Atlanta Dream Rookie Shoni Schimmel was named the MVP of this weekend's WNBA All Star game after an amazing, record-breaking performance.
Here is Part II of our feature story on the sensational Native American player whose impact extends far beyond the basketball court.
In 2013, Shoni, Jude and the Louisville Cardinals entered the NCAA Tournament as a #5 seed. No one was expecting them to make any major noise during March Madness, especially since their last game during the regular season had been a 24-point loss to Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament.
In the opening round, Shoni scored 20 points as the Cardinals defeated Middle Tennessee State, 74-49. Against higher-seeded Purdue, with a chance to advance to the sweet 16, Louisville pulled out a 76-63 win, led by Sara Hammond’s 21 points and 10 rebounds. Shoni scored 14 and Jude, as is her modus operandi, was a quiet force in her 25 minutes of action, leading the team with six assists while also accumulating seven points, eight steals and four rebounds.
But the game was closer than the final score indicated. The teams were evenly matched for about the game’s first 15 minutes and the entire second half. But Shoni’s back-to-back 3-pointers with 5:00 left in the first half changed the tenor of the game’s personality, inciting a 20-5 run that the Boilermakers couldn’t overcome.
With a record of 26-8, Louisville left the comfortable confines of the KFC Yum! Center en route to Oklahoma City, where they’d be facing one of the most dominant teams in the history of women’s college basketball, the Baylor Bears, and their transcendent superstar Brittney Griner.
The Lady Bears had gone 40-0 the previous season in capturing the National Championship. They had only one blemish on their record in 2013, a November loss to Stanford in Hawaii in which their other star player, Odyssey Sims, barely played due to an injury.
Having won 74 out of their last 75 games, demolishing their first two tournament opponents by 42 and 38 points, and with the superfluously talented Griner dominating in ways that hadn’t been seen in women’s basketball, the game seemed like nothing more than a pit stop on Baylor’s ceremonial parade to a second consecutive title.
But somebody forgot to tell that to Louisville. In the pregame locker room, Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz again went over the team’s planned defensive strategy for Griner. He called it the ‘Claw and One,’ where one Louisville defender would be in front of the Baylor star at all times, another one behind her, and another one on her periphery ready to converge whenever she received the ball.
“I think I could smell what toothpaste she used,” Cardinals guard Antonita Slaughter joked after the game. “I was in her face the whole time with my hands up.”
Offensively, the game plan was simple. And he had the perfect player to execute it.
“Our goal was to score, score, score,” said Walz in the postgame press conference. “I told our kids if we had to take 40 to 50 three’s, we would…I told our kids before the game, ‘We’ve got to turn this thing into a street ballgame. You’ve got to drive, kick for three’s and make it fun.’”
In all of college basketball, no player fit that ‘fun’ job description more than Shoni Schimmel.
Louisville made an astounding 64% of their three’s, connecting on 16 of their 25 attempts. Slaughter scored 21 points and went 7 for 9 from beyond the three point stripe. Jude made both of her three-pointers of the bench, and added five rebounds and three steals. And Shoni sizzled, leading the team with 22 points and three steals in Louisville’s dramatic 82-81 victory.
In Baylor’s previous tournament games, Griner touched the ball on 46 percent of her team’s possessions. Against Louisville, she only touched the ball a scant 22 percent.
The outcome is considered by many to be the biggest upset in the history of women’s college hoops. And it was all encapsulated in one dynamic sequence by the most exciting player in the country.
YOU JUST GOT SCHIMMEL’D!
With 9:54 remaining in the second half, Shoni collected the outlet pass off of an errant Baylor shot. She broke into a sprint, zooming down the right side of the floor. As she crossed half court, she eyed Griner a few steps ahead, all 6-foot-8 of her, galloping down the middle of the floor to protect the rim and challenge the shot. As she approached the top of the key, Shoni accelerated and executed a tight behind-the-back dribble in full stride, poised to attack the rim.
With the hot-shooting Slaughter stationed behind the three-point line, no one expected Shoni to challenge Griner and her pterodactyl-like wingspan. Griner’s 736 career blocked shots is the NCAA record for men and women. She’s one of the greatest shot blockers the game has ever seen.
Conventional thinking said that it was foolhardy to challenge Brittney Griner. It’s a failing proposition. But geniuses sometimes flout conformist beliefs in search of greatness.
The ‘Avoid Griner’ philosophy is the same line of reasoning that Shoni has battled to get here, the one that says Native Americans can’t succeed off the reservation, that they’ll quit and give up and come limping back when things get hard. But Shoni’s a fighter. She’s a trailblazer. Tell her that she can’t do something, like her brother telling her that she couldn’t beat boys, and she’s determined to make a mockery of it.
