Nearly half an hour after Sunday’s WNBA game between the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mysticism, the stands at the Mohegan Sun Arena were empty, the loud cheers and music from the overtime thriller had faded, and most of the players were back in the locker rooms, getting ready to leave. But one group gathered on center court, arms wrapped around each other in a huge embrace.
Evina Westbrook was surrounded by the UConn women’s basketball team, reuniting with former teammates Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Dorka Juhász, Nika Mühl, Caroline Ducharme and Amari DeBerry, along with new freshmen Ayanna Patterson and Isuneh Brady. The previous week and a half, the former Husky guard had relinquished the Minnesota Lynx and signed a seven-day contract with the Mystics, marking her third team this season after being drafted 21st in April by the Seattle Storm in April.
Geno Auriemma always told Westbrook and those teammates that “90% of the game is mental.” That feeling has been especially true in recent months as she got to see the business side of basketball firsthand. Westbrook, who signed a second seven-day contract with the Mystics on Monday, has taken a different WNBA path than she envisioned, but she is still grateful to be able to fulfill her dream of playing in the league. And the experience has shown her that she is stronger than she realized.
“I feel like I can handle more mentally,” Westbrook told The Courant before Sunday’s game. “Every time I cut, it just put more gasoline on the fire.”
Westbrook was waived by the Storm before the start of the season in May and was dealt the same card as many rookies and talented players in the WNBA as teams tried to meet the league’s hard salary cap. A week or so later, Westbrook signed with the Lynx, where she averaged 2.6 points, 1.4 assists and 1.4 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game.
Westbrook had no inclination for the Lynx to cut her until it happened. After the team’s home win over the Phoenix Mercury on June 23, head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeves dropped her and broke the news.
“I used that night to feel sorry for myself and be sad and do all that and be upset,” Westbrook said. “But when the morning hit, I was like, ‘Whatever happens, I’m just ready to get back to the gym, work as hard as I can.'”
There was not much time to process everything. Less than 24 hours later, her agent contacted her with interest from the Mystics. The franchise announced it signed the former UConn guard on June 27 to a seven-day contract.
From there, Westbrook quickly moved out of her apartment and got on a flight to Washington, DC. But there was another vital task on the agenda: tell former UConn teammate Christyn Williams, who is sitting out the season with a knee injury after being drafted by the Mystics.
Once Westbrook landed, she sent a Snapchat saying, ‘Guess who’s coming to Washington? Call me immediately.” To say Williams was excited is quite an understatement.
“As soon as I landed in DC, Christyn called me and yelled on the phone,” Westbrook said. “I thought, ‘Man, it’s really good to have another Husky on the team.'”
Shortly afterwards, the duo got back together. Westbrook walked to Williams’ apartment immediately after checking in from her hotel and since then she has been there almost every day to spend time with Williams and her friend and they often eat together. Having them has made adjusting Westbrook to a new town a lot smoother.
Westbrook loves “cooking extravagantly,” so she showed her appreciation by making the couple a meal of stuffed salmon, mashed potatoes and corn last week. Westbrook can’t eat salmon herself, but she’d always wanted to learn how to make it.
“Ultimately that’s my sister, that’s my sister,” Westbrook said of Williams. “We’ve been through so much, too much together. It feels good to have someone like that here, especially in a new place.”
Westbrook is grateful for the support of her close-knit group of family, friends and mentors throughout her journey in the competition thus far. UConn assistant Morgan Valley has had her daily words of encouragement in her ear, reminding her to keep sharpening and sticking to her work ethic despite the disappointment of being cut, while her brother and mother have played a big part in her positive attitude. . Veterans have also reached out to share similar stories of remission, which made them feel more understood and the process less lonely.
As for basketball itself, Westbrook has been following a new run of plays with Washington, with those from Seattle and Minnesota still on her mind. She watched movies and studied new teammates in between workouts to learn the new system.
“She’s what I wanted her to be,” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “She came in, picked up things quickly”
Westbrook played in her first game for Washington June 28, recording a three-pointer, three assists and a steal in 11 minutes in a win over the Atlanta Dream. Fudd’s parents, who live nearby, even came to encourage her. Westbrook launched her first attempt from the deep end, but her teammates’ encouragement to be aggressive, along with some positive self-talk, gave her the confidence to make her second.
“It’s like saying to myself, ‘Evina, you’re a dog. Play like that,’” said Westbrook. “So I’m just trying to get out of the little shell and the college stuff and try to put on my WNBA shorts and just have that mentality in every game. … So the second, just to get in there and see my reaction.” teammates, it’s like, ‘Ahhh okay.’ It just gave me a sense of calm.”
Westbrook didn’t play in the exciting game against the Sun, but seeing her former UConn teammates for dinner the night before and again after the game gave Westbrook a similar sense of ease. She still feels like the mother or big sister to those players after being called “Momma E” during her time in Storrs.
“Seeing them makes me really happy,” Westbrook said. “During dinner they ask me questions like, ‘How are you? How do you feel? Is it crazy?’ Blah, blah, blah, all this and that. So I can happily tell them what’s going on or even things that are going on in the competition, like, ‘It’s a business, but it’s fun. Once you are here you will really enjoy it.’”
The reality of that company makes it uncertain how long Westbrook will stay with the Mystics. A player cannot sign more than three seven-day contracts with the same team in one season according to the WNBA’s CBA, and she is now on her second. But after everything she’s been through, Westbrook is confident in her future.
“No matter what happens, whether I’m on a team or not,” she said, “I just want… [UConn fans] to know it’s going to be okay. I stay in the gym, I’m in the gym all year round. When it comes at this time next year, it will be different.”