Raina Perez is used to staring at obstacles. It’s not just her sport, women’s basketball, that seems forever in the shadow of the men’s game. He’s not only her height, 5 feet 4 inches — diminutive, even for a basic keeper. It’s not just that she’s Mexican-American, that there are quite a few Mexican-American stars in the hoops world.
“When you look at me, you don’t automatically think ‘basketball player,'” she told me. ‘I don’t look like that.’
It’s all of these things, and another – the biggest obstacle for them all. After shining in college and almost guiding North Carolina to the fourth final of the year, Perez hopes to make it to the WNBA
This is not easy at all.
Despite the league’s rising popularity—last season it achieved its highest viewership since 2008—WNBA’s full-time roster remains one of the most challenging assignments in American sports, especially for young players who need to spice up. Each of the 12 teams in the league can only carry 12 players, and most teams play with 11 players due to salary cap restrictions.
“There are as many teams as ours: there are no rookies,” said Brenna Stewart, the league’s most valuable former player, who contributed to the Seattle Storm.
This means that chances are slim for players trying to start a meaningful career in the best league in the world. They’re even less skinny for uncrafted talents like Perez.
“I’ve dreamed of playing in the league since I was a little girl,” said Perez, 23, who was raised rooting for her hometown team, the Phoenix Mercury. “This year I found out how difficult it is. No matter how good you are, you have to find the exact right attitude.”
Perez was part of a strong team that made North Carolina one of the top five college teams in Division I last season and a contender for the national title. One of her teammates, Elisa Konan, was drafted into the 17th pick by Storm. Minnesota Links used the 22nd pick to take another teammate, Kayla Jones.
Perez was not selected in the three-round draft, but Storm coach Noel Quinn sought to sign her as a free agent. Quinn has been following Perez’s extraordinary journey for years.
Known as a clutch shooter with a druid knack for reading action before he was fully developed, Perez finished high school as one of the top players in Arizona. However, there were doubts about whether she was good enough to be in the first division basketball.
I went to northern Arizona and immediately blossomed. Then I moved to Cal State Fullerton and thrived again. Finally, seeking to prove that she can stand up to the best college competition, Perez moved to North Carolina, where she became a star.
Perez quickly left college. Award winning bird game North Carolina Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Seal. She then led her team into the eighth round of the NCAA Championship with a last-minute steal and ball stop to defeat Notre Dame at Sweet 16.
On April 14, when I signed a boot camp contract with Storm, I felt confident with those performances.
On April 23, she played a pre-season game against the Los Angeles Sparks, scored 9 points and scored three rebounds, two steals and one assist.
Quinn was impressed. So was Stewart. “Rayna is someone who just understands it, and just knows how to play,” Stewart told me. “It’s a flat bird.”
On May 2, shortly before the start of the regular season, Perez was cut from the team. Around the same time, Cunane and Jones were also cut.
Roller coaster kept on.
Perez returned to Phoenix, where he turned his attention to coaching the women’s professional leagues in Europe, whose seasons begin in the fall.
Then her cell phone rang. “How fast can you join us?” asked the storm official. An Epiphany Prince in Seattle has tested positive for the coronavirus. The storm needed a quick replacement.
So Perez had made it to a regular season roster: two minutes against Mercury, which is long enough to provide assists. It is suitable for another match. And then, again, it was abandoned.
It shouldn’t be this way, Stewart said. “Women’s basketball needs to find a way to bridge the gap between college and the pros.”
My thoughts exactly, especially since the WNBA is still working to gain traction with American fans who are primarily interested in men’s sports.
Stewart is among a host of veteran stars speaking candidly about the need to retain more players like Perez, who are gaining a following in college only to seemingly disappear after graduation.
Stewart said before citing possible solutions: a more flexible ceiling; A developmental league modeled after the NBA’s G League; Taxi teams that allow marginal players to stay with teams for training.
WNBA Commissioner Kathy Engelbert has acknowledged the problem and says that increasing the league beyond 12 teams is likely the best solution. This sounds great, but the expansion will probably take years.
Waiting too long for a solution could affect the league’s future. Let’s say the WNBA continues to make it difficult to develop a viable career. How much time must pass before the younger generation decides that the WNBA is a shot too long to straighten out?
Perez has now joined a new league for Forza Regia in Monterrey, Mexico. On Sunday, 1,800 fans accepted at home in Fuerza Regia’s 100-79 win over Abejas de León, she scored 9 points and made 8 assists.
It’s not the biggest stage, and the season won’t last more than mid-July, but it’s professional. The team offers her an apartment. The crowds are small but noisy, and they love to cheer on Mexican Americans.
Perez knows the future is uncertain. Still planning to eventually play in Europe. But more players are looking for fewer jobs abroad. Because of the war in Ukraine, Americans are no longer playing in Russia. Enthusiasm for playing in China has waned because of its policies. However, like so many others in her position, Perez vows not to give up.
“I’m a basketball player,” she said, the voice company as she prepared for another practice with her new team in a new country. “I will stay with this for as long as possible.”