When a veteran plays 8½ seasons in the WNBA, globe-trots for overseas teams during every offseason since college and struts away from two Olympics with a pair of gold medals, it’s easy to wonder what’s left.
“I’m playing for a lot of these kids out there,” she said. “This was me.”
Before the Atlanta Dream forward and Baltimore native evolved into a seven-time WNBA All-Defensive team honoree and four-time All-Star, she and her father, Roi, a forward for Coppin State in the 1970s, used to trek 60 miles to watch the newborn Mystics play.
Standing on the Washington court in 2018, the memories haven’t lost that luster.
“It’s a dream come true. Watching them, I was inspired by them. Thought, ‘Wow, this could be me,’ ” said McCoughtry, who scored a game-high 24 points in Atlanta’s 106-89 win in Washington on Wednesday. “To be able to play the sport, doing what I can do for my family and my hometown, it’s a special experience, playing here [in D.C.].”
McCoughtry’s parents now live in Atlanta, and can watch their daughter play at home. But for the friends and cousins she left behind in Baltimore, it was a grinning postgame reunion at the arena’s Greene Turtle.
“They woke up early. I was surprised. You know, usually it’s hard to get to an 11:30 [a.m.] game,” she said. “I’m glad to see my family as much as possible, the window to play in sports is so short, and then I’m playing overseas. It’s so good.”
For McCoughtry’s close friend Rachel Larvetricus, 40, of Baltimore, getting to see McCoughtry, 31, bounce back after taking a season off from the WNBA was awe-inspiring.
“I feel like she’s focused,” said Larvetricus, who met McCoughtry as a high schooler. “Sometimes you just need a break … just to get everything back into perspective, and that’s what she did. She took that break, , and she’s back even stronger.”
Even though McCoughtry can’t call D.C. her home — especially as some Mystics fans chucked boos her way during her free throws — there's a magnitude to being so close to Baltimore. After nine years in Atlanta, McCoughtry still credits her “game, my strength” and her toughness playing on outdoor courts with the neighborhood boys to the streets.
“Those are sweet memories. It’s one of those things. When you’re on your deathbed, that’s what you’re going to take with you,” she said. “Those are the most things you’re going to cherish in life. My five-bedroom house, my two expensive cars, it’s those memories that are priceless that you take with this game with you.”
It can be hard to square up the 6-foot-1 All-Star with the high school kid at St. Frances who struggled with her SAT scores — she even left Baltimore for a prep school in rural North Carolina after her four years of high school left her ineligible for the NCAA. But it was at St. Frances that McCoughtry realized that she was a different kind of player; her coach Jerome Shelton made that pretty clear.
“It’s your heart that makes you great,” she said. “I think that’s something I carried with me. My coach [at St. Frances] always said I had a different mentality than everybody else, that’s what I always tell myself.”
McCoughtry’s scoring has faded somewhat since her return. The player who holds WNBA records for the most single-game points in the Finals (38) and playoffs (42), she’s averaging 16.9 per game this season, the lowest total in her career since her rookie year in 2009.
“I’m not the top scorer this year. It certainly was something I’d always been,” McCoughtry said. “But when you have the heart and desire to be great, you can’t that away, no matter what the stat line says.”
The numbers have helped McCoughtry navigate her new role as a mentor. Between free-throw shooting and shot-blocking sessions before the game Wednesday, the veteran hugged and chatted with her primarily 20-something teammates.
“I’m the oldest person on the team, can you believe that? … I’m not as young as I thought I was,” McCoughtry said. “I need to be someone different because we got so many young players on the team.”
At the emotional helm of the team, McCoughtry still finds games in which she can lead with her play. McCoughtry scored a team-high 24 points against the Mystics, the majority in the second half. She set an WNBA season-high by racking up 39 against the New York Liberty on June 19, earning her Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. She’s steadily climbing the all-time scoring ladder, sitting at 15th, and surpassed her 5,000th point this season, the second-quickest to do so after Diana Taurasi.
Defensively, McCoughtry is ranked 10th all-time with 587 career steals, but now she says she’s not as quick as she once was — and Mystics coach Nicki Collen agrees, with an asterisk.
“Well, I think she has moments where she [says], ‘Okay, rook, here I am,’ ” Collen said. “She doesn’t get downhills as fast she once did, but when she can play in small spaces, she’s still explosive. She’s such a strong finisher of getting and-ones around the rim and getting up to the rim.”
Part of McCoughtry’s next-stage leadership comes off the court as she advocates for higher pay for WNBA players so that they don’t have to commit to hooping year-round, at the expense of their body and an entire season, to fill the bank.
“We don’t play for the money. We can’t,” she said. “After taxes, a lot of these girls got $30,000. We’re playing because we love the game.”
Close to a decade of professional play is behind McCoughtry. The Olympics, for now at least, are behind McCoughtry, though she said she’d like another gold medal. She’s even a successful business owner, with her Atlanta-based ice cream shop “McCoughtry’s” scooping positive reviews online and budding corporate interest.
McCoughtry doesn’t have a lot of firsts left — except one.
After piloting her Dream to the WNBA finals three times in eight seasons and walking away empty-handed, there’s a hunger still.