Baltimore's Angel McCoughtry puts her own twist on Olympic basketball experience

Angel McCoughtry is in the midst of an eventful period of her life.

Angel McCoughtry's first business will open soon. It's an ice-cream shop in downtown Atlanta, less than a mile from Philips Arena, home of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream. Before long, fans of McCoughtry's team may be customers at McCoughtry's Ice Cream. That's the hope, at least.

This dairy dream of hers has been churning for years now. During basketball season years ago in Istanbul — when McCoughtry still played in Istanbul — there was basketball and … not much else, really. She'd eat ice cream, and think about the future. Her sweet tooth led to notions of entrepreneurship and then to a commercial Realtor and then to a menu of homemade, vegan and lactose-free offerings.

She invested in what she loved. This choice was simple.

In other matters of the heart, there have been harder decisions to make, like how to tell the world who you really are.

Professionally, McCoughtry is a four-time WNBA All-Star and two-time scoring champion. In the Rio Olympics, where the Baltimore native and her U.S. teammates will face France in Thursday's semifinals, she has become something of a viral sensation for the gold-medal favorites, her 360-degree layup in yet another blowout win endlessly looped.

In her personal life, McCoughtry is gay. She came out in an Instagram post last year. The announcement was a release — the feelings of love for her fiancee, the pain of alleged discrimination by former team officials. But it also has become a burden, albeit one lessened with each passing day.

"I don't want to disappoint or hurt anyone," McCoughtry said last month, before heading to the Summer Games. "But I think that sometimes you can't help who you love."

McCoughtry loves Brande Elise. They met through a mutual friend a couple of years ago in Atlanta, and an online courtship began. McCoughtry started following Elise on social media, commenting on her Instagram photos; Elise messaged her to ask whether McCoughtry would be open to doing an interview. Reunited, they talked about their lives in Atlanta. Soon, theirs felt better together. They envisioned a future with each other.

It was never going to be easy. In the WNBA offseason, like migratory birds, many players flock to European and Asian leagues. After two years in Slovakia, and before she met Elise, McCoughtry signed in 2011 with Istanbul's Fenerbahce, one of the most successful teams in the Turkish Women's Basketball League.

Turkey is home to some of the sport's best talents — former Maryland star Alyssa Thomas plays there, as does 2015 WNBA draft No. 1 overall pick Jewell Loyd, among many others — but the country's conservatism has long marginalized the LGBT community.

While homosexual activity is not illegal in Turkey, there are no laws that secure and protect gay rights. In June, riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters defying a ban on Istanbul's Gay Pride parade. Last month, a gay Syrian refugee was found beheaded and mutilated in Istanbul.

By then, love already had triumphed. Late in 2014, McCoughtry and Elise celebrated their engagement. The following February, McCoughtry announced on Facebook that she had terminated her contract with Fenerbahce, citing the team's "continuous violations of the player-club contract."

On March 31, 2015, McCoughtry posted a photo on Instagram of her and Elise smiling together. In the caption was a public declaration of love and an accusation. Fenerbahce officials had "threatened" McCoughtry's job, she said, demanding she say her relationship with Elise "was a lie."

"Yes we been discriminated against!" she wrote. "We lost friends! Family members are upset! They said i disgraced my religion! One thing i do know is that LOVE is a great feeling!" The post has more than 2,200 likes.

McCoughtry thought of her mother and father when she came out. Roi and Sharon McCoughtry are dear to her. They moved from Baltimore to Atlanta in 2012, partly to be closer to Angel, the eldest of their three daughters, the Dream's No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 WNBA draft.

Roi played basketball at Coppin State in the 1970s, and Angel, in a 2013 first-person piece for ESPN, wrote that he is "the one person who's always been there who has had the most impact on me becoming the player I am today."

He drove her to the Run N' Shoot Athletic Center in Prince George's County when Baltimore gyms would close for the night, and they'd work on her burgeoning game. He pushed her to attend a four-year university when her grades at St. Frances made junior college more attainable. He drove the eight-plus hours to Louisville to watch her play, the Cardinals reaching new heights with his daughter as their centerpiece.

Angel had become in so many ways a reflection of Roi, which made their most stark difference that much harder to bridge. Before retiring, Roi was the head pastor at Baltimore's Holy Nation Tabernacle. A "godly man," Angel has called him, one with a devoted and loving wife.

She'd had boyfriends before. Elise was not that.

"I don't think they were too happy in the beginning," McCoughtry said. "It was worse in the beginning, but it's gotten a lot better, because they were like, 'We don't want you being an advocate for it.' " She told them she wasn't, but that "this is who I love and what I am right now."

McCoughtry really and truly has grown up, those on Team USA say. Early in her Atlanta career, she was openly critical of then-coach and general manager Marynell Meadors. After Meadors was fired in 2012, McCoughtry was suspended indefinitely by her replacement.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who had coached McCoughtry weeks earlier on the gold-medal-winning Olympic team, wrote in a since-deleted tweet that an "inmate" was "in charge" of the Dream.

Two years later, at a national-team camp, Auriemma called McCoughtry one of his favorite players to coach, and last month, he said she had matured "in so many ways."

"She hasn't lost that kind of kidlike attitude — happy-go-lucky, hey, let's have fun, let's do crazy things that make everybody go, 'You know, that's just Angel,' " said Auriemma, now in his third Olympics as U.S. head coach. "But there's much more of a seriousness about her and her work and what she wants to do."

She has kindred spirits on an Olympic squad teeming with the world's best professionals. In the Americans' six wins (average margin of victory: 41.7 points), McCoughtry has posted 10 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. She had 13 points in an Aug. 10 victory over Serbia, including maybe the most widely viewed bucket of the women's tournament.

With the United States up 24 and about a minute left in the fourth quarter, McCoughtry took a pass just inside the 3-point line. There wasn't a Serbian in her half of the court. She had enough time to eat a bushel of crabs. After one dribble, McCoughtry came to a jump stop underneath the rim, spun 360 degrees in midair, one full rotation, and kissed the ball in off the backboard.

She glanced over at the U.S. bench, where her teammates looked as if they had just seen the world's greatest prank. Some were doubled over in hysterics. On the broadcast of the game, McCoughtry remained stoic. Or had she just unflinchingly committed to her trademark deadpan humor?

"Angel is different — in a good way, in her own way," Team USA veteran Tamika Catchings said last month. "I think that one thing about her is, she never fit into any typical group or any type of group."

In Brazil, Elise has accompanied McCoughtry throughout the Olympics, as have McCoughtry's parents. Roi and Sharon "respect her and they love her a lot," McCoughtry said of Elise, even if "I don't think they're a big fan of me getting married." Roi, asked about his daughter's engagement in Rio, said: "It's hard to answer that question. That's a tough subject to talk about."

Their wedding is tentatively scheduled for this spring, the location still to be determined. Bridal attire already is sorted out — the couple appeared in a January episode of TLC's "Say Yes to the Dress." But the rest of McCoughtry's complicated life is left to her to process. At Elise's urging, she has begun to write down her feelings in a diary. It has helped clear her mind.

"Anything can come of it," she said of her writings. "I haven't really put much thought into it. I just think that right now, I'm just living life and seeing what comes of it."

Maybe, she said, it'll be a book about ice cream.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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