November 27, 2020 

Five years on, Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball still hears Natasha Cloud’s voice

Cloud’s giving nature and outspokenness have lifted local communities as well as her alma mater

“This has been one of the toughest decisions of my career,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud posted on Instagram on June 22. “But, I will be foregoing the 2020 WNBA season. … I will instead, continue the fight on the front lines for social reform, because until black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.”

Cloud had participated in a march on Juneteenth to honor victims of police brutality, had written an article in The Players Tribune about George Floyd’s murder a few weeks before, and has passionately advocated for her local communities throughout her five-year WNBA career, so for many people, Cloud’s decision didn’t come as a complete shock. And for Saint Joseph’s University head coach Cindy Griffin, who coached Cloud for three seasons, it was even less of a surprise.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Griffin told The Next. “I just think that’s who Tash is. She’s about having a voice and making a statement, and I think she’s just sick and tired of the same thing [racism and police brutality] happening over and over again.”

But, as Cloud mentioned in her post, just because it wasn’t surprising doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. She has always worked extremely hard on her game and will go the extra mile—literally—to be around basketball. As a college student, Griffin said, Cloud attended games throughout the Philadelphia area, including those of her high school and AAU team along with other colleges and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. (Her high school, Cardinal O’Hara, is less than eight miles from the Saint Joseph’s campus in Philadelphia.)

In addition, Cloud had gotten engaged to professional softball player Aleshia Ocasio in July 2019, and the financial impact of forfeiting her $117,000 salary was surely a consideration. In May 2020, before she decided to sit out, she told The Next that the postponement of the WNBA season had made her anxious about how she would support her family. “We’re not NBA players. We don’t make millions and millions of dollars where we’re fine if we don’t have an income,” she said.

Cloud wrote that her decision ultimately came down to feeling “a responsibility to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball.” To Griffin, that statement epitomizes one of the Jesuit values that Saint Joseph’s teaches: being “persons for and with others,” which specifically includes “standing alongside those who are marginalized.”

Just over a week after Cloud announced her decision, her financial anxieties were alleviated when Converse pledged to match her lost salary. Converse had signed Cloud to a contract in December 2019, making her the first female athlete to represent the brand. In a statement announcing the salary match, the company praised Cloud’s activism and decision to sit out the season and said that the latter “demonstrates her integrity and strength. We are proud to have her on the Converse team.”

Throughout her Mystics career, Cloud has been comfortable using her voice, but it didn’t come naturally at first. Her youth football coach, Mark Ciarrocchi, tweeted earlier this year that when Cloud was a 10-year-old quarterback, “I had to literally beg [her] to call plays louder.”

But by the time she enrolled at Saint Joseph’s, the quiet Cloud that Ciarrochi referenced was gone. Griffin responded emphatically when asked if Cloud was ever shy: “Never. Never was she shy. Never. No, she … lights up the room with her big smile, her big personality.”

“She always spoke up,” Griffin added, “… whether it be basketball-related or things off the court.”

Cloud majored in communications at Saint Joseph’s in preparation for a potential broadcasting career, and her classes frequently required her to speak in front of a room of people. Between that and her experience playing sports, Griffin said that Cloud has always been able to connect with and lead groups of people.

“She’ll talk to anybody,” Griffin said. “… It can be somebody in the highest government; it can be somebody that’s homeless on the street. She will be an advocate for anybody if she strongly feels that her beliefs back their beliefs.”

Cloud’s ability to lift others was also visible on the basketball court, where she was a two-year co-captain and led Saint Joseph’s to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a junior. She was the Atlantic 10’s Defensive Player of the Year that season and averaged 11.2 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.7 rebounds in three seasons for Saint Joseph’s, having transferred from Maryland after her freshman year.

“[We] had a lot of success and tradition before Natasha Cloud came to Saint Joe’s,” Griffin said, “but she has brought us back to national prominence.”

Saint Joseph’s University guard Natasha Cloud cut a piece of the net after her team won the 2013 Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Photo credit: Saint Joseph’s Athletics

Griffin recruited Cloud in high school, and she did so again when Cloud wanted to transfer despite already having two point guards on the team. When Cloud arrived, Griffin often played all three point guards together, taking advantage of Cloud’s 6’ frame to have her defend and initiate offense from multiple positions. “She really raised our level of play every day in practice,” Griffin said. “[She was] very competitive, [a] great communicator. And you just love her energy, enthusiasm, and effort every day—second to none.”

In 2015, Cloud became Saint Joseph’s third-ever WNBA Draft pick and first in fifteen years when the Mystics chose her with the 15th overall pick. She has managed to stick in the league and eventually start for the 2019 champions because of her growth on and off the court in the past five years.

On the court, Griffin pointed to Cloud’s confidence in her shot as the biggest change. Griffin used to have to beg Cloud to shoot instead of pass, but in the WNBA, Cloud’s field goal attempts per game have steadily increased, and she posted the two highest effective field goal percentages of her career in 2018 and 2019. (Meanwhile, her passing hasn’t suffered: she averaged a career-high 5.6 assists per game in 2019, and in her career, she has assisted on 26% of the Mystics’ baskets that have been scored with her on the court.)

Source: Basketball-Reference

Off the court, Griffin has proudly watched Cloud mature under Mystics head coach Mike Thibault and his staff. In Griffin’s estimation, Cloud has developed more self-confidence, deepened her faith, and learned how to block out distractions.

“She tries to take on the world,” Griffin said. “And she’s human, and I think sometimes you have so much on your mind … In the last three years, she’s shared with me that she’s just really been able to focus … on what’s in front of her and what matters to her most.”

Cloud’s college career ended in 2015, but in some ways, she never really left Saint Joseph’s. Griffin still talks about Cloud when she is recruiting future players as an example of what the program values: “competitiveness, winning, but also doing things the right way.” And Cloud continues to return and give back to the team and university, including by serving on a university council that helps support and promote the athletics department, practicing with the team on occasion, and dispensing advice to the players.

“Tash is always checking in with the team and saying, ‘How can I help? Let me know how I can help,’” Griffin said. And when she is asked to do something, “she always says yes.”

Earlier this year, when much of the country was under stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, Griffin asked Cloud to speak to the team over Zoom about staying in shape and staying motivated despite the uncertainty about the future. But before Cloud could do that, the national conversation changed to involve social justice, and so Cloud’s conversation with the team pivoted as well.

“She really encouraged our players to speak up and [said that] it’s not just the seniors that have a voice and the freshmen matter, too,” Griffin said. “And … hold true to your convictions and your value system.”

Put another way, Cloud’s advice for athletes involves changing their perspective. “People sometimes feel that because we’re under a microscope, that it’s a negative thing,” she told The Next earlier this year. “And instead, why not change it into something positive and turn that microscope into a microphone?”

College coaches are always looking for the program-changing recruit whose talents can singlehandedly lift a program for four years. As rare as those players are, Natasha Cloud is rarer still as someone who elevated her program on the court and remains so invested in helping it rise. Over a decade after Griffin first recruited her, Cloud remains a program-changer, in no small part because she uses her microphone at every opportunity.

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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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