August 30, 2021 

‘I got you’: The family love behind DeWanna Bonner and Erica McCall’s success

Bonner and McCall are closer than ever after being teammates overseas, but they will go head-to-head on Tuesday for the ninth time in their careers

When CSU Bakersfield women’s basketball coach Greg McCall found out that he needed to book a flight to Europe last winter, he said, “I was the happiest man in the world.”

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Two of his six children, WNBA players Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner, had signed on to play for the same team, Atomerőmű KSC Szekszárd in Hungary, in the offseason. It was the first time that they had been teammates at any level, and it was a rare opportunity for them to be in the same place after growing up in different households in different states and crisscrossing the world as professional athletes.

Erica and DeWanna led KSC Szekszárd to a historic third-place finish in EuroCup, which was the icing on the cake for the family reunion.

“It was something special to be there to watch both of them and to share the moment with each other,” Greg told The Next. “I have this picture on my phone that I’m going to get blown up and … I’m going to put one at work and I’m going to put one at home, of them hugging each other.”

Greg’s pride spills over when he talks about his daughters, and it’s not only that of a father who wants his daughters to accomplish their dreams. He was also their first coach, teaching them to play on a backyard hoop and coaching their travel ball teams until they were old enough that NCAA rules prohibited it.

Basketball came naturally to DeWanna, who spent most of her childhood in Alabama but stayed with Greg and Erica in California for several summers as a pre-teen and teenager. As Greg’s oldest child, DeWanna’s backyard lessons built the foundation for how her siblings would learn the game.

“It was easy for me to teach [Erica] because she wanted to be just like DeWanna,” Greg said. “… So I just told her, whatever footsteps DeWanna put down, you just put your feet right in her footsteps and you just follow right along. … I don’t want you to change anything.”

DeWanna and Erica hung on Greg’s every word, but despite Greg’s best-laid plans, there was one big difference between the sisters: They chose different positions and styles of play.

“I tried to train Erica to be like DeWanna, to be this 6’2, 6’3 guard, and she just kept gravitating toward the post,” he said. “I tried to train DeWanna to be a post because she was so much taller than everybody [topping out at 6’4]. She kept gravitating toward the perimeter, so I just started teaching DeWanna all guard skills, and then eventually I just started teaching Erica the post.”

DeWanna and Erica both became standouts at Power 5 colleges in their home states, DeWanna at Auburn and Erica at Stanford. DeWanna, who graduated in 2009, is still Auburn’s career leader in scoring (2,162 points), free throws made (600) and free throws attempted (755), and she ranks second with 1,047 rebounds. Erica ranks in the top ten in Stanford history in rebounds (976), blocks (200) and games played (144).

Although they had similar successes at the college level, DeWanna and Erica took very different paths in the WNBA. DeWanna was drafted fifth overall by the Phoenix Mercury in 2009 and immediately found her role, winning WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year in each of her first three seasons and WNBA championships in 2009 and 2014. She played 10 seasons in Phoenix before joining the Connecticut Sun in 2020.

“I’ve always just looked up to her,” Erica told The Next. “She’s been my number one inspiration in life, especially when she got drafted. When I saw her get drafted, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s something that I want to do.’” Being in the stands when DeWanna won a WNBA title in 2009 only motivated the 14-year-old Erica more to try to join her sister in the league.

Erica realized that dream eight years later when the Indiana Fever selected her with the No. 17 pick of the 2017 WNBA Draft. She defied the odds to make the team as a second-round pick and averaged 10.7 minutes per game in three seasons with the Fever, though her teams never made the playoffs. She then played with the Atlanta Dream and the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA bubble in 2020 before being signed and traded to the Washington Mystics this offseason.

“When I got to the pros, [I said to Erica,] ‘Okay, well, here’s my path, this is my road and here’s my advice to you,’” DeWanna told The Next. “But Erica has definitely written her own story. I always tell people that. I more so look up to her because her journey was so different from mine and it’s just humbling to see her to continue to work hard no matter what circumstances come her way. …

“Here she is … jumping from team to team and you never see any doubt, any stress, any sadness or bad attitude in her. It was always positive and she just kind of rolled with her circumstances, and that’s hard to do in this league.”

Mystics point guard Leilani Mitchell, who played three seasons with DeWanna in Phoenix and is Erica’s teammate this season, said that the sisters are “totally different” on and off the court, with one major exception. “They’re just good people, good human beings,” Mitchell said. “Erica’s always upbeat, encouraging everyone … And DeWanna’s the same; she’s just a very caring person. And so it’s good to see, be able to play with both of them.”

Greg said that his daughters have helped each other blossom in the WNBA, with DeWanna helping Erica adjust to the professional game and Erica helping her sister become more outgoing. DeWanna is typically quieter and more private than Erica, a social butterfly and constant entertainer who once performed alongside Carrie Underwood in concert. But DeWanna has followed Erica’s lead and opened up more on social media, including sharing her relationship with teammate Alyssa Thomas.

“I’m super proud of her [for] that, and it’s really cool for me to be the younger sister and to inspire your sister,” Erica said. “Most of the time growing up … [older sisters] constantly inspire you, but when she told me that I inspired her, I was like, that just warms my heart to see, and to see our sister continue to blossom has been really cool.”

On the court, the biggest improvements Greg has noticed are in Erica’s confidence and DeWanna’s leadership. Erica has always been coachable, he said, but she has expanded her game and developed her guard skills since entering the league, and playing for some of the WNBA’s most esteemed coaches in Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Washington’s Mike Thibault has also given her more confidence. Meanwhile, DeWanna absorbed years of leadership lessons from Phoenix legend Diana Taurasi and has come into her own as a leader in Connecticut.

