From the stands at The District’s Entertainment & Sports Arena, Becca Wann-Taylor watched WNBA point guards Natasha Cloud and Courtney Williams face off until confetti dropped on the Washington Mystics' first championship in franchise history in October 2019.
Wann-Taylor's seat for greatness is closer now than it was 28 months ago. When she watched Cloud and Williams again last month, it was alongside them in Athletes Unlimited jerseys. And in her place in the stands with her husband, Dan Taylor, was a child she questioned would ever be a reality that October.
Jojo Taylor, outfitted by dad in a “Momma is a bucket” onesie, is 15 months old and spent five weeks this winter watching her mom play professional basketball. The journey has been different than expected for the family, one that includes an athletic path ended by concussions, a stillborn first child and two miscarriages. When Wann-Taylor was told last month the 2022 Women’s History Month theme is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” she paused and remarked on goosebumps.
“The fact that that is the theme really resonates with me,” Wann-Taylor told Yahoo Sports during the Athletes Unlimited (AU) basketball season in Las Vegas in February. “That’s why I'm doing what I'm doing. And I hope that someone — and not even an athlete [because] it’s universal — I hope that someone gets a little bit of hope from our story.”
Wann-Taylor, 29, came into an open Athletes Unlimited basketball tryout with no professional basketball experience. It didn’t matter. AU signed the new mom as one of its 44 inaugural players, allowing her an opportunity to fulfill one dream and openly talk about the taboo difficulties of another.
Becca Wann, soccer gold medalist, and the journey to motherhood
Wann-Taylor always saw herself as a professional athlete, except the path a decade ago was soccer. A gold medal as a teenager will do that to a person.
The Virginia native played both sports at the University of Richmond, where she attended on a soccer scholarship and earned All-American honors. She ranks first in points per game (1.52) and game-winning goals (15), second in goals scored (34) and third in points (76).
Wann-Taylor (née Becca Wann) won gold with the 2012 U-20 FIFA World Cup team that featured Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, Julie Ertz (née Johnston), Kealia Watt (née Ohai) and Morgan Gautrat (née Brian). But as her teammates went on to NWSL and USWNT stardom, Wann-Taylor had to put her cleats aside because of concussions.
She stayed close to athletics by becoming a Division I women’s basketball referee in 2015, the same year she married. Avid travelers, the Taylors added WNBA games, like Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, to their itinerary.
“There would be a causal thought thrown out of, ‘Oh, I could see myself on one of these teams or I could see myself playing or something on the floor,’” said Wann-Taylor, who estimated she watched every game YouTube TV would record. “But it was more casual and less, ‘I’m going to be there one day.’”
The couple focused on family, but that aspect of her life journey wasn’t linear, either. Two months before her May 2018 due date with their first child, Wann-Taylor noticed she hadn’t felt her baby girl move. The doctor at the hospital could no longer hear a heartbeat and she delivered stillborn Norah Jean Taylor, 4 pounds, 4 ounces and 18 inches long, at 32 weeks on March 29, 2018.
It was a difficult period, one they refused to let break them. Though she initially questioned her faith, she returned to it amid more hurdles. In June 2019, Wann-Taylor experienced a miscarriage and then another that December.
“I had days where I questioned whether we would ever be able to have a kid,” she said. “[I thought], oh what’s wrong with me? Which obviously is not the case. But these are things that go through your mind.”
They kept things quiet during their fourth pregnancy. No social media announcements with baby booties or lavish baby showers. Wann-Taylor stressed and even labor presented difficulties. She had to undergo a C-section and hemorrhaged so much her blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels. Nearly three years after Norah, in November 2020, the Taylors welcomed her healthy baby sister, Jojo.
They didn’t have to open up to the world about their journey, but they decided that in “voicing the hard” they could help others. Stillbirth occurs in approximately one of every 166 births and approximately 24,000 children are stillborn in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Miscarriages — the loss of a baby before 20 weeks — occur in an estimated 26% of all pregnancies, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
“Infant loss is very taboo. Nobody talks about it,” Wann-Taylor said. “But once you do, people come out of the woodwork because they’ve experienced it as well. And there is so much strength and comfort in either having someone either a little bit further in the journey ahead of you or you helping someone who is a little bit behind you. You draw strength from that.”
Jojo hears about Norah, whose name is tattooed on her parents’ ring fingers. She also hears her mom pumping up elite-level teammates on a professional basketball court televised to a national audience.
Wann-Taylor pursues basketball dreams
It was nearly two years to the day after Wann-Taylor watched the Mystics win a title that Athletes Unlimited announced superstar point guard Cloud as one of its first basketball players. With more signing announcements came a note that caught Wann-Taylor’s eye: The league would host open tryouts in Atlanta for at least one available spot.
Wann-Taylor was already working toward becoming a professional basketball player, only with the WNBA training camps in April as the goal. Amber Nichols, a teammate at the University of Richmond and general manager of the NBA G League's Capital City Go-Go, encouraged her back in July, months after giving birth, to pursue it. Even though the AU tryout meant adjusting the timeline to be ready, Nichols told Wann-Taylor it would be a great way to gauge her progress.
