Teresa Weatherspoon, role model and pioneer

February 19, 2015

By Paul Corliss & Teresa Galvez

This is the third in a four-part series of ‘Legends Reflect’ features celebrating Black History Month, February, 2015. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Black History Month Celebration.

In 1993, former NBA star Charles Barkley famously proclaimed he was not a role model – he didn’t want that role and wouldn’t embrace it. Fortunately for young African-American females, that’s not the case with NBRPA Player Ambassador Teresa Weatherspoon. The four-time WNBA All-Star embraced and continues to revel in her influence on aspiring young ladies looking to follow in the footsteps of a winner on and off the court.

“I do feel like I am a role model," Weatherspoon said when asked of her influence on young African-American females. “Maybe those little eyes that are on you don’t have little eyes on them at home.”

The willingness to stand tall as a role model for young African-American females is consistent with her outlook on life – stand proud, work hard and follow your dreams. The youngest of six children from tiny (population 850) Pineland, Texas, Weatherspoon has always been an achiever – in academics, in college basketball, in international competition and eventually as one of the WNBA’s first household names. But it all started at home as a youngster growing up in East Texas.

“My house was a competitive house,” Weatherspoon said. “I had to watch and learn and take all the greatness from each person in my family, because of the uniqueness and greatness in each one of them. Everything I’ve ever accomplished is due to my teachings at home.”

Indeed athletic talent seemed to be a birth-right for the former basketball star that friends still call “Teespoon.” Her father, Charles, played minor league baseball for the Minnesota Twins and her mother, Rowena, was an undefeated champion drum majorette. But for all the athletic prowess in her genes, academics were the driving force behind Teresa Weatherspoon’s early success – a personal fact she makes sure to share mention when sharing her story with youngsters.

“Believe it or not, I was (more) in tune with my academics,” Weatherspoon said when asked about her basketball aspirations as a young girl. “I actually wanted to do great things with basketball because it was going to give me that avenue to do greater things academically – probably go to college, play basketball there and then move on to do greater things. (Schoolwork) was a great piece of competition for me. I wanted to finish high school as valedictorian of my class because I wanted to kind of challenge the stereotypes of athletes.”

Weatherspoon did indeed become her high school valedictorian, accomplishing her goal – something that would become a recurring theme in the development this future role model. But as she focused on easing her parents’ potential financial burden of paying for college, Weatherspoon’s on-court skills shined and blossomed into something bigger.

Playing (and dominating) against boys at a young age, Weatherspoon understood she had a gift that helped grow her love of the game and made anything seem possible. Her high school coach, former University of Texas player Retha Swindell, recognized the potential in her game and became a mentor and guiding influence – taking Weatherspoon to college games and helping her clearly see a path that could take her athletic and academic talents to the next level.

“(Swindell) was someone that I always set out to listen to, because she had done the things that I wanted to do,” Weatherspoon said “She showed me all the things she had accomplished and she talked to me about what I had to do in order for that success to happen to me, because I was in a place of 800 people where everyone thought you can’t get out of that hole. She took me to see collegiate games to help me set goals and she taught me how to work.”

The hard work, both on and off the court, led to opportunity for Weatherspoon as she was offered a full scholarship to play for the nation’s premier women’s college basketball program – Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters, winners of the National Championship in both 1981 and 1982, invited Weatherspoon to follow in the footsteps of two other African-American trailblazers in women’s basketball – Wade Trophy (national player of the year) winners Pam Kelly (1982) and Janice Lawrence Braxton (1984). Weatherspoon accepted the offer from La Tech and in 1984 departed small-town Texas for the slightly-larger metropolis of Ruston, La., unintimidated and eager to succeed.

“Once you give me an opportunity, I am going to take advantage of it,” Weatherspoon said. “I’m going to put both feet in and knock doors down.”

That strong will and determination helped Weatherspoon deliver on promises to make the most of her time in Ruston. She didn’t just follow in the footsteps of Kelly and Braxton from 1984 to 1988, she built her own legacy and became one of the most decorated college players of her era as a two-time All-American (1987, 1988), while become the third Wade Trophy winner from La Tech in 1988. She not only earned national player of the year honors as a senior, she also let the Lady Techsters to a 56-54 over Auburn in the 1988 NCAA Championship Game.

During the summers of her collegiate career, Weatherspoon played for Team USA. The highest she envisioned her basketball career could go … at least for the moment.

“If I turned on the television, what I could see was the NBA for the men … nothing for women,” Weatherspoon said when looking into her future. “The only thing I could see (for women) was to ultimately become an Olympian. If I could become an Olympian, one of the 12 best in the world, I’d be doing pretty well.”

True to form, Weatherspoon exceeded expectations – not only did she become an Olympian, she helped lead Team USA to the 1984 Gold Medal in Los Angeles. She also played for the United States in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. With that taste of international competition came yet another opportunity for her – the opportunity to play professionally, albeit overseas.

Weatherspoon played professional basketball for six years in Italy (all years being named an All-Star), followed by two standout seasons in Russia. And despite struggling through homesickness that came with the inability to be seen by family and friends, Weatherspoon persevered abroad as one of the greatest in her game. Then the phone rang with a call that would change not only Teresa Weatherspoon’s life, but the lives of females with basketball dreams for generations to come – the WNBA was forming.

While other American professional basketball leagues for women had been created only to fail economically, this new venture had the backing of the NBA and with that, the economic wherewithal to build a fan base. Weatherspoon jumped at the opportunity to join the New York Liberty in June, 1997, playing in the WNBA’s inaugural season that fielded eight teams playing 28 games. Keeping in line with the theme of her life, Weatherspoon immediately made her mark in the new league – helping lead New York to the first WNBA Finals, while earning the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Award and a spot in the WNBA All-Star Game.

“The WNBA gave us all an amazing platform to not only play the game, but to also to be positive role models in the lives of our young women in our home country who could turn the TV on and watch us,” Weatherspoon said. “We had obligations now to our young people by utilizing this platform to show them that we as women – African- American women, or women in general – we could do whatever we want to do.”

Indeed, Teresa Weatherspoon had arrived as an inaugural star in the new league. Playing in the iconic Madison Square Garden, as a part of the WNBA’s Liberty, was a dream Weatherspoon never wanted to wake from. In 2002, she became the first WNBA player with 1,000 assists and through eight glorious WNBA season she played in two Finals and four All-Star Games.

“I always felt a sense of responsibility (to the WNBA), because it’s the platform we were given and ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’” Weatherspoon said, taking us full-circle to the role she embraces – that of a role model for young African-American females with basketball dreams. “Every single day I wanted to do my part to make sure that every teammate got better. Every time I stepped on that floor a young kid saw something positive that they could take from my life, from my play, from my enthusiasm, my dedication and my commitment.”

Diversity at Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC
This is the third in a four-part series of ‘Legends Reflect’ features celebrating Black History Month, February, 2015. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Black History Month Celebration.

Diversity Starts With Wells Fargo & Company (our parent company)
"Our most important value is this: We believe in people as a competitive advantage. We strive to find the best people from a diversity of backgrounds and cultures, give them the knowledge and training they need, allow them to be responsible and accountable for their businesses, and recognize them for outstanding performance."
John Stumpf, President and CEO
Wells Fargo & Company