Pondexter drives Finals back to Phoenix
Pondexter's pair of performances in Indiana helps keep Mercury's season alive
Phoenix's Cappie Pondexter doesn't just pour her whole life story out to you. But if you ask questions, you'll get thoughtful answers. As she has gotten older, she has accepted that folks want to hear what she has to say.
But she hopes the people who most need to hear her -- kids growing up in potentially dangerous areas -- are the ones who will really listen.
Pondexter, 26, is a victory away from winning her second WNBA championship with the Mercury. She averaged 19.1 points during the regular season and has increased that to 20.0 during the WNBA Finals.
Her quick, silky-smooth shooting stroke and explosive drives to the basket have been on display against Indiana, and Fever fans have seen more than they wanted. In the two games at Conseco Fieldhouse, Pondexter was fantastic: 23 points, eight assists and five rebounds on Sunday, and 22, seven and five on Wednesday.
"I'm watching the tape," Indiana's Tamika Catchings said of her preparation for facing Pondexter, "and I'm saying, 'This girl's amazing.' She's able to slip through a crack -- any crack -- in the defense and get to the basket, creating so much for herself and her teammates."
If Pondexter minds being the perceived "first mate" to "captain" Diana Taurasi on the Good Ship Mercury, you would never know. For one thing, Taurasi would be the first to say Phoenix would sink just as quickly without Pondexter as it would without her.
Besides, Pondexter isn't fueled by a need for glory, nor does she really care much how the accolades are distributed. What does motivate her is the joy that basketball provides, how the game has brought so many good things to her life.
But she said, as much as she loves the sport, she wanted to set the record straight on something.
[Cappie Pondexter] is able to slip through a crack -- any crack -- in the defense and get to the basket, creating so much for herself and her teammates.” -- Indiana's Tamika Catchings
"I didn't go to Rutgers because of basketball," Pondexter said of choosing to play for C. Vivian Stringer. "That wasn't it. It was because my mom was so strict with me growing up, and I knew I needed that kind of discipline.
"Coach Stringer was the one who offered, outside of basketball, to be there for me. Right off the bat. I appreciated it. I knew basketball would take care of itself."
Pondexter first had to take care of academics, as test scores required that she sit out her first year at Rutgers. She also took the first semester off in her junior year, 2004-05, for personal reasons.
When Pondexter looks back at her Rutgers experience, she remembers the lessons she learned -- some positive and some heartbreaking.
As to the former, she credits the conditioning program with helping her truly get into the kind of shape she needed to be in to excel at the pro level.
"I was prepared in terms of basketball skills coming out of high school because I had a great coach," Pondexter said, referring to Dorothy Gaters at John Marshall High. "But the conditioning at college was the hardest."
Physically, yes, reaching that level of fitness was the toughest thing for Pondexter. But emotionally, she said the most difficult thing she dealt with while at Rutgers was the murder of her 16-year-old cousin, Robby, back home in Chicago.
The recent spotlight on the epidemic of youth homicide in that city -- including the horrific beating death of 16-year-old student Derrion Albert last month -- reminds Pondexter of a scar that remains painful for her.
"My foundation is going to be based on combating violence," she said. "My cousin was shot to death for no reason. It was so tough for my family and for me. I got a 5 a.m. call, and it was like my whole world was shattered. We were so close, and he was the coolest kid with a bright future.
"And it all came crashing down over just stupidity, people with guns acting stupid. He was shot 16 times -- that's a lot of anger, and for a kid they didn't even know. I was lost when it happened for a while, I didn't care about anything. I recovered, through God's grace and thanks to Coach Stringer. I wanted to go home, and she said, 'No, I'm not letting you leave school.' She held me so tight; she was there every step of the way."
Pondexter is still upset, of course, over her family's loss, but her way to channel that feeling is speaking about making good choices.
"I want to impact kids in urban areas and teach them that there's a way out," she said. "And not just with athletics. There are other ways. Go to school, travel abroad -- there's so much that this world has to offer."
Pondexter hopes that young people will listen to someone who understands what they're going through.
"Life is about having fun and embracing different opportunities," she said. "Violence is never the way. And sometimes I think kids get caught up in trying to be cool, impressing their friends. They forget you only live once.
"I think I can impact them, it's the reason God placed me in the sports world. Athletics is the 'cool' thing and gives us more of a voice, unfortunately, than other figures. That's the way it is, though, so every chance I get, I go back and do things in the Chicago community."
Pondexter was disappointed that the Chicago 2016 Olympic movement didn't earn the Summer Games, but she liked the fact the organization reached out to many athletes from the city, including her.
"I bought a home in Chicago a couple of months ago," she said. "My heart is there, I grew up there. Chicago made me who I am now."
Including who she is as a basketball player.
"We eat, sleep and breathe basketball growing up," Pondexter said. "Especially with the crime rate so high in Chicago. For a lot of kids, it's either you're on a bad side or you're a basketball player, honestly speaking.
"I played with guys who are in the NBA now, and we helped make each other better playing every day. I wasn't really a playground player; I was in the YMCA a lot. But there's definitely a mentality where you have to be strong, aggressive and confident. The guys always played me tough; they looked at me as just another basketball player."
But "just another basketball player" is definitely not how Pondexter would be described now.
"I'm very strong-willed and determined to be successful," she said. "I knew I really loved basketball, I had a strong passion for it. And I thank God that hasn't gone away.
"At this level, it can be mentally grueling -- going from season to season, away from your family. I have my ups and downs, but through it all, I look at the bigger picture. I'm still in love with it."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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