October 10, 2020
Gee, who’s the best McGee?
Comparing the college and pro careers of one of basketball’s most illustrious families
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In April, Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee posted a video on social media of him and his 3-year-old daughter Genevieve. They were watching a clip of McGee’s mother, Pamela, discussing her career in the WNBA.
“Me, me!” Genevieve said excitedly.
“You wanna play?” JaVale asked.
“You could be good like Grandma!” he told her.
“Grandma” Pamela grew up in Flint, Michigan, with twin sister Paula, younger sister Alayna, and brother Jimmie. She played basketball because she saw it as the only way that her family could afford for her to get a college degree, and she and Paula became some of the first women to receive full athletic scholarships after women’s basketball became an NCAA sport in 1981.
The twin 6’3 forwards also became some of NCAA women’s basketball’s first stars. In their careers, they combined to average nearly 36 points and 20 rebounds per game and recorded 109 wins against just 18 losses. They led USC to national championships in 1983 and 1984 and earned four All-America honors between them, with Pamela’s physical style complementing Paula’s finesse. Pamela still ranks sixth all-time at USC in total points and second in rebounds, while Paula ranks fourth in points and sixth in rebounds. Their jerseys were retired in 2012.
In 1983, The New York Times asked Paula about her basketball future. “Since we don’t have a women’s professional league, I’d like to be on the  Olympic team,” she said. “That would be the ultimate. After that, it would be nice if I had the option to play pro ball, like the men do.”
Paula did briefly play professional basketball, but she didn’t get her ultimate wish. The Olympic team selectors picked just one McGee: Pamela, whose own Olympic dream began in 1976 when she saw Lusia Harris on the cover of Ebony. Without Paula as her teammate, Pamela considered quitting the team, but she ultimately helped the United States win its first gold medal in women’s basketball in front of a home crowd in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Times’ Mike DiGiovanna described the twins’ emotions when the U.S. team received its gold medals:
“It was one of the magic moments of the 1984 Summer Olympics—one that transcended the gold-medal winning performance by the U.S. women’s basketball team. It was Pam McGee, U.S. team forward, on the award platform in the Forum, gold medal around her neck, searching for her twin sister, Paula, in the crowd. It was Pam and Paula minutes later, crying, embracing. And it was Pam putting her medal around Paula’s neck. It was a spontaneous, loving gesture—a gesture that touched a nation.”
After the Olympics, both McGees played in the Women’s American Basketball Association, which lasted just one season. Pamela then went overseas to continue her basketball career, while Paula—who had told The New York Times in 1983 that she “love[d] home too much” to consider playing overseas—returned to school, earned two master’s degrees in the 1990s and a Ph.D. in 2012, and became an ordained Baptist preacher.
Pamela’s basketball career flourished overseas, as she played in Brazil, Italy, and Spain in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She had a unique clause in her contracts for most of that time: a nanny, paid for by the team, to watch her son JaVale, who was born in January 1988.
“People ask me now: ‘How did you go to a foreign country, didn’t speak the language, and then take a 9-month-old-baby with you?’’ Pamela told The Ringer in 2017. “I don’t really know. Women do whatever they need to do.”
That included making her own American-style baby food and homeschooling JaVale until he was in sixth grade.
Alayna, who is four years younger than Pamela and Paula, played two seasons of college basketball at California State University, Fullerton. Her college coach said the 6’ forward might be quicker than her sisters, and by Alayna’s own estimation, she had more range, too. “We play a totally different brand of basketball,” Alayna told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.
Off the court, Alayna was different enough from her sisters that she compared their dynamic to “salt and pepper.” Alayna never tried to copy the twins, and the age difference made the twins quasi-maternal figures for her growing up. “We get along, but at the same time, we don’t do things the same way,” she said. After college, Alayna taught elementary school science for 25 years and then opened a holistic medicine company called Inner Sol Essentials.
When the WNBA was created in 1996, Pamela had already retired from basketball, but she returned to the sport to make more history. “I wanted to be a pioneer, to develop and set a standard for women,” she said. “… it was just historical more than anything, to be a part of the beginning of the WNBA.”
But Pamela was much more than a historical footnote: drafted No. 2 overall in 1997 at age 34, she averaged 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in two WNBA seasons. In 1998, she ranked in the top 10 in the league in total offensive rebounds and total blocks despite playing just 19 minutes per game. Five years later, she won a WNBA title as an assistant coach with the Detroit Shock.
JaVale and his younger half-sister, Imani McGee-Stafford, followed in their mother’s footsteps, making Pamela the first WNBA alumna to have children drafted into the NBA and WNBA. With Pamela as his financial manager, JaVale jumped to the NBA in 2008 after two seasons at Nevada, while McGee-Stafford—like her mother three decades prior—saw basketball as her gateway to a college degree before realizing she was WNBA material.
