Maya Caldwell makes most of hardship contract opportunity in return to Dream

Dream guard Maya Caldwell talks to media members during a session at the Dream training camp in Chamblee on Monday, April 18, 2022. Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Dream guard Maya Caldwell talks to media members during a session at the Dream training camp in Chamblee on Monday, April 18, 2022. Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

At 7:08 p.m. June 18, Maya Caldwell’s agent received a text message from the Dream brass offering the young guard a hardship contract. The player didn’t even have a say in the matter.

Instead, William Clay of Shark Sports Agency gave the nod to Dream general manager Dan Padover about 30 seconds later and called Caldwell, who was cut by the Dream on the final day of training camp in early May. He didn’t even say hello, but his first words turned Caldwell into a bundle of emotion.

“Get your stuff,” Clay said in an indication that the Dream made an offer. “It’s time to go.”

“Do not play with me right now,” Caldwell responded. “Are you serious? I am about to cry.”

The transaction became final in a matter of minutes. Caldwell had about 15 hours before she had to board her flight back to Georgia, but acted as if she had a quarter-of-an-hour before taking off. She scampered throughout her bedroom with the priority of packing her basketball shoes and a set of practice clothes. She then remembered the fashion pictures taken through the tunnels of Gateway Center Arena. Caldwell packed a few things to show her style, too.

After a year-plus of cuts, overseas trips and almost-made-it opportunities, Caldwell, a University of Georgia product, had her chance to debut in the WNBA. She let out screams, cries and words of exuberance to celebrate a milestone that was delayed on more than one occasion, but not denied.

“The adulation in her voice made for the mountaintop experience,” Clay said.

Caldwell scored 18 points and took on the assignment of defending Wings star Arike Ogunbowale — who Dream guard Aari McDonald said Caldwell “locked down” — in Wednesday night’s win over Dallas. She followed it with another starting assignment and five points against the Liberty on Friday night, and will remain on the roster for Sunday’s game against Connecticut (3 p.m., Bally Sports South).

Padover told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there’s no timetable for how long Caldwell could be on the roster. The Dream will need to return to 10 active players before making a move, which would involve releasing Caldwell. The Dream could then re-sign Caldwell to a full contract or move in a different direction. One of the Dream’s biggest absences is star Tiffany Hayes (right knee), and Padover said the Dream hope to see progress toward a return to play by the end of June or early July.

“We needed someone to come in and help with all of the injuries,” Dream coach Tanisha Wright said of the decision to add Caldwell. “She understood our system already, which takes time to teach. It’s a great opportunity for Maya to showcase what she’s capable of doing.”

On May 5, the Dream released its first regular-season roster. Caldwell expected to be on it. The Dream, however, had Caldwell as its last preseason cut as it needed another post player rather than a guard. Caldwell walked out of the practice facility and returned to her hometown of Charlotte with devastation.

The Dream had been the perfect destination because of proximity to family, friends and a longstanding relationship with assistant general manager Darius Taylor. Caldwell thought she defied the odds after a successful run with SPAR Gran Canaria in Spain. She had a belief in herself that not many held, including the Dream, who didn’t expect her to make it to the last day of camp the team when signed her in February.

“I thought I made it and was here to stay,” Caldwell said. “I felt like I was ready, then I struggled a bit spiritually. I thought ‘God, what’s the plan? I prayed for it, had it, then it got taken away.’”

Caldwell returned to work. She trained three times daily in Charlotte. She jumped at every chance to improve her game, whether it be with weights, conditioning or honing her skills. Caldwell made it through mentally challenging days with her mind fixed on spiritual healing and the use of Bible verses Jeremiah 29:11, Hebrews 11:1 and Psalms 27:14.

“I knew exactly why I put all of this work in. It’s not my job to quit,” Caldwell said. “I didn’t come this far to give up now. There were frustrations at times, but this is what I’ve always wanted. I found something.”

Upon her arrival in Atlanta, Caldwell received a scouting report for the Dallas game. She saw her initials next to Ogunbowale’s name, and thought someone else must’ve joined the team with her same initials. Caldwell thought it couldn’t have been her, but indeed it was, and she awaited the challenge of defending one of the league’s premier scorers.

Caldwell logged 30 minutes in her first WNBA game and led the Dream in scoring. She needed time to soak in the emotion that she finally had made it to this level of basketball. There were moments on the court where Caldwell wanted to cry.

The game provided one of the most-authentic sports moments of Caldwell’s career.

“I was somewhere in between ‘I knew she could do that’ and ‘I had no idea she had it in her,’” said her brother, Cam Caldwell. “I had my fingers crossed on every shot, her face was so confident.”

Those around Maya Caldwell don’t believe her stint on a hardship contract is her last taste of WNBA action. McDonald called Caldwell “a steal in this league,” and believes other teams will come calling if the Dream don’t.

“You can’t write this story any better,” Clay said. “I don’t think anyone could.”