The unstoppable Angel Reese wants more. And she makes no apologies for that

The unstoppable Angel Reese wants more. And she makes no apologies for that

BATON ROUGE, La. — When every inch of Angel Reese’s 6-foot-3 frame sank into the pleated leather chair across from coach Kim Mulkey’s desk this fall, it didn’t surprise Mulkey that Reese blurted out exactly what she was thinking.

But it did surprise Mulkey what her star forward said.

“I’m so happy to have a schedule again.” 

After a summer of photo shoots and events, flights and airport terminals, award shows and a medalist podium, after a summer of getting so much of everything Reese has wanted, what she wanted at the end of it all was … monotony. A week that looked similar to the previous one and the next and the one after that. She wanted to sleep in her own bed and potty train her new Toy Yorkie puppy, Tiago. She wanted to be in her apartment and cook her own meals. Alone. In quiet.

The player who’s estimated as one of the most highly compensated college athletes, whose rise to fame included a viral one-shoed block and a TikTok dance during a game, who might just have the most famous ring finger in college basketball and whose whereabouts have been chronicled by TMZ and Shade Room this offseason, just wanted to know: What can I expect of my Mondays?

This summer, no two weeks repeated. It was exciting. In some ways, it was even perfect. But it wasn’t easy.

In the week after LSU’s national title game victory over Caitlin Clark and Iowa — while Reese’s trash talking drew debate across the country — she was already doing plenty: a promotional event with Raising Cane’s in Baton Rouge; a flight to New York to meet with Instagram and TikTok; appearances on “Good Morning America 3” and “SportsCenter” before flying back to Baton Rouge for a fan event for Dick’s Sporting Goods. All in the course of four days. A week later, she was in Los Angeles, posing for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition and Sports Illustrated For Kids, and filming a segment on “The Jennifer Hudson Show.”

Two weeks later, from an event in Atlanta, she flew to Colorado for Team USA basketball team trials. The next month, she won a silver medal in Mexico for the AmeriCup tournament, averaging 11 rebounds per game. During her travels, she took two online classes and kept to a workout schedule, using friends’ gym connections in whichever city she was visiting. And when she returned to Baton Rouge, sent a familiar text to her assistant coaches and teammates: “7 a.m. Be there.” As in: The gym, for the first of a two-a-day workout.

Reese knows critics probably assume basketball is no longer her No. 1 priority. But she welcomes the doubters.

She knows that her summer allowed her to be her full self. Not just the LSU star, not just the “Bayou Barbie,” not just one of the faces of women’s college basketball. All of it, and more.

But still, how does a 21-year-old reconcile that “SportsCenter,” Shade Room “Saturday Night Live” and MSNBC discussed her this offseason? How does she even begin to conceptualize catapulting to fame the past six months? “Someone asked, ‘How do you feel about winning the ESPYs?’ I was like, I don’t be knowing what it means,” Reese said. “I don’t understand because everything is just coming so fast. … I’ve watched these things growing up, but when I finally get it, it’s just like, all right, but I don’t know. What does this mean?”

It means that her fame and rise to it speaks as much about her as it does about where women’s basketball has been and where it can go. She is one of the few female college athletes who has ever broken into the broader context of the American zeitgeist. But to her, the only thing she has done is be herself. And Reese has no plans of changing that, even as she’s changing women’s basketball.

“That an African American woman from Baltimore can speak her mind, that she can totally be herself. She doesn’t have to, as so many of us heard growing up, ‘fake it ’til you make it,’ says Angel McCoughtry, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time WNBA All-Star. “I think that’s what she’s teaching all of us — that you don’t have to fake it ’til you make it. You can be unapologetically you and make it. … That’s how powerful her story is.”

Angel Reese gesturing to Caitlan Clark in the NCAA championship game. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

Much like Reese’s rebounding ability, her rise to stardom has been guided by some forces she didn’t control. For rebounding, it’s her height. For her fame, it’s her timing.

Her national title season at LSU came as many waves crashed at once — a slowly building (and ready-to-burst) television audience, the implementation of name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities at which she was in the forefront, and growing intrigue fueled by off-the-court storylines.

Two years before Reese was born, the first regular-season women’s basketball game aired on primetime in February 2000. Since then, the number of nationally televised regular-season games has steadily grown. Viewership, however, has remained relatively consistent with about 3 to 5 million tuning in annually for the title game, with the high-water mark in 2004 when 5.6 million tuned in to watch rivals UConn and Tennessee.

The sport has produced stars and provided awe-inspiring moments and unforgettable matchups before.

But then came 2021.

From inside the NCAA Tournament bubble in San Antonio, women’s players demanded equal treatment to their male counterparts as the stark differences between the tournaments became clear with a Tik Tok heard round the nation that would eventually be watched more than 12 million times.

