When the ball stops bouncing: Finding an identity off the court

Myah Taylor

 Celina Rodrigo has loved basketball since she was 5 years old, but her passion for the game wasn’t enough to stop the inevitable.

In 2016, after four years as a guard on the Texas women’s basketball team, Rodrigo said farewell to her competitive playing days forever.

Since then, Rodrigo has struggled to cultivate a new identity for herself and fill the void once occupied by her beloved sport.

“I need to stay somewhat around it because it’s hard giving up completely,” Rodrigo said. “It’s something you’ve done your whole life. … It’s a big challenge. It’s a big change.”

A 2018 NCAA report showed that only 2% of collegiate athletes across all divisions go on to play professionally after university. The chances are even lower for collegiate women’s basketball players, with only 0.9% moving on to the WNBA. Although Rodrigo sought opportunities to play professionally overseas, she ended up among the much larger group of collegiate athletes who don’t continue on in their athletic careers after graduating.

But neither slim odds nor uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus have stopped some current seniors on the Texas women’s basketball team from holding on to the possibility of playing professionally.

Senior forward Joyner Holmes has every intention of playing basketball at the next level. Projected as a first-round pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, Holmes’ childhood dream is all but guaranteed to come true.

Fellow seniors guards Sug Sutton and Lashann Higgs also hope to move on to the next level.

“I do want to play professionally,” Higgs said. “I mean like, why not? I’ve come this far. Why stop now?”

However, senior guard Jada Underwood faces a different reality than her teammates. Underwood said the game has taken a toll on her body throughout her career, so she’s accepted that it’s time to move on.

“Playing?” Underwood said, laughing. “I’ve been running for too long. My body knows its time is slowly wearing down. I love the game, so I want to be around it. I’m going to try and find a capacity to be around it, but running up and down that court? Nah.”

Even though Underwood’s teammates could continue to play basketball for the next several years, they won’t be shooting baskets forever.

“You know the ball’s going to stop eventually,” Higgs said. “You just don’t know when.”

For their collegiate careers, this moment came earlier than Higgs and her teammates expected when unprecedented circumstances launched Texas’ current seniors into the unknown before any of them were ready to say goodbye to being student-athletes. The group shed tears at their final home game March 8, but with the postseason approaching, there was still more basketball to be played.

Until there wasn’t.

The coronavirus pandemic sparked cancellations across the world, including the NCAA’s annual March Madness tournament.

For Holmes, Higgs and Sutton, the cancellation marked the end of this particular basketball season — for Underwood, the premature end of her career.

Life After Basketball

When buzzers sound at the end of a basketball game, there’s nothing a team can do to reverse the final score. So what is a player to do when the buzzers sound on their career, when the ball stops bouncing?

“The easiest transitions are usually the people who try to go from playing to coaching in their sports,” said Elodie Wendling, an assistant professor in sports administration at Georgia State University whose research focuses on career identity development and the transition of athletes into life after sports.

While Rodrigo said she enjoyed training and having a reason to stay around the game she loved so much during her two-year graduate assistantship at the University of Georgia, she realized college coaching wasn’t something she wanted to pursue.

“(Coaching) is a quick way to cope with the confusion and being lost and the void that you experience when you’re out of a sport,” Wendling said. “But it’s only a quick fix because it’s not good for everybody to become a coach in a sport that (they) stayed with, so they realize they don’t like it at all whatsoever.”

Looking back, Rodrigo said the position really only served as a gap between basketball and her next act.

“Being able to get that grad assistant position — it was kind of like I was able to get some time to figure out,” Rodrigo said. “That was a transition for me. It took the pressure off, I guess is what I’m saying. If I didn’t have that right after graduating, I wouldn’t have an idea.”

Now, Rodrigo lives in Atlanta and is pursuing a career in the medical field. In her radiology technician program, she gets hands-on experience working in a hospital. The key to life after sports, she said, was “to take that passion that I have for basketball and pour it into something else.”

Once her basketball career ends, Higgs also wants to pursue a health-related career, specifically as a neonatal nurse. Sutton wants to be a college basketball coach, Holmes is considering sports broadcasting and Underwood hopes to coach at the high school she’ll be teaching at next year.

The transition out of sports, however, isn’t as easy as just picking another job or hobby to pursue. Many athletes don’t even know where to start, Wendling said.

“The reason why we are left coming out of college sports without knowing what we actually like to do is because we never really had the free time to explore different areas outside of athletics,” Wendling said. “The way it’s controlled in a sense — the schedule — is making sure that all our focus stays on the team and sports.”

And there is also a social component. Wendling said becoming a “regular person” after graduation can make entry-level jobs particularly unattractive to athletes who competed at a prestigious school like UT.

Holmes said she experienced such normalcy during the fall semester of her sophomore year  after she was suspended from UT and the basketball team in 2017 for committing a University violation. During that difficult period, Holmes said she “had the feeling of how regular people live their lives” when her parents required her to get a job to pass the time.

“I’m not saying I didn’t like the job,” Holmes said. “I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if it was something I’d want to do for the rest of my life every day, so I think just knowing that when you get a job, you want to try to continue that job and do that for the rest of your life.”

Higgs said earning a degree from UT “speaks for itself,” as the University offers connections and opportunities. But she also said “it might take a year or two, three to find a job that you want” if basketball doesn’t work out.

“You would think after you graduate, ‘Oh you’ve got this degree, you can do whatever,’” Rodrigo said. “But it’s really not that way. It really isn’t at all.”

This is why Wendling said it’s important for athletes to find time in their busy schedules to explore other interests or, in the words of Holmes, “have a Plan B.”

“I live by this quote every day: ‘I play basketball. Basketball does not define me.’ It’s not who I am; it’s just what I do,” Holmes said. “Eventually you want to live your life outside of the basketball court, so I’ll just follow that rule day in and day out.”

Three of Rodrigo’s former teammates — Brooke McCarty, Ariel Atkins and Imani McGee-Stafford — all made it to the professional level after playing at Texas. Another teammate, Nneka Enemkpali, was selected 26th overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft, but an injury sidelined her for her rookie season, making her time in the league brief.

“You can have these big dreams, but hey, you just never know,” Rodrigo said. “You don’t really think about that in college. You’re so in the moment and just caught up in everything you have going on.”

Regardless of what comes next, all four current seniors will have to find an identity outside of basketball — and they’ll have to be ready whenever that’s needed.

“This has been my outlet since I was 4 years old,” Sutton said. “Just thinking about not being able to play or not having that opportunity is hard, so I just try to go day by day, take it one day at a time and just work my butt off because you never know. I hope I get the opportunity, but if not, then I have other things that I can do with my life.”

Meanwhile, Rodrigo said she is still figuring out who she is and what she wants to do. If a career in the medical field doesn’t work out, she may consider teaching.

“Basketball is not forever,” Rodrigo said. “Yeah, you can put in your all to the team, basketball, whatever, but at the same time, you gotta start thinking about the long term. At the end of the day, you’re gonna have to work. After college, you grow up real quick. You’re on your own. You gotta figure it out somehow.”