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Cleared to return to basketball, Baltimore’s Angel McCoughtry eager to test WNBA free agency

Angel McCoughtry #35 of the Atlanta Dream handles the ball against the Minnesota Lynx on June 29, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Angel McCoughtry #35 of the Atlanta Dream handles the ball against the Minnesota Lynx on June 29, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (David Sherman/HANDOUT)

When Angel McCoughtry was medically cleared this fall to resume playing basketball, 456 days had passed since the last time she had participated in a meaningful five-on-five competition.

So the Baltimore native and St. Frances graduate was understandably relieved to learn that the torn ACL and meniscus in her left knee and bone bruise she suffered in an Atlanta Dream win against the Las Vegas Aces on Aug. 7, 2018, was not a career-ending development.

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“It was like, ‘Life is back again!’ ” McCoughtry said recently. “It’s been a long journey, and I’ve been out for more than a year, and I haven’t played any real basketball. So I just can’t wait to get back out there. It was like a dream come true.”

The 6-foot-1, 173-pound forward/guard said she was worried that her doctors might not clear her, adding, “I was thinking in my head, ‘If I’m not cleared today, I can’t anymore,’ because it’s been such a long journey and the mind starts to trick itself [into thinking,] ‘You’re never going to get back.’”

But McCoughtry quickly dismissed any interpretation that she was willing to walk away from basketball forever.

“I’m only 33 years old,” she said. “I have plenty of basketball to play. I’ve never known that just because people get hurt, they retire from the game of basketball. I think any athlete wants to prove to themselves that they can come back stronger.”

ESPN WNBA and college women’s basketball analyst LaChina Robinson pointed out that retired WNBA star Tamika Catchings returned from an ACL tear in 2001 to win league Rookie of the Year honors in 2002 and a right Achilles tendon rupture in 2007 to become a WNBA All-Star in 2009.

“I think Angel can absolutely make a full recovery from her injury,” Robinson said. “Angel is one of the most competitive, fiery players that I’ve ever watched play the game. It’s been really her determination along the way to be the best player she could and put her team on the map – whether it was Louisville or Atlanta. I believe she’s going to bring that same type of determination to returning to form. I believe that she has missed the game of basketball and that she is really excited to continue what she started, which was an opportunity to win a WNBA championship.”

Whether McCoughtry returns to the Dream is much cloudier. She is an unrestricted free agent and recently dropped a hint that Atlanta may not be in her plans.

Folks on Twitter interpreted her tweet as a sign that she intends to leave for another destination, which McCoughtry did not explicitly refute.

“I know a lot of people had a lot of speculation, and it’s kind of funny because people were like, ‘Why are you leaving Atlanta?’” she said. “But the honest truth is, Atlanta hasn’t offered me a contract. It’s OK. I understand that at the end of the day, sometimes you’ve got to move on in life and sometimes things happen. I got hurt, and when I got hurt, management had another agenda, and that’s fine. It’s business. I’m still able to go out here and do what I need to do and know that I’m a positive asset to any team.

"I can’t wait to go to a team and help them win and just be excited to be out there. It’s the game. It happens all the time. Now you just explore your options and do what you’ve got to do. So I’m just ready to get back out there and play and be a positive asset.”

Two days earlier, McCoughtry suggested that the Dream had abandoned her. After fellow WNBA star and Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith questioned a lack of support from her team via Twitter, McCoughtry retweeted Diggins-Smith and added, “I know the feeling! And us women will fight for better! We deserve nothing less.”

Asked about the retweet, McCoughtry — who became a five-time WNBA All-Star, won two scoring titles, and was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 — confirmed that she wished that the organization had backed her more.

“Me and Coach [Nicki Collen] had a sitdown to talk about some things,” she said. “There were some things I wasn’t happy about with management, and I kind of felt like a lot of times I was out on an island by myself. For someone who has done so much for a franchise and has become one of the best players in franchise history, I do believe there is a way you treat someone. Whether they’re hurt or scoring 30 points, that shouldn’t change.”

But McCoughtry said she is thankful that she got to experience “the business side” of the sport.

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“I’ve taken a lot of positivity out of it so that I can say, ‘Hey, sometimes it’s going to happen and people are not going to believe in you,’” she said. “I was talked about a lot, I heard a lot of different things from people that I thought had my back. But it’s OK. It’s part of the process, and it makes the comeback even greater. This made me stronger. I may not have gotten treated the way I wanted, but this is going to be a positive testimony for other people who are going through the same thing.”

So would McCoughtry return to Atlanta?

“If I was to go back, I would have to say that I would have to make sure that I’m going to get treated the way I’m supposed to,” she said. “But that would have to be a discussion. I just want to go where I know I can make a positive change. I just want to go where I can have some fun, laugh, enjoy the girls, be a positive light on and off the court. That’s where I want to go, and that’s where I deserve to be.”

Dream spokeswoman Kelsey Bibik did not reply to McCoughtry’s suggestion that she was not supported. Instead, Bibik’s statement was limited to McCoughtry’s status with the team.

“Angel McCoughtry is now an unrestricted free agent, and at this time no team in the league — including the Dream — can begin negotiating a contract with her,” the statement read.

McCoughtry acknowledged growing up a fan of the Washington Mystics. But she pointed out that Washington won the WNBA championship last month and may try to retain the same players who drove the franchise to the title.

“I don’t want to be considered someone who is just jumping on the bandwagon now that they won a championship,” she said. “I don’t want to be labeled that kind of player. So it would be kind of hard to say that.”

Robinson, the WNBA analyst, said any franchise without three standout players like the Mystics have in guards Kristi Toliver and Ariel Atkins and forward Elena Delle Donne should pursue McCoughtry.

“If Angel makes the type of recovery that I think she can and gets back to form, Angel could be a huge acquisition to a team in this league and have a major impact on a team’s starting lineup and their championship aspirations,” Robinson said. “… I think it’s not really about trying to figure out what else is out there. I just think she’s trying to find the best fit for herself as a player, as a person, with a city, with a coaching staff and organization.”

McCoughtry said there are a few organizations she would not mind playing for. But she insisted that she is keeping the identities of those teams to herself.

“That will have to be a surprise for later,” she said with a laugh.

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