they don't talk about women athletes -- they don't show us having both," she says. "But you can have both. You can be a feminine woman and a beast on the court. You don't have to choose."

While a makeup artist applies false eyelashes, Diggins pulls up Tidal on her phone; the first track that comes on is Beyonce's "Formation." I ask if she's heard the Azealia Banks song named after her and she grins slyly. "I'm just glad I'm one of the people she likes." (Banks is notoriously combative.) When I mention that The Game, another rapper, has name-checked her in two songs, Fleishman pulls up the lyrics on her phone.

"Got a squad full of chicks, I ain't dropping names; they all ball like the girl that play for Notre Dame. What's her name? Skylar Diggins, yeah that's right ..."

Diggins laughs. "I made it!"

Today's commercial will run online only; Diggins has yet to appear in a major television campaign. She has more deals than the average WNBA player, but her portfolio pales next to her male counterparts'. She sees this inequity for what it is: a challenge. Another game she can win. Before she signed with Roc Nation, she tells me, she met with agents who told her that her prospects as an endorser were limited because of her sport. "'All you can do is play basketball,' that's what I was told," she says, indignation creeping into her voice. "It was crazy to me that a big agency would talk to me like that."

The BodyArmor ad centers on Diggins working out after hours, a glimpse at the solitary grind necessary for greatness. After nailing a dozen shots, Diggins sets up cones for a pick-and-pop drill, attempting to hit three long-range shots in a row. When she misses one, her mouth twists with frustration, and she mutters something under her breath. On her second attempt she bricks another one and cries out. It isn't until she misses again and throws her hands up in the air that I realize Diggins isn't acting -- that she's so relentlessly driven, so hyper­focused on winning, both in and away from the game, that she actually cares about making a meaningless shot whose only witnesses are her entourage.

Diggins spins toward the corner where we're watching. "Can y'all get out?"

We all jump to our feet, scurrying toward the door. No one says a word.

A few minutes later, Diggins bursts out of the gym, carrying a ball in one hand. She walks past us, heading toward the exit, so we wait. Eventually, she returns. The group quietly files into the weightlifting room, where the cameraman is going to shoot another sequence, and Diggins sits on the bench. While she's stretching, I approach her, somewhat anxiously, and ask: "Did you make them?"

She looks up and smiles. It's the kind of smile that makes rivals wither and fans click "follow," a smile that can sell cars and sneakers and anything with or without a price tag. It's a smile that's genuine, because it's born of both swagger and sweat.

It's a smile that says: Hell yes, I did.