Encouragement from the general manager of a basketball team was a big boost. The family set out for Atlanta on the weekend of the couple’s sixth wedding anniversary even though Wann-Taylor was “nowhere close to where I wanted to be” in her training.
“Apparently, I measured up OK,” she said of the tryouts. Dan was already looking up Las Vegas restaurants, sure his wife would receive an offer.
Wann-Taylor, Taj Cole, Briahanna Jackson and Takoia Larry were offered AU deals and they joined dozens of current and former WNBA and overseas players. It created surreal moments, like playing on a team with Cloud and Williams in opening scrimmages.
“The first day live in practice I saw Courtney Williams’ jumper, I was kind of like, OK, this is legit,” Wann-Taylor said.
Weeks later, she hit the gym and Kelsey Mitchell, the Indiana Fever guard fresh off of Team USA camp, insisted they work out together rather than take Wann-Taylor’s offer to pass and screen for her.
“Moments like that is where it’s hitting me,” Wann-Taylor said. “It’s like, wow, it really is an honor to be one of the 44 women in this league.”
Players earn individual points, and each week the top four point-getters draft their teams for the next three games. Wann-Taylor played for eight-year WNBA veteran Odyssey Sims, Chicago Sky champion Lexie Brown and Dallas Wings forward Isabelle Harrison, the inaugural Defensive Player of the Year. She finished 39th on the leaderboard, and though AU attempts to award aspects of the game with points, not everything can be quantified.
— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) January 30, 2022
From tryouts to tip-off, she worked on conditioning with workouts designed by Richmond’s assistant athletic trainer Sara Spencer and strength and conditioning coaches Beacher Porter and Jay DeMayo. They put her on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule for heart rate conditioning in anticipation of AU games so she came in as prepared as possible.
“One of the things I really bring to a team is energy and a spark off the bench,” she said.
— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) January 29, 2022
Wann-Taylor didn’t have many nerves going into her first professional basketball season thanks to all of the support around her.
Motherhood in AU
The first question Wann-Taylor asked, before she even made it, was if she could bring Jojo.
AU worked with each mother individually to set up a situation that worked best for them. They had suites with separate bedrooms and offered to pay for a nanny vetted by the couple since Dan would be there working remotely. Instead, the Taylors had family members who wanted to piecemeal their time in town. Instead of childcare help, Wann-Taylor asked for a second room to house them.
“They said, ‘Absolutely. What else do you need?’” Wann-Taylor said. “There’s been no pushback, no anything.”
Wann-Taylor said a big part of not experiencing stress was knowing her family was taken care of from a last-minute high chair request to an athletes lounge of kids' toys and books. It allowed her to focus on the game, and fellow mothers in the league are just as appreciative. Tianna Hawkins, the league’s inaugural champion, brought her mom, Latanya, and son, Emanuel.
“They were comfortable, they had so much fun [and] they just felt so involved,” Hawkins told reporters on a Zoom call after earning the title. “It made my life a lot easier because I didn’t have to stress about if they were having a good time or have to stress about making arrangements to have them come out. Everything was taken care of [and] I was able to just focus on playing and preparing for games.”
AU announced a pregnancy policy last March outlining its commitment to supporting mothers, both current and future, throughout all of its leagues. It is, in some ways, steps ahead of the WNBA, which only recently adopted certain maternity protections and motherhood support. It wasn’t that long ago Wann-Taylor said she was visiting with former soccer teammates Watt and Gautrat in Louisville talking about the difficulties of being a mom in the NWSL.
“My hope is that this league serves as a catalyst for those types of issues to progress these other leagues to keep up,” she said. “As a mom being able to be here, play professional basketball and not have any concerns is just something that I am very grateful for.”
If Jojo couldn’t go, Wann-Taylor said she wouldn’t have played. The league would have missed out on a special talent, and one whose experiences enriches those watching.
Healing and hope
Wann-Taylor has trouble finding the right words to describe her husband, landing only on one that falls short.
“Awesome is even a lame word for him,” she said. “I mean, what husband [is supportive] when their 29-year-old wife who had a baby eight months before says, ‘Hey, I’m going to cut my job in half and instead take the time to train to become a professional basketball player. And we have a newborn. What do you think about it?’ His first response is, ‘Do it.’ And has never faltered in that.”
Their journey has been rocky, from the big stuff of pregnancy difficulties to the minutiae like contracting COVID-19 weeks before the AU season. If the next goal is a WNBA training camp contract, she would “1,000%” accept “with my little family in tow." Next season, she will continue her career as a referee, though she might scale back stretches like the five games in five states in five days she used to do.
In a dream world, she does both since their seasons complement each other. But if not, AU completed what it intended with every one of its leagues.
“Athletes Unlimited has fulfilled my dream to play in the U.S.,” Wann-Taylor said. “I’m a professional basketball player. I did it.”
The league has also allowed her and Dan to continue to talk about and honor Norah four years later.
“To be here now and able to confidently talk about it and in the hopes that someone else can draw strength from it,” she said, “I’m just so grateful, honestly.”
The Taylors view the sharing of their story as an avenue to healing for other couples and families. As for the hope part, all anyone had to do was watch Jojo playing with confetti next to her mom on the Athletes Unlimited court.