Jamila Wideman – Portland Fire
For Portland Fire point guard Jamila Wideman, there is no such thing as anonymity. Not even as one of over 400 first-year law students at New York University. “I thought it would be a community somewhat removed,” laughs Wideman, “but no, I was wrong.”
At her first law school lunch, she remembers at least fifteen people coming up to her, saying, “I know who you are,” or “I read this about you.” Needless to say, the news of her arrival spread like wildfire across the school, and within three days everyone knew who she was.
Then again, the 25-year-old Wideman has been in the public eye since she was born. The daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Edgar Wideman, her struggles as a premature baby are detailed in father’s book, Brothers and Keepers. As a high school senior in Amherst, Massachusetts, the best selling book In these Girls Hope is a Muscle followed her school basketball team’s successful quest for the state championship. One of the top point guards in the country, she endured intense media scrutiny as she pondered college choices, eventually accepting a scholarship to Stanford University. A starter and team captain for four years, she led Stanford to the NCAA Final Four three times.
In March, 1997, in her senior year, Wideman was the focus of a Sports Illustrated cover article. In it, she exposed a river of pain and confusion running through a seemingly charmed life, growing up as a child of a mixed race marriage, and having a beloved older brother serving a life sentence for a murder committed when she was 10.
And underneath it all ran the steady beat of basketball. It was her outlet, her refuge, and her voice. It wasn’t a decision as much as a way of life – especially with a father who played Ivy League basketball against Bill Bradley – she’s had a basketball in her hand since she was two.
Because so many people first connect to her through basketball, she links the sport to other things she is ardent about.
That’s why her Nike contract included support for her foundation “Hoopin’ With Jamila,” whose mission statement is “To arm young women with the freedom to imagine possibility, and the courage to redefine their identity through self-expression.” It’s also why the statistics listed in her WNBA biography are immediately followed by the phrase, “and she wants to go to law school.”
But Wideman is quick to refute the notion that attending law school implies basketball will take a back seat.
“I can’t imagine being and doing the things I am in law school,” she says, “if I didn’t have basketball and I weren’t as engaged in it as I am.”
Wideman acknowledges the WNBA doesn’t top her list in terms of the actual time invested. Though playing in the league since 1997, she considers her career rather young. By her reckoning, four three-month seasons totals only a year of basketball — and she’s spent half that time injured.
However briefly, Wideman has experienced almost everything a WNBA player can: In four seasons she’s played under six coaches and with three teams. She’s been a starter, come off the bench, and been on the injured reserve list. She’s been with a team for an entire season and been traded. Once she flew into a new city in the morning, and played that evening with teammates whose names she didn’t even know.
These disruptions, combined with the short season and what Wideman calls the ‘race to the finish dynamic’, don’t necessarily complement the strengths she brings a team. Her greatest challenge is fitting into the season everything she wants from the game. There are things I want to accomplish in the league I haven’t even tip-toed up to yet,” she said.
Out of necessity, Wideman learned to make quicker adjustments, both with teammates and in asserting her game. But to do that, she needs to engage fully with a team, even if it also means setting herself up for extreme emotions.
Ironically, doing so goes against advice she was offered – and sometimes took — when she graduated from Stanford and entered professional basketball. “Treat it like a business,” people told her, “this isn’t college anymore.”
In some ways, those voices spoke truly. “If I attach to a team and to the players in the way I want to, and at the end of the season I get picked up in the expansion draft, that’s going to feel different than if I skitter on the surface and never actually invest,” explains Wideman.
But basketball will never be a business to Wideman. It’s simply more important for her to feel deeply about her basketball experience than to avoid emotional exposure. What makes that investment and risk worthwhile? . Simply put, it’s the best basketball in the world. “That level of competition,” Wideman explains, “you can’t replace. You can’t replace that experience.”
It’s the same daring Wideman brings to her pursuit of public interest and criminal defense law.
Studying law has opened Wideman to a community totally different from anything she’s ever been a part of. True, people still say, “Oh, you’re the WNBA player.” But for those who sit next to her in class, basketball isn’t her central identification — it’s merely a piece of it. As a result, the majority of her relationships are centered around an academic world, and for the first time in her life, Wideman is totally engaged in school.
The law challenges Wideman to translate her fervor into intellectual debate — something she admits she wrestles with. “Whether you’re doing anti-death penalty work, or civil rights litigation, or (dealing with) police brutality — target issues that everyone in the world has an opinion about — when you talk about it in legal terms it really forces you to come much closer to what you think. All of a sudden, you’re asked to articulate it in words that can convince someone who doesn’t think the same way.”
For Wideman, criminal law is where the most interesting and complicated questions are addressed: “What do you do with people you can’t stand to be in the same room with? Can you imagine yourself in them? What does that mean about decisions you make about sentencing, or about prison building, or about when you try juveniles as an adult? What is the relationship between the things that people do and who they are?”
These questions dare people to put themselves in another’s shoes — an experience Wideman recognizes can be a terrifying.
“When you imagine that someone you couldn’t, in daylight, say is like you — in the night I think there is something that imagines, ‘hmm, there is something in me that is capable of that.’ When you’ve set up a dynamic where those things are translated into good and evil, then what you’re really asking someone to do is to identify a piece of themselves that is evil. What choice would you make?”
Exploring that “other” is a challenge Wideman embraces with an open heart, no matter where it takes her.
One such journey found her observing a death penalty case — the sixth such case since the death penalty was reinstated in New York. Every day she watched the victim’s family sitting behind the prosecution, and the accused’s family sitting on the opposite side.
Coming home one night, Wideman realized she felt compassion for the victim’s family, and a great anger at what had happened. Yet, at the same time, as she watched the mother of the defendant seeing her son convicted, Wideman also felt sympathy and sadness for the woman and her child.
“There’s a natural want or need,” she reflects, “to be able to chose one of those to be your truth. A lot of time,” Wideman adds, “there’s a sense that you can’t feel such contradicting and complicated and opposing emotions about things. It makes people make a choice — and that choice is to place yourself in one position and necessarily to put the other out. There’s something natural about that, but I also think people are capable of much more than that.”
She is not willing to separate those places inside her. “It would have been much easier,” Wideman acknowledges, “if I could have sat there and felt a really black or white judgment or feeling about what happened. I couldn’t. It was terrible to try to feel both at the same time — and that was my truth.”
Wideman sees a direct parallel between her life in basketball and her life in law: “To bring your passion and what you care about into situations where they will be challenged, that for me is the true test of what you really believe. It’s scary, but it’s exciting. It’s the way that’s worth being to me.”
On the court or in the court, we can expect Wideman to throw herself in, body and soul.