Pro stars give back to aspiring players

The first time Alana Beard traveled 1,700 miles across the country to play basketball, the guard from Shreveport, La., got so homesick that she cried herself to sleep.

But Beard, now with the Washington Mystics, didn't have much of a choice. The club team she played with in Shreveport didn't have the money to travel extensively. If she wanted exposure, she would have to go elsewhere.

Beard has never forgotten the mixture of frustration and heartbreak she felt during that time. So she's decided that prospects won't have to deal with the same problems she did.

Beard is one of a handful of professional players -- current and former -- who are giving back to the game, volunteering their time, expertise and money into the upcoming crop of girls basketball players across the nation.

Shortly after Beard was drafted by the Mystics in 2004, she established the Alana Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsors six club teams in the D.C. area -- known as Alana Beard's Future -- as well as one team in Shreveport, the Southern Mystics.

"I'm so inspired and encouraged to give back," said Beard, explaining that her foundation aims to create "an environment with no excuses."

Beard does more than donate her money and name to some of the best players in the Maryland area, though; she is the all-involved big sister, helping throw birthday parties, joining the drills at practice and acting as cheerleader during games.

"The first time she was in the gym it's was like, 'Alana's here! Alana's here!'," said Camille Calhoun, a 2013 forward on the Future Chestnut team. "But with our team now, it's cool, she comes on the court with us and watches us. She's one of my friends now."

Beard can also provide a pick-me-up when needed.

"One player broke her leg and we had told Alana and she had flowers delivered to her the next morning," said Future coach Keith Chestnut. "She really loves the girls."

But Beard isn't the only WNBA player who still is still involved in the high-school circuit. The Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi, of UConn fame, is also giving back.

The guard from Chino, Calif., spent her teenage years playing for the Cal Storm of Santa Barbara and is still a part of the program, letting their top team use her name and helping outfit them with gear.

"She's very limited in terms of her involvement physically because of her schedule, but she basically supports our Team Taurasi with apparel," explained Cal Storm coach George Quintero. "They had it all last year -- headbands, wristbands, shooting shirts, playing shoes, shoes to walk around in. They were pretty decked out."

Taurasi might not be able to be in gyms physically, but she's often there in other ways. Quintero says Taurasi will occasionally send him an inspirational text before a big game to read to the team.

"Just a text, that's all they need," Quintero said. "Their eyes just light up."

Beard says she already has plans for a mini-rivalry or tournament with other pro-player sponsored teams at some point.

"I mentioned it to Tamika Catchings and I told Marissa Coleman it would be cool for her to get a team," Beard said. "We're gonna get some sort of rivalry going, have Tamika Catching's team playing Alana Beard's Future playing Team Taurasi, stuff like that."

Giving back to the game is something Gerald Wilkins has practicing for years. The former New York Knick founded PREP -- Players Returning to Educate Players -- in 2002, a foundation dedicated to helping the next generation of ballers.

"The game gave a lot to me," said Wilkins, who coaches the Georgia Metros 15U team that includes his daughter, Holli. "Lots of pro players retire and try to do something else, then they find their way back. You have 25 years of skills and education, so you do what they do best."

Wilkins is in the midst of building a gym where PREP can train more young players and says he's optimistic it will continue to grow. And just like Wilkins, Beard insists that giving back isn't that unusual, or something she should be praised for.

"I don't like to get credit for things I'm supposed to do," she said. "I'm supposed to do this. I want to give kids every avenue to succeed."

Beard would have talked more, but she didn't have time -- she was on her way out the door to catch tipoff of a Future game.

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Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at lindsay@hoopgurlz.com.