Shoni barreled into the lane and elevated, floating to the left side of the rim. Griner jumped to the sky and hovered like a human helicopter, her right arm and massive hand passing over Shoni’s head like a lunar eclipse. Instinctively, Shoni twisted her body in mid-flight to create some separation. Utilizing her back as a buffer, she had just enough of a cushion to roll an insanely, delightfully luscious shot attempt off.
In mid-flight, she raised the ball with her right hand. As Griner zeroed in on smacking the air out of the ball, Shoni pulled it back down, tapped it with her left hand and then flipped it upwards, all while looking away from the basket. It kissed of the glass with delicate tenderness and cue-ball English. As the ball dropped through the net, the refs blew their whistles, signaling a foul on Griner.
After falling to the ground, Shoni jumped up in Griner’s face. Amped, she yelled something in the heat of the competitive moment. She’s never shared the exact words that she barked. With all of the adrenaline flowing, it was a spontaneous verbal explosion that was probably along the lines of, “Yeah! What up, son! You just got Schimmel’d!!!”
Any underdog who has ever truly played elite-level, competitive basketball against a fearsome opponent not only understood the moment, it also gave them goose bumps.
“I was just so excited that it actually went in…I was just hyped,” Shoni said during a televised interview with ESPN. “I was just showing emotion after being able to score against Brittney Griner.”
LOVE AND BASKETBALL
During the more than 24-hour drive from Portland to Oklahoma City, a trip that the Schimmel parents had depleted their savings to make, Ceci thought the turnaround would be a quick one. She didn’t think that Louisville would be able to beat heavily-favored Baylor. Rick reminded her that the game was on Easter Sunday, a day of miracles.
“Sadly, I have to put my mom in the category with everyone else,” Jude told the Associated Press. “So she told my dad, ‘If these guys beat Baylor, then I’ll marry you.’”
The day after the win against Baylor, Rick and Ceci, after close to three decades of companionship, were married in an Oklahoma City courthouse. After Louisville pulled off another upset to advance to the Final Four, an 86-78 victory against #2 seed Tennessee, led by Shoni’s 24 points and Jude’s 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals off the bench, the girls cried tears of joy as they cut down the nets and looked at their mom pointing to her engagement ring in the post-game victory celebration.
The tears flowed, not only because of the big victory, but because of how the game of basketball continued to strengthen their family bond.
“My parents had been together for so long but they never actually had the time to get married,” said Shoni. “They had so many kids. They were always coaching us, teaching us the game and traveling around to different tournaments. They never really had any time to themselves. So for our accomplishment, through basketball, to be the thing that tied everything all together was pretty cool.”
Louisville’s Cinderella run ended after a loss in the championship game against UCONN. But the joy it brought to their family, Cardinals fans, and the large contingent of Native Americans who followed the team was unquantifiable.
This past season, Louisville finished 33-5, but lost that thriller to Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen, dashing their hopes for a return to the Final Four. Shoni’s 31-point masterpiece, which included a frantic rally where she buried one impossible three-point bomb after another in the game’s closing seconds, will long be remembered by anyone who watched it.
“Those last few minutes against Maryland, for us to furiously come back like that and give them a run for their money, it was crazy,” said Shoni. “But it was so much fun. That’s the game of basketball. For the season, and my career, to end like that on our home court was a bummer. We were hoping to get back to the Final Four.”
“But I gave it my all,” Shoni continued. “We just came up one bucket short. We can’t be upset about that game because we fought. We played our hearts out. That’s life. And to be able to experience that with some amazing people - my sister, our teammates and coaches – is something that I’ll never forget.”
Today, she’s trying acclimate herself to the pro game.
LIVING THE DREAM
“In the WNBA, you’re playing against the best players in the world every night,” said Shoni. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game. Everybody is so talented, and they’re all bigger, faster and stronger than anybody I’ve played against before. It’s so exciting to be able to compete and test myself on this level, but it’s also very challenging.”
Thus far, the season has been a rollercoaster ride. She’s started two games and played heavy minutes in others. Sometimes, she only gets in for a few short intervals. With Atlanta’s talented nucleus of fellow All Stars Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza, along with Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle, she’s adjusting to a different role on the floor.
“In college, I needed to score a lot of points for my team and now I don’t have to do that,” said Shoni. “I have all of these talented teammates around me to get the ball to. I don’t need to score 20 points a game for this team to be successful. As long as we’re winning, I’m good.”
“My role is to be more of a distributor and to bring some energy to the team, whether I’m paying 5 minutes or 35 minutes,” she continued. “At Louisville, I carried a heavy scoring burden. Now I get to go out there and just have fun passing the ball. And I love passing the ball.”
The Atlanta Dream’s fan base has expanded exponentially with Shoni now in uniform. Her jersey has been the league’s top-seller this year. Despite being a rookie reserve on her own team, fans voted her into the All Star game as a starter. And there are many new faces showing up, at home and on the road, for Atlanta’s games.
