Too Much Talent for a Tiny League

Raina Perez is used to staring down obstacles. It’s not just her sport, women’s basketball, which seems forever in the shadow of the men’s game. It’s not just her height, 5 feet 4 inches — diminutive, even for a point guard. It’s not just that she is Mexican American, and that there are few Mexican American stars in the world of hoops.

“When you look at me, you don’t automatically think ‘basketball player,’” she told me. “I don’t catch the eye like that.”

It’s all of these things, and another — the biggest obstacle of them all. After starring in college and nearly guiding North Carolina State to this year’s Final Four, Perez hopes to make it into the W.N.B.A. And that’s not easy in the slightest.

Even as the league’s popularity has surged — last season it drew its highest viewership since 2008 — making the full-time roster on a W.N.B.A. team remains one of the most challenging tasks in American sports, especially for young players who need seasoning. Each of the league’s 12 teams can carry only 12 players, and most teams play with 11 because of salary cap restrictions.

Said Breanna Stewart, the former league most valuable player, who anchors the Seattle Storm: “There are too many teams like ours: no rookies.”

That means the chances are slim for players trying to start a meaningful career in the best league in the world. They’re even slimmer for undrafted talents like Perez.

Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm was impressed with Perez’s play. “Women’s basketball needs to find a way to bridge the gap between college and pro,” she said.Credit…Steph Chambers/Getty Images

“I’ve dreamed of playing in the league since I was a young girl,” said Perez, 23, who grew up rooting for her hometown team, the Phoenix Mercury. “I found out this year just how hard that is. No matter how good you are, you’ve got to find a situation that is just right.”

Perez was part of a powerful core that made North Carolina State a top-five Division I college team last season and a contender for the national title. One of her teammates, Elissa Cunane, was drafted with the 17th pick by the Storm. The Minnesota Lynx used the 22nd pick to take another teammate, Kayla Jones.

Perez wasn’t selected in the three-round draft, but Storm Coach Noelle Quinn sought to sign her as a free agent. Quinn had been following Perez’s unusual journey for years.

Known as a clutch shooter with a soothsayer’s knack for reading the action before it fully developed, Perez finished high school as one of the best players in Arizona. Still, there were doubts about whether she was good enough to make it in big-time Division I basketball.

She went to Northern Arizona and immediately flourished. Then she transferred to Cal State Fullerton and flourished again. Finally, seeking to prove her ability against the best college competition, Perez switched to North Carolina State, where she became a star.

Perez left college on a roll. Her game-winning jumper sealed North Carolina State’s A.C.C. tournament championship. Then she led her team to the N.C.A.A. tournament round of 8 with a last-minute steal and layup to beat Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.

On April 14, when she signed a training camp contract with the Storm, she felt buoyed by confidence from those performances.

On April 23, she played a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks, scoring 9 points and recording 3 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assist.

Quinn was impressed. So was Stewart. “Raina is someone who just gets it, who just knows how to play,” Stewart told me. “She’s a flat-out hooper.”

On May 2, shortly before the regular season began, Perez was cut from the team. Around the same time, Cunane and Jones were cut, too.

The roller coaster kept on.

Perez headed back to Phoenix, eyes set on training for the women’s professional leagues in Europe, which begin their seasons in the fall.

Then her cellphone rang. “How quickly can you rejoin us?” a Storm official asked. Seattle’s Epiphanny Prince had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Storm needed a quick replacement.

So it was that Perez made it onto a roster for a regular-season game: two minutes against the Mercury, long enough to dish out a pair of assists. She suited up for another game. And then, once again, she was let go.

Perez helped lead North Carolina State to the round of 8 in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament.Credit…William Howard/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

It shouldn’t be this way, Stewart said. “Women’s basketball needs to find a way to bridge the gap between college and pro.”

My thoughts exactly, especially since the W.N.B.A. is still working to gain traction with American fans besotted mainly with men’s sports.

Stewart is among a chorus of veteran stars speaking openly about the need to keep more players like Perez, who gain sizable followings in college only to seemingly disappear after graduation. “They need to be kept in the fold so they can keep learning and then take bigger roles,” Stewart said, before citing possible solutions: a more flexible salary cap; a developmental league modeled after the N.B.A.’s G League; taxi squads that allow fringe players to remain with teams for practice.

W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has acknowledged the problem and says growing the league beyond 12 teams is likely the best solution. That sounds great, but expansion will probably take years.

Waiting too long for a solution could take a toll on the league’s future. Suppose the W.N.B.A. keeps making it this hard to develop a viable career. How much time must pass before the younger generation decides that the W.N.B.A. is too much of a long shot to aim for?

Perez now suits up in a newly minted league for Fuerza Regia in Monterrey, Mexico. On Sunday, before 1,800 home fans in Fuerza Regia’s 100-79 victory over Abejas de León, she scored 9 points and had 8 assists.

It’s hardly the biggest stage, and the season will last no longer than mid-July, but it’s professional. The team provides her with an apartment. The crowds are small but boisterous, and they love cheering for an American with Mexican roots.

Perez knows the future is uncertain. She’s still planning on eventually playing in Europe. But more players are looking for fewer jobs overseas. Because of the war in Ukraine, Americans aren’t playing in Russia anymore. Enthusiasm for playing in China has dimmed because of its politics. And yet, like so many others in her position, Perez vows not to give up.

“I’m a basketball lifer,” she said, voice firm as she prepared for another practice with her new team in a new country. “I’m going to stay with this as long as I possibly can.”

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