Every team seems to have one. A “spark plug.” A “lightning rod.” Someone who plays with a relentless energy that inspires the rest of the team.
For the Indiana Fever, that player is point guard Erica Wheeler. The fiery Miami, Fla., native, hasn’t been around long, as this season is just her second in Indiana and third overall in the WNBA, but she’s become an indispensable member of the team.
Wheeler’s joyful away from the court and intensely serious on it, a balance that creates an attitude fans, teammates and coaches can’t help but enjoy.
But where does it come from? Why is Wheeler the way she is? Her style stems from her upbringing under her mother Melissa Cooper.
Wheeler grew up in Liberty City, one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods. Basketball was a way for Wheeler to escape the drugs and violence that plagued her hometown, and Cooper, a single mother, wanted her daughter to pursue basketball at a higher level, so she pushed her away from local pickup games to organized, high school basketball.
“She was everything,” Wheeler said. “I told myself, ‘Ma, you’re not going to ever pay for college. At some point, I’m going to take care of you,’ and that was my drive. No matter how I got it done, no matter what I did, I was gonna be good at it because I knew I had to repay my mom.”
Cooper’s guidance paid off as in high school, Wheeler appeared in three-straight state championship games, winning two. She was named a McDonald’s All-American, and college programs across the country recruited her.
Wheeler decided to attend Rutgers University, and everything was fine until the summer before her senior year. Her mother had been dealing with cancer and her health had severely declined. The thing was, Wheeler had no clue, as no one had told her. Wheeler admits that in the long run it benefitted her that she didn’t know.
“It’s good they kept it away from me because I would have probably left school and probably wouldn’t have finished to spend the rest of the time with her,” Wheeler said.
Her mother passed away soon after, but before she did, she urged Wheeler to stay in school and graduate. Earning a degree was what Cooper truly wanted for Wheeler, so that’s what Wheeler set out to do. She returned to Rutgers for her senior year.
“Her main thing was, ‘I want you to graduate,'” Wheeler said. “Basketball wasn’t even a topic. She wanted me to finish college strong with a good GPA, and that was my focus. Basketball, I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just trying to fulfill that goal because that’s what she wanted.”
Wheeler played her final season, but she admits she didn’t have a great year and wasn’t selected in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
“The passion for basketball kind of left because the reason I played was because it made her happy and kept me out of trouble,” Wheeler said. “I was just like ‘My best friend is gone. What do I do now?'”
When the school year was over and graduation has passed, she found herself without a job. Wheeler then made the decision to use basketball to honor her mother. She rededicated herself to the game and would do anything necessary to make it professionally..
“Keep it [her legacy] alive, just doing what I know she’d be proud of,” Wheeler said when asked what motivated her to keep playing.
Just three months after graduation, she landed with Leonas de Ponce in Puerto Rico. In 26 games she flourished, averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 assists per game, good for second in the league. The Wheeler of old was back.
After Puerto Rico, Wheeler played in Turkey and Brazil, eventually earning brief stints with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty in 2015, but she wasn’t able to stick with either team. Once Fever President Kelly Krauskopf caught a glimpse of her nonstop, high-energy style, she became intrigued ahead of the 2016 season.
“She’s somebody that I followed a little bit overseas and really worked with her agent,” Krauskopf said. “She had some short stints with two different teams and caught my eye a little bit.”
“At the time, we were looking to push pace, looking for another speed guard, someone that was really quick and could break down defenders off the dribble, could defend. She hadn’t really stuck on a team, so when I brought her in last year and she had a really good camp, she got the opportunity and did well. She made a case for herself.”
Wheeler was one of the WNBA’s surprises a year ago, appearing in 35 games with 24 starts. She averaged 8.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. She’s been embraced in the locker room, as her personality is infectious on and off-the-floor.
“I would prefer a player that I had to say ‘woah’ instead of saying ‘giddy up’ all the time,” Fever head coach Pokey Chatman said. “What’s neat about Erica is that energy is not just relegated to the court. It’s in the airport. It’s in the locker room. It’s at dinner, and it just kind of infuses everyone just to relax, be comfortable and have a good time.”
“That’s what she brings, and she knows it, and she embraces it, and we feed off her,” fellow point guard Briann January said. “She’s our little energy ball. She never stops.”
After a successful first season with Indiana, Krauskopf resigned Wheeler in the offseason. Now, she’s feeling more comfortable than ever in her surroundings, which she feels will do wonders for her.
“My changes here [from last year to this year] are just feeling a bit more comfortable and just being able to transfer information a lot quicker than my first year because I did come late into training camp,” Wheeler said. “Just being able to know what I’m doing and being able to feel like a family.”
According to those in the organization, her development has been noticeable.
“She’s been like a sponge,” Chatman said. “She likes the video. She likes the feedback. She’s just that player that’s so excited.”
“Her upside is really huge because she’s really learning the pace of the game, reading defenses, all the things that at the pro level are your next learning curve,” Krauskopf added.
“Her strength and her body and her skill set and all that kind of stuff is very WNBA, it was just a matter of getting the right opportunity and the right chance. I’ve been really pleased with the progress that she’s made, and I think she’ll just thrive her under Pokey.”
For Wheeler, it all ties back to her mother and her journey. Her daily attitude and approach towards life stems from the person who raised her and the trials and tribulations she went through to end up in Indiana.
“Still to this day, that’s why I’m so energetic and always happy because I know more than ever she’s watching me now,” Wheeler said. “I know I’m making her proud, so that’s why I try to hit everything as hard as I can.”
“We playing basketball for a living and that’s something that I love, that I’m passionate about, so to be able to do that, I’m blessed. And to be able to do it with a family that embraced me, with a coach that embraced me as well, so that energy is gonna come no matter what. Even if I don’t feel like it, I’m gonna find a way to get it done anyway.”
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