McCoughtry now 'living my own life'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If I said this were a story about a WNBA player who talked about doing yoga and feeling refreshed ... who said she is learning to appreciate sunsets, cookouts and walks in the park ... who uses terms like "relaxed" and "lightness" to describe her current state of mind ... whom might you guess it was?

Probably not Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry, right? While being one of the best women's basketball players in the world the last several years, McCoughtry often has been paired with adjectives like complex, intense, inscrutable, mercurial and moody.

If you talked to her teammates, they'd tell you that she could be the most compassionate, funny and thoughtful friend, someone they really loved. But that her frustrations at times simply got the best of her and it would come out on court.

McCoughtry knew this, and it's not as if she didn't care how she was perceived. She did and still does. From the time she was a star at Louisville, trying to change negative body language at the behest of Cardinals coach Jeff Walz, McCoughtry has seemed to have periodic tugs-of-war with her emotions.

"I always wanted to be perfect for my family and parents," McCoughtry said, "and always wanted to make them proud."

McCoughtry talked about all this last week in the KFC Yum! Center, the gleaming facility alongside the Ohio River in downtown Louisville where the Cardinals basketball teams now play. She and the Dream, who will start the season June 5, competed in a WNBA exhibition doubleheader in Louisville on Saturday.

It was her first time playing in that arena, which opened in October 2010. McCoughtry, who capped her senior year in 2009 with the program's first trip to the Women's Final Four, played her games at Louisville in Freedom Hall.

And while it's merely happenstance that was the name of her home arena in college, it's still kind of interesting. Because "freedom" is a word that comes up a lot with McCoughtry now.

She's begun to feel the freedom to discover more about who she really is beyond being a basketball star. The freedom to not feel the weight of the Dream is all on her shoulders. The freedom to let go some of the past bad feelings or disappointing times. Entering her seventh season in the WNBA, the former No. 1 draft pick thinks her best days are ahead.

"Honestly, I feel like this is my fresh start," McCoughtry said.

A big part of that is publicly acknowledging a very important person in her life, her fiancé Brande Elise, whom she met when Elise interviewed her for her blog about life in Atlanta. The other key part is understanding that as good a player as she's been in a successful pro career -- which includes two WNBA season scoring titles and a career average of 19.4 points per game -- she has tangible ways to improve that will make the Dream better.

"Prior to me coming here, you hear all the bad things that have gone on," said coach Michael Cooper, in his second season with the Dream. "I think Angel's been a misunderstood person, but she's the ultimate competitor. She understands the team concept better now.

"She's being a little more vocal than she ever was in the past. She has totally changed this year; I see a different person in her all the way around."

A difficult parting brings an awakening

At 28, McCoughtry feels more enthusiastic about the start of the WNBA season than she has in a long time. That's something good that came from something very unpleasant in her overseas career.

In February, McCoughtry left Fenerbahce, the Turkish club for which she'd played for five years. In late March, she posted on Instagram that team management had been uncomfortable with a published story about her engagement to Elise.

McCoughtry said the team told her to write a letter denying that she was in a same-sex relationship. At first -- worried about losing her job there -- she complied.

"I did it because I wanted to continue to play for that team," McCoughtry said. "But I shouldn't have to write a fake letter lying about who I love. Actually, most of the fans were really supportive; they were like, 'We don't care; we love you.' The team was too involved in my personal life, and it was good for me to move on."

McCoughtry felt the team misrepresented what happened, by saying she broke her contract and left. She said she had stopped receiving paychecks, along with the dispute over her personal life.

"I was never comfortable with myself, and I think that was a big part of my frustrations in life. But when I met [my fiance], she really helped me to just be who I am and love myself. I came out." Angel McCoughtry

Turkey has been a popular place for several WNBA players, some of whom are gay, to play in recent years. But the country has struggled with its attitude and acceptance toward LGBT people. Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but there are no legal protections for LGBT people in regard to housing or employment. There are four openly LGBT candidates running for parliament in the upcoming June election; if any win, that would be first in the nation's history.

As Amnesty International's Andrew Gardner told NBC News reporter Alistair Jamieson in a story published this week, "There is a degree of acceptance, and many [LGBT] people are able to lead normal lives in Turkey. However, it is also a country badly served by its government and its media in terms of the negative stereotypes about gay people. The government is incredibly reluctant to recognize that people have rights or any protection in law."

Initially, it was not McCoughtry's intention to become a kind of activist for LGBT rights, or even to put her private life into the public forum. To the contrary, she'd had a difficult time herself with reconciling things she had begun to understand versus beliefs she'd previously held.

"I was never comfortable with myself, and I think that was a big part of my frustrations in life," McCoughtry said. "But when I met Brande, she really helped me to just be who I am and love myself. I came out, and it was really hard because my dad is a retired pastor; I grew up with [being in a same-sex relationship] as not being the way to live.

"My mind was in a box, growing up. But as I got older, I realized people are people; you can't categorize them for who they love. And why is love a bad thing? It should never be a bad thing."

