Layshia Clarendon carries torch in WNBA as outspoken activist

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Layshia Clarendon carries torch in WNBA as outspoken activist

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Branden Camp
Atlanta Dream guard Layshia Clarendon (23) drives the ball to the basket while being defended by Chicago Sky guard Jamierra Faulkner (21), right, and Chicago Sky forward Jessica Breland (51) during a game between the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky at Phillips Arena, Sunday, May 22, 2016, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Dream defeated Chicago Sky 87-81. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

If you want a quick snapshot of Dream guard Layshia Clarendon, look no further than her Twitter account.

Clarendon lets users know what to expect by describing herself as follows: “PG for the @AtlantaDream. Using my platform for social change. Against white supremacy & systematic racism. LGBT Activist.”

She is a straight shooter on social media and talks about an array of issues, both in sports and American life. With more than 5,200 tweets, she touches on topics that some may flinch at.

Whether the feedback favors Clarendon’s points is of little concern to her.

“(The response) is majority positive,” Clarendon said. “I’d say the last six months, I have gotten more negative comments. It’s typically when I speak up about women’s issues, even more than the LGBT issues.”

Clarendon is at the intersection of so many social circles. She’s half-black, she’s gay and she identifies as non-cisgender, a term used to communicate that her sex and gender are not the same. She also happens to be a talented basketball player.

The 25-year-old is in the middle of her first season with the Atlanta Dream, who acquired her from the Indiana Fever on May 10. Now in her fourth season in the WNBA, the move to Atlanta has provided a chance to start, and she has taken full advantage.

But how did Clarendon get to this point, both as a player and as an outspoken athlete? A playing career at a prestigious university, an NFL running back’s opinion and an unexpected phone call all influenced where Clarendon stands today.

Clarendon developed her candid nature and her playing ability at California after growing up in San Bernardino. As a point guard for the Bears, she served as a major piece in the team’s rejuvenation. After the team barely went .500 her sophomore season, the team won 57 games in her final two seasons, which included a Final Four run in her senior campaign.

Basketball wasn’t the sole focus for Clarendon at Cal. She started going to church early on and took to heart the words of her pastor, who told her everyone has a story to tell. She became an active voice to those around her and was a member of the Gay Straight Alliance at Cal as well as Athlete Ally, which works to end homophobia in the sports world, on the national stage.

“She always had a gift to see the bigger picture than just herself,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.

Clarendon’s Cal career led her to the Fever, which drafted her with their first-round pick in 2013. She was brought in as a backup to Briann January, who had led the team to a championship the year before.

As a result, Clarendon’s play was limited to off-the-bench work. In her first two professional seasons, she accrued only seven starts.

In August 2015, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster said he didn’t believe in God in an interview with ESPN: The Magazine. Clarendon felt more people in the sports world needed to talk about their faith and how believers couldn’t be classified in a cookie-cutter manner. Now in her third season with the Fever, she wanted to share her story both as a Christian and as a gay non-cisgender.

A friend of a friend got her in touch with an editor at The Players’ Tribune. Within a week, Clarendon completed a nearly 3,500-word piece on her own personal journey.

What resulted was an outpouring of gratitude — which was something Clarendon wasn’t prepared for.

“I got some messages that were overwhelmingly positive but hard to deal with,” Clarendon said. “People were like, ‘I thought about committing suicide and then I read your article.’”

Clarendon had begun inspiring fans and followers. But as her fourth season in the WNBA loomed this spring, she learned she would have to do so somewhere other than Indiana.

She awoke to a phone call from a Fever representative near the start of the 2016 season. Clarendon had been involved in a wreck with the team’s car the week before, so she assumed it was about insurance questions and squaring away the damage done.

That was not the case.

“I was waiting for us to make that final cut for camp,” Clarendon said. “Then I was the cut.”

The Fever had contacted the Dream about Clarendon, and Dream coach Michael Cooper jumped at the offer. Cooper knew Clarendon well from college, as he was the head coach at USC when Clarendon was a Bear.

For a second-round draft pick, the Dream had their new point guard.

“Layshia was a gift that fell into our lap,” Cooper said. “When Indiana called, it was a no-brainer.”

Clarendon packed what she said was “her whole life” into three suitcases and a couple of boxes and headed south. She said her first Dream practice was like the first day of school, but she quickly gelled with her teammates as they prepared for the season.

The team made strong strides with Clarendon. The Dream won five of their first six games and led the Eastern Conference for several weeks. Clarendon’s role has been an important one, as she leads the team in assists and has the highest field-goal percentage among the starters.

“Sometimes it’s about finding the right place and right system for you,” teammate Angel McCoughtry said. “I think she’s found that in Atlanta.”

That fit also exists outside basketball. Clarendon said she was excited about the diversity that exists in Atlanta, something that wasn’t present in Indianapolis. She said she’s slowly but surely getting more involved with the community, which, judging from her past experience, will continue as she gets more accustomed to the city.

Clarendon has a promising future as the Dream’s point guard, but it’s not the only option she’s pursuing.

She has had many speaking engagements thanks to her activism, which has included panel talks at the Human Rights Campaign in Atlanta and the Sports Business Journal in New York. She also writes frequently, which included a sports blog and a piece in Esquire two weeks ago about the LGBT movement’s lack of emphasis on transgender individuals.

“For young ladies to do that, that sets their path for when basketball ends to step into another part of their life,” Cooper said. “Her beliefs have definitely helped the league. Once basketball is over, she can continue to be a great ambassador to the women’s game.”

Clarendon shows no hesitation to speak, just as she can’t afford to hesitate on the court. She said she never considered not writing the Players’ Tribune article, perhaps knowing the weight her message would carry for those like her.

“That’s what’s been cool about shining my light,” Clarendon said. “It gives people hope.”

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