'Take my story back': How Layshia Clarendon earned redemption with the Sparks

Layshia Clarendon wasn’t used to having free time in the summer. Usually around this time, they would be in the middle of the grind of a WNBA season, a grueling schedule that consisted of games, practices and treatment, which didn’t leave much room for anything else. But then in 2022, Clarendon was cut by the Minnesota Lynx.

Clarendon spent the summer at home in the Bay Area, savoring every moment of a season they hadn’t experienced in more than 10 years. Hanging out with family, being on a boat, going to music festivals and the market. For Clarendon, it was a beautiful, if rare, time.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is what everyone does in the summer?’ This is so much fun,” said Clarendon , who identifies as nonbinary. “… People are really outside.”

Yet there were also dark days.

Clarendon normally loves to follow the WNBAout of a pure love of the game and the league. But in that 2022 summer, Clarendon couldn’t watch a game.

“It was just too hard,” said Clarendon, who is 33.

It was the first time since entering the league in 2013 that Clarendon wasn’t on a team. Despite a successful 2021 season in Minnesota, Clarendon began to question if their career was over. If they could still play the game at a high enough level. For the first time, Clarendon was truly wondering if they had enough left in the tank, had enough drive and energy.

“People don’t talk about that a lot … just the volatility of this league … how much perseverance you have to have to play in this league,” said Clarendon, who begins their second season with the Sparks and 11th in the WNBA on Wednesday night in the season opener against Atlanta. “It’s really difficult emotionally and physically.”

It was ultimately Clarendon’s child, known publicly as Baby C, who helped them through depression by playing together on a Little Tikes hoop. Baby C would pass the ball, and Clarendon would shoot.

In these small moments, seeing Baby C’s joy from playing basketball, reminded Clarendon of their own passion for the game. Love for the competition. Love for everything about the game. This was their game.

“No matter what anyone does, or what any GM has to say, I play this game,” said Clarendon, who starred at Cajon High in San Bernardino before playing at California. “I get to take control of my narrative. I get to come back and make this L.A. team and take my story back.”

Sparks head coach Curt Miller was honest with Clarendon when they were invited to training camp.

“It’s going to be a competitive camp,” Clarendon recalls him saying. “But show us what you got.”

Clarendon was fully betting on themselves. They knew they had to prove they were good enough to make the team, but they had come to realize that every year was a tryout in the WNBA. Clarendon wasn’t taking that for granted anymore.

They not only made the final roster for the Sparks, but they reminded everyone of their skills. Clarendon had arguably the best season of their career in 2023 with career highs in three-point percentage, free-throw percentage and steals. They also averaged 11.1 points, their highest since their lone All-Star season in 2017.

Clarendon also emerged as a leader for the Sparks, a theme that has reoccurred not just through their WNBA career, but really throughout life.

“I think it really just comes from who I am, and my deep love for people,” Clarendon said. “I love people, I love this game, and I want to make people better. I think that’s the best thing a point guard can be because … ultimately, it’s your job to make everyone around you better.”

A lot of people might think of a leader as the center of attention, but that’s not Clarendon. For them, being a leader is about attention to detail. It’s about making a cut on the court because they know it’ll get someone else open. It’s about sending a text to teammates who were waived. It’s about being a mentor to Aari McDonald and showing her the ropes as a young point guard. It’s about building relationships and showing up for people off the court.

They will help lead a team with two prized rookies in center Cameron Brink and forward Rickea Jackson, who were selected second and fourth, respectively, in the draft this summer.

“I’ve played every role in this league,” Clarendon said. “I know what it’s like when you’re a bench player, I know what it’s like when you’re a starter. I know what it’s like when you don’t play a lot of minutes and have to do cardio afterwards. I know what it’s like to be the person everyone’s looking at.”

Clarendon knows this won’t last forever, but they make the most of it by being deeply present in every moment.

“Age is coming for everybody, even Sue Bird,” Clarendon joked.

They look for the beauty in the moments between the grueling training camp practices. Things like connecting with a trainer during treatment, sharing jokes with teammates, getting hyped when they make a big shot, or talking trash in the middle of an intense scrimmage.

“Things like that make the joy and the fun between the game, really fun,” Clarendon said. “I just try and enjoy the moment.”

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