“She just kind of lets her game speak for itself, but I’ve seen her now actually speak and talk a whole lot more than she ever has,” Greg said.

Over the past year, DeWanna and Erica also forged a closer relationship in the WNBA bubble and overseas. They had limited free time in the bubble with three games per week, but Erica said they got to do joint interviews for the first time and “share our love with each other out loud, rather than … through an article.” The Connecticut Sun also invited Erica to DeWanna’s birthday party because the sisters share an Aug. 21 birthday, eight years apart.

“We had the time to celebrate in the bubble. That was pretty cool,” DeWanna said. “… [And] those days where it was tough, it was good to see her face and talk about other things except basketball.”

Their subsequent experience in Hungary, where they were teammates for about six weeks, cemented the sisters’ bond, to the point that DeWanna said that they now talk “all the time” about basketball and life. Much of that bonding took place in Erica’s car: “She didn’t have a car, so I took her every day to practice,” Erica told reporters in May. “[I] felt like a mom, picked her up, texted her like, ‘I’m outside,’ honked and stuff. And so in those … 10-minute periods, we got to really get to know each other. …

“We haven’t really been as close as sisters as we would like, and so this opportunity for us to get to know each other and play with each other was so special for us and something we’ll never forget.”

When DeWanna and Erica returned to the U.S. and resumed playing for different teams, their closer relationship didn’t make them any less competitive on the court. Both sisters are very aware of DeWanna’s 7-1 record against Erica in the WNBA, and Erica knows that she has yet to score on DeWanna. They don’t always guard one another and don’t talk much trash on the court, but there is a lot riding on the outcome of their games—at least, in theory.

“We always say loser has to buy dinner,” DeWanna said, “but I always probably end up buying since I’m the oldest.”

“She was telling the waiter that, like, ‘We beat them,’” Erica said of their first matchup this season, an 86-81 win for Connecticut. “… But as generous as my sister is, she paid for [dinner].”

Washington Mystics forward Erica McCall (second from left) hedges out to defend Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas (5) in a game on May 28, 2021. McCall’s sister, DeWanna Bonner, is visible at right cutting in the opposite direction. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

Greg has attended every head-to-head matchup except for the ones in 2020, which were not open to fans. He is frequently present for their other games, too, coaching and cheering from start to finish.

“Everybody’s like, ‘That’s your dad! I know that’s your dad. I hear him!’” DeWanna said. Erica added that she will text him if she can’t find him in the stands before a big game because she is so used to hearing his voice.

“I’m a huge fan of my kids … I’m going crazy because they got it, they’ve made it [as professionals],” Greg explained. “… I’m fist-pumping, I’m cheering, I’m clapping, high-fiving a few fans if they’re sitting by me. So I’m into it.”

Erica and DeWanna also count on Greg’s texts before the game (usually “Let’ssssss goooooo!”) and at halftime (with advice such as “Keep it rolling,” “Hold your follow-through,” or “Box out”) to help them focus and adjust on the court.

“The pregame text, he’s, I think, more excited for the game than I am,” said Erica, who brings no shortage of energy to games herself. “… And then, of course, at halftime, those are like essential texts for me. I truly look for his texts during halftime, try to sneak out my phone real quick to see what he says. … He’s just my favorite coach, so I’m always looking forward to hearing his words.”

“He’s a coach; he’s been there before, so especially when I’m struggling, to see that text, ‘You’re all right, keep going, settle down, slow it down’ … it helps me personally just to read the game a little bit more,” DeWanna added. “So … the first thing I do is grab my phone and see what he has to say.”

Both daughters typically respond to Greg’s halftime texts with “I got you”—and more often than not, they deliver. DeWanna has made four All-Star teams and two All-WNBA teams, while Erica can swing the momentum of games with her unparalleled energy and relentless rebounding. Through all their successes, they are both extremely grateful for Greg’s advice and support, and DeWanna considers Greg “my best friend more so than a coach.”

With DeWanna and Erica now established in their professional careers, it might seem like Greg’s days of coaching his family are winding down. But he is keeping an eye on a few prospects: his youngest daughter, seven-year-old Chloe, as well as DeWanna’s four-year-old twins, Cali and Demi.

Chloe is “very tall and skinny like DeWanna,” Greg said. “… She’s built like DeWanna, walks like DeWanna, at times looks like DeWanna—depends on how she wears her hair. And she dabbles with the game a little bit, but it’s too early to tell.”

Meanwhile, Cali and Demi understand that DeWanna and her former partner, Atlanta Dream forward Candice Dupree, play basketball, but they are trying a sport that is new to the family: gymnastics. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘I want to be a basketball player,’” DeWanna said, “but we’ll see.”

If any of the next generation do play basketball, Erica said, she plans to be the loudest one in the gym cheering for them, just like her dad. There won’t be any familial pressure to play, just the same love and support—and free coaching—that helped DeWanna and Erica reach such heights in the WNBA.

“The two of them, they should be so proud because … it is rare that you have sisters that are able to make it to the top level. And not only make it one or two years—they’ve both been playing for a long time,” Mitchell said. “So it’s great. It’s something they should be very proud of.”

Read all of Jenn Hatfield’s Family Rivalries stories here.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

1 Comment

  1. Anita Ashby on August 30, 2021 at 6:52 pm

    Great article … both granddaughters are my favorite players in the WNBA!

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