After nearly three months in a bubble environment at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Mt. Juliet High School legend Alysha Clark is now a two-time WNBA champion.
Due to COVID-19, the season was on the brink of being cancelled. But the league put together a shortened-regular season and a full playoffs in the bubble, where the Seattle Storm were crowned champions for the second time in the last three seasons.
“It feels pretty amazing,” Clark said “I don't think it's sunk in quite yet. Even hearing you say that it's still kind of like, ‘Is it real?’”
As the No. 2 in the tournament bracket, the Storm received a double bye straight to the semifinals. They were nearly untouchable, sweeping through both of their series 3-0, including over the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the Finals.
The Storm only seemed vulnerable on one occasion - their very first game of the playoffs against the Minnesota Lynx. The contest was tied at 86 with 5.3 seconds to play when Clark, always in the right place at the right time, rescued a broken play by hitting a game-winning, put-back layup as time expired. The Storm never looked back.
“Honestly, it was really exciting,” Clark said. “That was my first playoff buzzer-beater. I don't think I've even had a buzzer-beater since I've been in the league, so to have it in that moment was really freaking crazy.
“The first thing you learn as a post player is that most rebounds come on the opposite side of where they’re shot from. So I was like, let me just at least get in here to try to get a tip-in or something, and when I saw it go off the other side of the rim, I just went for it.”
On a team that starts four All-Stars (MVP Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Jewell Lloyd and Natasha Howard), Clark’s contributions often get overlooked. She generally takes a backseat on offense and focuses on the defensive end of the floor. But just because she defers on the offensive end doesn’t mean she lacks in the bucket-getting department. Clark led the nation in scoring twice while at Middle Tennessee, averaging 27.5 points per game as a junior and a program-record 28.3 per game as a senior. She says it’s fun to play with a group where any one player can take over the game on any given night.
“It's really special because our team is made up of a group of people that are super selfless,” Clark said. “We don't care who gets the accolades. We just care about winning at the end of the day. And when you have such talented players like we have and and they’re selfless, it makes it so much fun to go out there night in and night out. It makes your team that much better.”
This isn’t Clark’s first close-knit title team. During her senior season at Mt. Juliet, Clark averaged 24 points and 11.6 rebounds per game on the way to being named Tennessee Miss Basketball, earning All-American honors from the WBCA and AAU, and leading the Lady Bears to the Class AAA state championship.
“We had so much fun together,” Clark said. “We loved hanging out together, and that's something that even now we do here in Seattle as well. It reminds me of that family feeling of our senior year. We just really enjoyed being around each other.
“When you have a group of people that you can actually enjoy being around off the court and then you're winning games and winning championships, making history together on the court, it makes it that much more special.”
Clark says her time spent in Mount Juliet and with the Lady Bears was fundamental to her basketball success.
“It's so special for me,” Clark said. “When we moved to Tennessee, I was a sophomore in high school and I was just starting to play basketball. Being in Mount Juliet was what helped lay that foundation for me of things that I still use today. Coach [Chris] Fryer [taught] me the basics and the fundamentals of basketball.”
Following the dream senior season at Mt. Juliet, Clark spent two seasons at Belmont, where she led the program to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Following her transfer to Middle Tennessee, Clark made the NCAA tournament on two more occasions and took home two Sun Belt Player of the Year awards and multiple All-American honors. She was inducted into the Blue Raider Hall of Fame earlier this month.
Despite all the accolades, Clark had to fight for her spot in the WNBA. She stuck because of her defensive abilities.
“When I first got into the league, I had to find a way to stick,” Clark said. “I had to find a way to be able to make a difference, and for me it was buying into defense because, at the time, that's what our team needed. So, I took it as a challenge.”
After constantly honing her defensive skills over the past decade, she’s now one of the best defenders in the league, a two-time All-Defensive honoree and the runner up for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
“I wanted to be in the talks of being one of the best defenders in the league this season,” Clark said. “Even a goal of mine was to win Defensive Player of the Year. To be in that position and kind of look back and see what it took to get there, all the studying and breakdowns and things of that nature over the years, to be where I was this year was really awesome.”
Clark is used to the professional grind, but being in the bubble for so long made this season harder than the others.
“This was a lot harder than our 2018 championship, just because of everything that came with it,” Clark said. “The amount of games [we] were playing in the short amount of days, not being able to leave campus, and taking on the fight of social justice and using our platform and carrying that burden for Black women in this country. There was just a lot invested.”
Clark believes the league accomplished its goal of spreading the message of social justice while in the bubble.
“I think we did really well,” Clark said. “We were unified as a league of 144 players, and that's something that's really special and has never been done before.
“So the fact that we were able to come together in that environment, have the conversations that we had, and collectively put out a message night in and night out and help educate people with something, that for us was what mattered the most. To be able to have done the things that we've done this year is something that I'm really proud to have been a part of.”
With the bubble in the rearview and the league’s next steps unknown, Clark knows one thing for sure.
“Every year the goal is a championship, so yeah, the goal is to win another championship,” Clark said. “I want to win as many as I can before I retire.”