Cappie Pondexter: Rutgers Knight Helps the Mercury Rise – July 2006

As Cappie Pondexter’s outstanding basketball career at Rutgers drew to a close and the 2006 WNBA draft loomed on the horizon, stories mentioning the tattoo got when she was 18 (a WNBA logo with “The Future” etched above it) became almost cliche. What some read as cockiness, she used as motivation. “Even way before the WNBA existed,” explained Pondexter, “I wanted to play professional ball.”

That dream is now a reality, and the results the silky smooth guard is producing in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury are making people stand up and recognize that “The Future” has arrived.

Selected as the second draft pick overall, last year’s unanimous Big East Player of the Year has put up some decidedly un-rookie-like stats: she is listed in the top five in scoring, field goal attempted and made, minutes played and total points, all of which earned her a berth on the Western Conference All-Star team and talk of Rookie of the Year honors. While averaging over 21 points a game might seem out of character for a Rutgers point guard well-versed in the defensive philosophy preached by head coach C. Vivian Stringer, Pondexter has quickly adapted to Mercury coach Paul Westhead’s run and gun style.

“It’s a different system,” said Pondexter, who now finds herself playing mostly on the wing. “Getting up and down the floor, making sure that we get the quick transition basket. Even if the other team scores, we’re coming right back at you, putting points on you. That’s the good thing about this system: everybody gets to touch the ball. Everybody gets the opportunity to score 21 points a night. It kind of co-exists with my game,” she added with a sly smile, “because I love to play offense. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m talented in. It’s my job now, and it’s kind of exciting.”

Big East Conference fans who watched Pondexter hone her crossover and stop-and-pop skills against the likes of Notre Dame and Connecticut may find a bit of delicious irony in the fact that she now shares the backcourt with former University of Connecticut star, and long time Rutgers nemesis, Diana Taurasi. Pondexter freely admits there’s plenty of ribbing over who had the upper hand in college (fellow rookie Ann Strother, another Husky product, is also a teammate). “We debate this maybe once or twice a week. It’s all fun.” But, she adds, “we’re together and we say it’s the Big East, now. We’re all sticking together.” And there’s little doubt that she and Taurasi, a third year player, are on the same page now, even to putting up eerily similar, and impressive, numbers.

“When we were young, we had those little egos, what with our dominant personalities. It kind of clashed sometimes,” admitted Pondexter. “But now, it’s like we have each other’s back, no matter what. It was never a problem where she would say something and I wouldn’t listen or I would say something and she wouldn’t listen,” said Pondexter of her teammate. “We compliment each other. I can run up 10 points and it’s like ‘All right, Dee, it’s your turn, I’m a little tired.’ And so I get to recuperate and she’ll run off 10 or 12 points. We take turns,” she grinned, blithely describing the workings of a backcourt that has given opponents fits. “We understand each other. Her being at UConn and me at Rutgers has allowed us to mature and now we just play together. I enjoy it.”

Much of that maturity was cultivated under the tutelage of college coach, Stringer. Always an independent person, Pondexter credits Stringer for preparing her for playing at the professional level, where strength of mind and spirit can separate those of equal talent. “The skill is never the question,” noted Pondexter. “You’re skilled anyway, to be in the league. It’s how you approach it here. Coach Stringer prepared me well for that because she’s all about the mental. You just have to be strong. You’re not going to have the coach or your teammates around you to lift you up. You have to do it yourself. It has to come from within.”

While much in the WNBA is as she expected, Pondexter has had to adapt to the league’s grueling travel and condensed schedule that barely allows one time to breathe, much less dwell on game results. “You kind of hold on to losses in college,” she recalled. And, of course, noted Pondexter somewhat ruefully, a loss at Rutgers usually meant you were looking at “three-hour practices and lots of conditioning. Now, once the game is over with, you’ve got to move on. Coach Westhead is the same way if we win or lose,” she explained, breaking into a dead-on imitation of her new head coach’s laid-back style to demonstrate: “‘Uh, well, you know, this is how it is. Have a day off, let it go, do something fun, come back and let’s regroup.'” Returning to her own voice, she added, with only slightly disguised relief, “It’s pretty cool.”

Everything about being a professional seems to be delighting Pondexter: the fans, her teammates, the competition — even the climate of her new home. After growing up in Chicago and spending her college years in New Jersey, she is reveling in the heat of the Arizona summer. “I remember we were out in L.A. and it was kind of chilly, and I was, ‘Yo, I can’t wait to get back to Phoenix,'” she said with a laugh.

As the next few months play out, be it the challenge of helping her team making a playoff run or the possibility of earning a spot on the US National Team for this fall’s World Championships, Pondexter’s personal goals for the future are as clear and straightforward as she is: “To be as great as I possibly can be. That’s really it. I just want to work and never be content with where I’m at. I still have so much potential left, I’ve just got to work. That’s the bottom line.”

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