LAS VEGAS – For Candice Dupree, it was business as usual, participating in her seventh WNBA All-Star Game when Team Wilson battled Team Delle Donne on Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas. For Indiana Fever teammate Erica Wheeler, it was the culmination of a hoops party weekend and validation of a journey that began on rough streets of Miami as a kid.
Wheeler, just the fifth undrafted WNBA All-Star in history and the only one to debut in the past 17 seasons, was ON FIRE.
She was so LIT it bears repeating. Before a national TV audience on ABC, Wheeler was ON FIRE to the tune of six consecutive 3-pointers in the first seven minutes she was in the game. After entering her first All-Star event with 4:18 left in the first quarter and hitting her first 3 on her very first possession, she finally missed at the 7:30 mark of the second quarter.
“Bill [Team Wilson coach Bill Laimbeer] told us to get the ball to whoever was hot. I was loose, I was ready. I hit my first two shots and my teammates just kept feeding me. I knew it was my time,” said the 2013 graduate of Rutgers who found playing opportunities in Puerto Rico, Turkey and Brazil before she was invited to a WNBA training camp in 2015.
“I could feel it,” she said with a smile during a postgame news conference after receiving the game’s Most Valuable Player award. Before the game, she was quoted as saying, “I wanted to be unforgettable.” Unforgettable she was.
Asked about her confidence afterward, she stated, “My confidence was through the roof. I had a chip on my shoulder, but I know I belong.” That chip has been with her since going undrafted and remains while she dedicates her career, her success and the Wheeler Kids Foundation to her mother.
Her All-Star weekend included participation in Friday night’s three-point shooting contest began quietly with a community skills clinic with youngsters at a local high school. As with her own clinics for kids in Miami, she takes her circuitous journey to heart and employs the same message that drives her career – “don’t ever let yourself quit.”
In the second half, Wheeler missed her first four 3-point attempts. “I was sitting on the bench since halftime,” she added. “I got cold.”
But she got warm and followed her own “don’t quit” mantra. Thrust back onto the court in the game’s final minutes, she hit a driving layup, dished a couple assists and hit a floater in the lane for her 22nd point.
By game’s end, it was Wheeler’s record-tying seventh 3-pointer with 21 seconds left in the game that sealed Team Wilson’s 129-126 win in the highest-scoring game in WNBA All-Star history – and sealed her legacy as the only undrafted MVP in WNBA All-Star history.
She hit seven of Team Wilson’s ASG-record 21 3-point baskets while earning the first All-Star MVP award in Fever history.
Wheeler shot 9-of-17 overall and 7-of-13 from 3-point range to finish with 25 points, plus seven assists and four rebounds. By halftime, she already had tied the Fever scoring record in an All-Star Game, matching Tamika Catchings’ mark from 2005 at Madison Square Garden.
Dupree added eight points, all in the first half, as the Fever duo combined for 33 points on 13-of-24 from the field. Dupree, one of Wheeler’s biggest fans, friends and advocates, took Wheeler’s phone and crouched at midcourt to take her own video during the postgame MVP interview that received ovations from her teammates and the crowd at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Wheeler dedicated the record-breaking game and her weekend to her mom, Melissa Cooper, whose life was shortened by cancer in July 2012. Seven years later, her daughter’s seven 3-pointers tied the All-Star Game individual record.
“My mom was my everything,” she added. “She is me, I am her. She did everything for everyone around her. That’s what I try to do. I play sports because she encouraged me. She motivated me. And I still play the game for her. I know she is watching and smiling.”
Wheeler echoed the same sentiments in the postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe; and again, in a live SportsCenter interview and in an MVP press conference. Her All-Star teammates were visibly moved by her emotions, as were countless others in a flood of social media posts throughout the day and night.
Upon being notified of her first All-Star selection just a week ago, longtime friend and Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson presented her with a pendant that she wore during pregame warmup on Saturday morning: mom’s photo on one side; the reverse inscribed with, “Look ma, I’m an All-Star.”
By Saturday evening, the MVP’s pendant needed an MVP update.
Dupree and Wheeler and the Fever resume their schedule with a pair of home games on Wednesday and Saturday this week against the Atlanta Dream and Minnesota Lynx, respectively. Both games tip off at 7:00 p.m. For single-game, group or season ticket information, visit FeverBasketball.com or call (317) 917-2528.