Reese was playing in her first NCAA Tournament after missing half the season with a foot injury and still managing to make the All-Big Ten freshman team while at Maryland. When she streamed an Instagram Live to discuss the treatment, the player who now has 2.6 million Instagram followers had only 200 people listen in.

But Reese felt it was important to speak up. She had seen this kind of double standard up close her whole life. Her younger brother, Julian, now a junior at Maryland, was also an elite basketball player. While she was ranked the No. 2 player in her 2020 girls’ class, he was ranked No. 51 in the boys’ 2021 class, but she saw him and his teammates receive preferential treatment in recruiting and national attention. When both of their teams earned brand sponsorships, Julian’s team received more gear and twice as many shoes as Angel’s. When their squads needed donations for travel, their mom had to hustle harder to fundraise for Angel’s team.

“I think that kind of sparked something in her,” Reese’s mother, also named Angel, said. “Angel seeing that discrepancy with her brother played into who she is today.”

The NCAA’s unequal treatment during the tournament drove both interest in the game as well as players’ voices. Three months later, as the NCAA’s arguments against NIL crumbled in court, athletes began signing deals.

After Reese’s sophomore season at Maryland, she became one of the first high-profile women’s basketball players to enter the transfer portal with automatic eligibility. While the portal draws mixed reviews from coaches, the attention it brings the women’s game in the offseason is undeniable. In the past, women’s college basketball would lull into the background after the title game; now, the portal provides interest for two more months. And Reese’s entry into it in 2022, her subsequent portal recruitment and then her commitment to LSU — and Mulkey — drew eyes.

Last season, with players growing their brands with off-the-court NIL partnerships and endorsements, as ESPN moved the women’s national title game to cable on ABC and as Reese and Clark were on a collision course in the championship game, the dam broke. The showdown peaked at 12.6 million viewers and averaged 10 million, a 104 percent increase from the season before, and two-thirds the viewership of the men’s title game — the closest those two entities had ever come.

Reese being herself on the floor and off was a major reason. Her NIL deals and her postgame press conferences may draw as much — if not more — attention to the women’s game as her play, and that’s fine with her.

“Angel has just been herself since the day I met her,” said longtime friend and LSU teammate Kateri Poole. “She’s never going to do the extra to just please someone. She’s going to be herself. And I think that’s what draws a lot of people to her. She doesn’t care what’s said, because when it’s time for business, she’s going to show you why she’s Angel Reese.”

And business means both on and off the court.

Her play throughout the season began to build her fame, but it was everything else — the qualities that feel uniquely Angel — that made her rise above the crest of popularity. She might’ve had the “shoe block,” but she followed up by speaking her mind.

Pointing to her ring finger toward Clark drew national debate about whether she crossed a line. Yet in an age in which even professional athletes sometimes shy away from answering questions about hot-button topics, Reese spoke out. She said this fall she hopes she and Clark can be teammates someday, but she also spoke to the impact that moment has had on the sport.  “The world is always going to have a good girl and a bad girl,” she said at LSU media days this month. “I’ll take that I’m going to be the bad guy because I know I’ve grown women’s basketball and inspired people.”

That authenticity built Reese’s brand, which captured the attention of national brands such as McDonald’s and Reebok.

“Timing was everything,” said Nyke Burrell, who coached Angel in high school at St. Frances Academy. “She came in at the right moment to be able to speak on the things she believes in, the things that she’s passionate about. … By being herself she is demanding more women, more Black women, to be authentically themselves and not hide who they are.”

Her senior season at LSU will continue to draw headlines for another circumstance based entirely on timing. Because of the COVID-19 bonus year — given by the NCAA to all fall and winter athletes who competed during the 2020-21 season — Reese could return for a fifth season. Through the wins and losses and her double-doubles this season, the debate will rage (and fuel more interest for Reese, Clark, Paige Bueckers and many others): Will she go pro? Or will she stay?

Angel Reese shooting vs. Virginia Tech

Reese set an NCAA single-season record with 34 double-doubles as a junior. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

From Baltimore, Angel’s mom has watched her daughter make headlines at LSU. There are certainly benefits to her daughter’s platform, but there’s also a loss of privacy. Her daughter can no longer go out for a quiet meal with family or friends. The school has adjusted her class schedule to be mostly online. And even when Angel handles the negative and offensive social media trolls with ease, the adults around her worry.

Her mom admits she sometimes has to hold her breath when Reese’s competitiveness and confidence is on display. She, too, was a college basketball player, at UMBC, but says that she never played with the level of emotion her daughter has. But, it’s the quality she admires most in Reese.

“I know the attention that brings,” she said, “and I know how some people perceive that. … The thing I’m most proud about is the way that a lot of young girls look up to Angel.”

