We no longer associate athletes with just their sport or team. The bar is set high, and we see these public figures for who they are: their personalities, their charity work, the impact they’re making in their communities. And in a city like D.C., we applaud that in a major way.
I make sure to let WNBA champion Natasha Cloud know just how highly she’s thought of in the District, and she doesn’t take that lightly. She sees it as an opportunity to inspire, do what’s right and set an example for so many. I chat with Cloud about how she’s navigated the pandemic, her decision to forego the 2020 WNBA season with the Mystics and making an impact.
In the middle of getting married to softball player Aleshia Ocasio and adding two quarantine puppies to the mix, locking down gym time, and protesting downtown next to fellow D.C. basketball player Bradley Beal, she’s had time to reflect and adjust her mantra to a positive, uplifting message.
“I’m determined to make 2021 the year of Black joy,” she says. “I’m trying to meet every morning with ‘What am I thankful for today? What am I blessed with today?’ Just reminding myself that even during these times, I’m extremely blessed: for my health, my wife’s health, my family’s health, and that we’re able to provide for our families during this time.”
The Philadelphia native sat out the 2020 WNBA season to fight for social reform, which was “the hardest decision I’ve had to make this far in my career.” This also meant she had to forfeit her salary for the season. Luckily, Converse signed Cloud to a sponsorship as their first-ever WNBA player, offering to cover her salary in addition to making a $25,000 donation to a grassroots Philadelphia organization of her choice.
“The [Black Lives Matter] movement is bigger than me putting on the Mystics jersey,” she says. “I [have] a God-given platform, and I’m extremely thankful for it because I can be a voice for the voiceless. As professional athletes, we get put on this pedestal to where we [seem] untouchable. To be present is to be impactful. So, take me off that pedestal. I want to stand in these marches. I want to listen. I want to be in these hard conversations with big businesses and grassroots organizations, and I didn’t feel like I could be a champion on the court and in my community. My heart was with the community, so that’s what I chose to do.”
Cloud chooses to use her platform for good every day – from publicly pressuring the District to turn the Mystics’ home base, the Entertainment & Sports Arena (ESA) in Southeast D.C., into a public polling location for Ward 8 to leading the 2020 Juneteenth march in D.C. with the Wizards. Feeling the trauma of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery motivates her to be in the moment and push for a better future.
“It’s not just talking the talk, it’s actually walking the walk,” she says, “[and] making sure we’re holding people accountable to make it more easily accessible for Black and brown communities to vote and be safe doing so. Every emotion – from fear to anger to confusion to hopelessness – you’re feeling every bit of that as a Black American. It was understanding this moment [and] this movement are bigger than the game of basketball. This is bigger than this season.”
While she opted out, she’s still proud of the women who went into the 2020 WNBA bubble, raised awareness and used their spotlight to push for change.
“There’s not one right way to go about being an advocate and fighting for social reform. Every piece of this is a necessary piece.”
Cloud notes the additional league assistance that came from NBA star Kyrie Irving, who committed $1.5 million to help pay the salaries of players who opted out last season. She also highlights the WNBA’s decision to offer a financial literacy course for players to learn how to better handle their money.
“That was huge,” she says. “It’s things people think we have, and we’ve never even had [those] opportunities or resources.”
A more recent WNBA change that sparked excitement and a step in the right direction was the announcement of the Atlanta Dream ownership shift from former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who showed opposition to the league’s racial justice initiatives, to former Atlanta Dream Guard Renee Montgomery as part of a three-member investor group.
“[Loeffler] tried to use that team in that organization as political gain, [and] outwardly spoke hate, discrimination and racism into the world. It’s completely opposite of what our league stands for. That’s a huge boss-ass move by Renee Montgomery, and I’m so proud of her for breaking barriers for CEO and ownership roles for future WNBA players, and women in general. When you talk about who we want to be and identify as, and what our morals [and] values are, [Montgomery buying] the team is such better ownership for moving forward as a league. It’s just the right move.”
October 10, 2019 marked the first WNBA championship in Washington Mystics history. However, the team did not get to properly bask in their championship glory. The pandemic canceled the parade, and several players had to go overseas the week following the win.
“We fought for each other, for this organization. We fought for a championship for D.C. and our fans. I really want them to have this moment with us together, because it’s our first. Fingers crossed [for] when we get back to things [being] kind of controlled by this summer – I hope we have that chance to embrace it with our fans. I’m hopeful that with this new administration and handing out these vaccines [and] making sure our communities are getting them, that we’ll be able to slow the curve of this pandemic [and] get back to normal at some point.”
Between D.C. and her home outside of Philadelphia, it’s been tough for Cloud to get gym time and start her conditioning process for the upcoming season. Like most, she’s been able to turn her basement into a home gym to slowly amp herself back up and get into shape, complete with a Peloton.
“That [Peloton] kicks my ass,” she laughs. “But I think I have a lot to prove again. People are people – doubting me and counting me out because I did sit a year out. But I’ve been an underdog all my life, so this is just adding fuel to the fire. I’m ready to be back in D.C., whenever that may be.”
As a 5-foot-9 scoring guard named second-team all-defense in 2019, and a vocal leader with a “bigger-than-basketball” mentality and a championship in hand, Cloud embraces the pressure put on her as both an athlete and an activist.
“At the end of the day, if all I did was bring a championship to D.C., then I failed because I didn’t help my community. I didn’t do what I could with my platform to help the next person. So, that pressure is a privilege to me.”
The Mystics are in talks with Cloud for a long-term deal heading into her seventh year. And while she hopes to be settled back in D.C. and signed by April, she has an important message for all of us in the District as she plans to visit different vaccination locations to offer people “the calmness and safeness of me being there.”
“I want to be present in the community and I want everyone to be vaccinated,” she says. “I understand the fears of not feeling 100% comfortable with the vaccine and our government, but we need to understand that this pandemic has disproportionately affected the Black and brown community. It has affected our community and plagued it the worst. If you’re hesitant or skeptical about it, please reach out to me. I will be coming to D.C. and will purposely be doing a video of me getting both of my shots. If you’re eligible, please go out and get it. Our lives really do depend on it, and this is the part of pushing to get out of this pandemic. Everyone needs to get it.”
It’s refreshing and inspiring to see a professional athlete from another city have so much love for the place they represent. And Cloud doesn’t hold back on any of it.
“It’s a second home to me,” she says of D.C. “To have that love for your organization [and] diversity in your city, it’s the most beautiful thing. It’s like a melting pot for different cultures to come to. To be in one of the most powerful cities in the entire world – it’s been a true blessing to be able to spend my career here.”
Cloud further applauds the District with a nod to Beal’s success on the court: namely, his recent All-Star Game selection and league-leading stats. She points out that every city isn’t as lucky to have such a special bond between the NBA and WNBA team, mentioning that Wizards newcomer Russell Westbrook says it’s his first time having a women’s team in the city he’s playing for.
“We truly do have something special here in D.C. [The Wizards are] really good people who show us love and respect during our seasons, too. There’s a brother and sisterhood that goes way beyond the corridor, just seeing each other at the ESA. We care about each other.”
Update: Since this interview was conducted, Cloud has signed a multi-year contract with the Mystics.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.