‘Honestly, I’ve been here (six years), and I hadn’t seen any Native Americans at the games, but there are so many at the games now,” the Dream’s star player Angel McCoughtry recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Everybody loves Shoni Schimmel…people just love to say her name.”
But if anybody thinks that Shoni’s presence is solely based on marketing, her teammates would beg to differ.
“I’m kind of shocked because she doesn’t play like a rookie,” McCoughtry told the Courier-Journal. “She has no fear, and that’s something that you can’t teach. It’s something that’s built inside of you.”
For many rookies, the sudden adjustment to the WNBA after the end of college season can be very arduous and grueling. In school, most of their time is accounted for. There are classes, practices, study hall, team meals, meetings, travel itineraries and walk-throughs. The team does everything together.
In pro ball, after practices, everyone heads their separate ways.
“There’s a lot more time to relax and chill,” said Shoni. “Netflix has been holding me down. I’ve been watching a lot of the show, Orange is the New Black.”
Despite missing Jude and her family, her free time allows plenty of opportunities for long Face-Time conversations.
“Jude and I talk constantly,” said Shoni. “It’s hard being in my apartment and not having her there. But we went through this before during my freshman year in college. So I’m just constantly telling her to seize her opportunity this year and to go out and have fun. She knows what she has to do.”
“The same way she did it during her senior year in high school, she’s going to prove to everybody that she’s a star in her own right,” she continued. “People are going to realize, now that I’m not there and she has command of the stage, that, ‘Hey, she can really play. She doesn’t need Shoni on her team to be able to shine.”
She’s also watching film of her WNBA opponents in her spare time, along with working on her skills outside of practice.
“Right now, I’m working on my defense,” said Shoni. “That is what is going to take my game to the next level. And I’m also getting a lot of extra shots up and just trying to polish up the other aspects of my game that I’m pretty good at.”
She’s also trying to soak up everything she can from her coach, Michael Cooper, a two-time championship coach in the WNBA who starred in the backcourt with Magic Johnson for the 1980’s, NBA champion Showtime Lakers.
“Coop is a great coach,” said Shoni. “With all of his accomplishments and his background, both as an outstanding player and a coach, I’m just trying to learn everything I possibly can from him. I’m listening, trying to process all of the information he’s feeding me so that I can see what he sees when I’m out there on the basketball court.”
Atlanta has been one of the best teams in the WNBA this year, leading the Eastern Conference with a 15-6 record at the All Star break. Despite her steep learning curve and the ups and downs of her first rookie season, Shoni is excited about what lies ahead. Her goal wasn’t simply to make the WNBA. It is to be one of the league’s best players one day.
“Every night has been different and this season has definitely been a roller coaster,” said Shoni. “But I’m here to do whatever I need to do. Whatever it takes for us to win a game, whatever Coop demands of me, I’m all for it.”
“And my teammates have been so supportive,” she continued. “Angel (McCoughtry) talks to me a lot and she’s great to sit there and listen to. We both went to Louisville, so we have that connection. She’s a competitor. I’m learning things from all of my teammates, on and off the court. They’ve accepted me and taken me under their wing. We’re having success and Coop is doing a great job in leading us in the right direction. I’m just following and believing in him.”
If this weekend’s All Star game debut was any indication, Shoni is indubitably moving in the right direction. She put on a record-breaking performance on Saturday, scoring 29 points, hitting one bewildering shot after another in the fourth quarter and overtime, including another astonishing, Cirque de Soleil-type, behind-the-head layup against Griner.
Whatever critical murmurings were floating around about her inclusion in the game’s starting lineup, due to the fact that she was voted in by her huge Native American fan base despite being a reserve who plays limited minutes for the Dream, those were all put to bed in the most exciting All Star game the WNBA has ever seen.
With 17 family members in the crowd at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, and some wearing t-shirts that said, “Rez Ball Rules”, Shoni’s staggering 24-point explosion in the second half and overtime of the East’s 125-124 victory earned her the Most Valuable Player trophy.
“I’m honored to take on this role of being a role model to the Native American community,” said Shoni. “I’m doing what I love. People look up to me. I understand that and I embrace that responsibility.”
But when she’s on the court and in her zone, it’s the thought of one person specifically that propels her to forge on with an indomitable spirit.
“My mom was really good, and unfortunately things didn’t work out for her,” said Shoni. “In the back of my mind, I’ve always had this realization that she didn’t get her chance to follow her dreams in sports. I’m always cognizant of how lucky I am. I am not going to waste any of these opportunities that have been given to me. It’s pretty crazy how things have unfolded, how my dreams are coming true.”
As far as her future goals, she keeps those pretty simple.
“I just want to enjoy the game every time I step on the court,” said Shoni. “I want to win a championship with the Atlanta Dream. And every year, I just want to get better.”