That’s where Reese says she feels the most responsibility now. She knows kids are watching her as much as TMZ or the internet trolls watch her.

As a young girl, she idolized athletes like Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant. But Reese saw Angel McCoughtry, the Baltimore native who attended the same small Catholic high school as Reese and went on to have a decorated college and professional career, “make it” from her own backyard. In high school, Reese sent an Instagram message to McCoughtry, who at that point was well into her WNBA career, saying how much she admired her. But it wasn’t until last year that McCoughtry saw the message when she logged into her account to message Reese.

“I always tell kids: Don’t be like me, be better than me,” McCoughtry said. “Which she has already done.”

It’s not easy learning how to shape a national platform over the course of six months. It’s even harder when some are rooting for you to fail. Midway through last season, Reese felt a shift in crowds — it felt as though some opposing fans were rooting more for her and LSU to fail than they were for their teams to win.

“The main thing we used to talk about was that you have to take fame for what it is — they don’t love you, they’re just talking about you. … And the moment they see a chink in the armor, they’re going to attack that,” said assistant coach Gary Redus II, who became a confidant for Reese. “She then understood, OK, they’re going to say what they’re going to say. But it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. It matters what my people are saying.”

Reese thinks back to when she initially declined on Twitter the White House’s traditional invitation for national championship teams to visit after First Lady Jill Biden also invited runners up Iowa as a show of sportsmanship. At that moment, Reese, her teammates and close friends felt disrespected. So she was going to express how she felt.

Mulkey called her that day and told her that she loved how Reese felt comfortable to speak her mind, but it wasn’t her call to make. When the Tigers visited the White House, Mulkey had Reese present President Joe Biden with his customized LSU jersey.

It was a lesson in balance, learning that the loudest voice doesn’t always need to belong to the person with the biggest platform. It was a lesson in patience, something that Reese admits is not always easy to have as someone so goal-motivated and competitive.

“I’m just kind of thinking of the bigger picture of everything, always thinking not just of myself, but the people around me and how that affects other people,” Reese said. “Just being able to take a step back and look at it from a bigger picture and not just reacting immediately has just been something I’ve learned. That’s just growing up and maturing — just making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.”

She hopes kids who look up to her see this side of her too: That she’s learning, her unapologetic self sometimes requires an apology, she’s still figuring things out while staying true to herself.

“I’ve always wanted to be one of the best players in the country, but I never knew my inspiration outside of that,” Reese said. “Being able to have a voice and that getting broadcasted and just being able to be unapologetically me — I think that has helped grow another different kind of community for people who don’t always have a voice. I speak for a platform of people that don’t feel like they can say certain things.

On preseason Saturdays, LSU holds scrimmages in the practice gym. There’s no one in the stands, no pre-game hype video. Mulkey divvies up the team into two squads and switches the groups every quarter to keep things interesting. But no matter what she did last fall, Reese’s team always won. During the second scrimmage, Reese – then just three months with her new team — scored 32 points and pulled in 25 rebounds.

“That’s when I knew,” Redus said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how good we’re gonna be. But she is going to be unstoppable.’ ”

And for most of the season, she was. She set an NCAA single-season record with 34 double-doubles and led the SEC during conference play in scoring and rebounding.

By this offseason, Reese was one of the most recognizable athletes in the country. Yet she approached Mulkey and did what many stars wouldn’t: She wanted to know how the Tigers could add even more stars.

The interest from players in the transfer portal was high, but Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith and DePaul’s Aneesah Morrow were at the top of the Tigers’ list. Van Lith is a high-volume shooting guard who has a large NIL platform herself, and Morrow attempted the most shots per game of any player nationally last year. Their insertion into the LSU lineup and locker room undoubtedly means a change for Reese. After all, there are only so many shots to be taken and only one ball to go around.

Her logic? More is good.

“I wanted a super-team,” Reese said. “They want greatness and I want greatness. They want a national championship and so do I. So why not do it all together?”

Reese has catapulted to stardom in a way that wouldn’t have been possible five years ago and might not be as remarkable five years from now. She’s paving a path for those who want to follow in her footsteps and building a lane for those who want to find their voice. All the while, still growing up and figuring out who she is.

In a few weeks, her busy schedule will start again as the defending champions crisscross the country as the No. 1 team. Reese welcomes and relishes that spotlight. She also knows criticism will come and many will root for her and LSU to fail, and yeah, she welcomes that, too.

Mulkey often uses a quote that resonates in Reese’s mind: If what you did yesterday still looks big to you today, then you haven’t done much today.

So what’s bigger than LSU’s 2023 national title in front of 10 million television viewers, and record-breaking attendance for the face of college basketball?

Never one to mince words, Reese laughs and says, “Another one.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Kevin Mazur / Getty Images (2); Greg Nelson  / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)