McCoughtry took a big step at the end of March with the social-media post that gave her side of the dispute with Fenerbahce. While she had previously posted photographs of herself and Elise at events, this was a direct acknowledgment of the relationship and the discrimination she felt she had experienced.

She wasn't sure how it would be accepted, but has been gratified by the messages of support.

"It was really nerve-wracking coming out; I didn't want to embarrass anyone, or for my family to not be proud of me," McCoughtry said. "But I've never felt so much freedom in my life. It's this lightness; you feel so relaxed. You don't have to hide or be tense, you can just live your life. Then I had so many wonderful comments, and some people asking me for advice. I wasn't expecting it to turn out this positive."

Moving forward

A few years ago, McCoughtry spoke of an alter-ego, Lori Ann, whom she said was like a separate entity inside her -- the one who was so fierce and intense while playing basketball.

McCoughtry can do dead-pan humor so well, it actually can be hard to tell when -- or how much -- she's kidding. So it was difficult to measure the degree to which "Lori Ann" was her semi-comical way of coping with that side of her personality, and how much she really wrestled with that duality.

Managing her emotions throughout her career has been a challenge for a variety of reasons: her perfectionist streak, her tendency to take on too much individually in a team sport, her feelings of being misunderstood.

No one was harder on McCoughtry than I was in 2012, when a ton of in-season drama and unhappiness led to then-Dream coach Marynell Meadors being fired. McCoughtry said that surprised her, and she felt bad about it. She now says she could have handled that season and its disputes better.

"I think Angel's been a misunderstood person, but she's the ultimate competitor. She understands the team concept better now. ... She has totally changed this year; I see a different person." Michael Cooper

But it's all been part of a growth process that McCoughtry was willing to talk about with me, for which I give her credit. McCoughtry wants to be seen as a leader and a spokeswoman for the Dream, the WNBA and the sport. She has gold medals from the 2012 Olympics and the 2010 and '14 world championships. She has proven she can fit well into those talent-stuffed rosters.

Now, she hopes for a championship with the Dream. Atlanta has been to the WNBA finals three times -- in 2010, '11, and '13 -- but has yet to win a game, losing in 3-0 sweeps. In each scenario, the Dream were the perceived underdog -- versus Seattle and then Minnesota twice -- but the losses still ate away at McCoughtry.

"It used to weigh on me a lot," she said. "I would be so hard on myself. I felt I let down the fans and the city of Atlanta. They wanted a championship so bad, but it wasn't our time.

"I feel like when our time will be, it will be. We want to play hard and do what we can to win it. I feel like we have paid our dues, so hopefully it will come soon."

Cooper, who won WNBA titles with Los Angeles in 2001 and '02, said he sees similarities with how then-Sparks star Lisa Leslie developed her game and what he thinks McCoughtry is on the verge of doing as well.

"From working with Lisa Leslie, and through my days of playing with Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], I knew great players need their teammates," Cooper said. "That makes you a greater player. I think Angel has that down now.

"You look at that second game against Chicago last year in the playoffs: She put us on her back and carried us. That's what she can do. But at the same time, you've got to be able to make other players better."

"I think I can be a great leader now. I feel like this could be my best year ever. I just want to continue to help my team and the community." Angel McCoughtry

The third game of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season still bothers the Dream. They seemed to have the series wrapped up at home -- up 17 points with 8 minutes to go -- but then Elena Delle Donne and the Sky rallied for an improbable 81-80 win.

For Atlanta, which had the top seed in the East, it was a missed opportunity at another potential run to the league title. But McCoughtry is not dwelling on that. As she said, looking forward is the only way to go.

And as difficult as the situation was in Turkey, the positive to it is that she got a much longer rest in the winter and early spring.

"I think that's brought my energy back," McCoughtry said. "I used to come back from overseas and be kind of zombie-like, mentally. I would be so drained to start the [WNBA] season. Now I'm excited to be back, pumped up, and wanting to help other players."

What McCoughtry still means to Louisville athletics was obvious in the response the fans had toward her last weekend. She's from Baltimore, but Louisville is like a second hometown. She was a program-changer, and still hopes to see a national championship for the Cardinals women.

Of course, she wants a title for the Dream, as well. And in just over a year, she's expected to be part of the U.S. women's squad that goes for a sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal at the Rio Games.

It's unrealistic to think that McCoughtry won't ever again have any "Angel moments" on court where the cauldron looks as if it's going to boil over. McCoughtry is too passionate a personality and a player to completely avoid that. But as she navigates her way through a broadened understanding of herself, she hopes to get her emotions to serve her better.

She now does yoga -- Elise introduced her to that -- and takes more time to connect with people around her. She looks to calm herself when everything inside pushes her toward frustration. To savor that newfound freedom.

"Once I established I was living my own life, I think I can be a great leader now," McCoughtry said. "I feel like this could be my best year ever. I just want to continue to help my team and the community.

"I know not everybody agrees with or supports my decision. That's just how it is. But I at least want to show them that, you know, I'm a good person who wants to do the right things in life."