“We are so much alike, it’s eerie,” Pamela said of Imani. “You know, same length, she plays in the post, extremely competitive.”
The 6’7 Imani and 7’0 JaVale also have similar games despite living apart for most of their childhood. (JaVale lived with their mother and Imani lived with her father after Pamela lost a contentious custody battle over Imani.) In 2017, USA Today paraphrased Imani’s assessment of their games:
“They’re virtually the same. They’re both tall and lanky, rely on post moves and even suffered the same shin injury three weeks apart. They both make the same ‘tired stance’—crossed legs and hands on their hips. And, like many siblings, they make the same faces.
“‘I’m his mini-me,’ she joked.”
JaVale has played 12 seasons with six NBA teams, while Imani played four seasons in the WNBA before stepping away in 2020 to attend Southwestern Law School’s two-year accelerated program. She plans to return to the WNBA after she graduates and become a human interest lawyer specializing in women’s rights and sexual violence after she retires from basketball.
“As of now I’m pretty much the family disappointment,” Imani said earlier this year. “My brother is a two-time NBA champion. My mother is in the Hall of Fame. I’m totally a disappointment, but my success is not theirs. I’m not comparing myself to them. I’m making the most of my journey.”
While Imani may not compare herself to her family, that is my specialty at The Next. This comparison will focus on the McGee side of the family, though Imani’s father Kevin played overseas and aunt Trisha Stafford-Odom played in the WNBA.
Because there are more statistics available today than when Pamela, Paula, and Alayna played college basketball, the data on the family’s college careers are broken into two tables. The first compares the three sisters, JaVale, and Imani using statistics that were available in the 1980s, while the second compares JaVale and Imani in additional categories. The top result in each category is highlighted.
Sources: USC, Cal State Fullerton, and Texas women’s basketball for player statistics; Sports-Reference for player statistics; team Wikipedia pages for team records and postseason finishes.
“You wouldn’t have the WNBA without what we did at USC,” Pamela said earlier this year. She was referring to her whole team’s accomplishments, but she and Paula were two of its engines. The twins combined to average 35.9 points, 19.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game—more than Alayna, JaVale, and Imani combined. In this family comparison, the only individual category that a twin did not win was free-throw shooting, where Imani’s 69.6% edged Paula’s 68.1%.
Although JaVale and Alayna did not win any categories in the five-player comparison, it’s important to note that they are at a disadvantage because neither played in college past their sophomore seasons. JaVale put up slightly stronger numbers than Alayna, averaging 8.7 points per game on 54% shooting to her 5.1 points on 40% shooting, but both could have built on the success shown here if their college careers had lasted longer.
The same disclaimer applies when comparing only JaVale and Imani, but because JaVale chose to end his college career and turn professional after two seasons, I believe it’s fair to compare the entirety of their college careers in this way. Imani wins in most of the individual categories—including minutes, points, rebounds, and blocks per game—and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, two rounds farther than her brother. But JaVale had a higher field goal percentage, committed fewer fouls and turnovers per game, and had a higher team winning percentage.
As Imani prepared for the 2016 WNBA Draft, she recognized the opportunities that being a professional player would provide off the court. A year earlier, in a SportsCenter video feature and long-form article, ESPN had shared how Imani used slam poetry to cope with the pain of childhood sexual abuse, and she would continue to discuss mental health throughout her WNBA career.
“I definitely want to change the way we view mental health and the way we view sexual-abuse survivors,” Imani told The New York Times in 2016. “… While I’d love to play in the WNBA because I love basketball—it’s a great way to have a career—it’s also very helpful for me to do things that I want to change the world.”
After the Chicago Sky drafted Imani with the tenth overall pick, Pamela told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m just so excited I was part of the WNBA and it’s still here and I can see my daughter play.” But, in several important ways, the WNBA Pamela knew was not the same as Imani’s WNBA.
Those differences include the WNBA’s expansion from the original eight teams to 12 and steady improvements in its collective bargaining agreement. For this family comparison, the most important difference between the late-90s WNBA and today’s WNBA is that offenses are about 10% more efficient now than in Pamela’s era. The NBA is also a different league than the WNBA, though they have played similar types of offense over the past decade.
For those reasons, comparing Pamela, JaVale, and Imani’s professional careers is more art than science, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun exercise—particularly when the results give all three of them bragging rights:
Note: Data are for regular-season games only and are from Basketball-Reference.com.
One statistic that leaps off the page is JaVale’s 701 games played. It reflects not only his talent, but also the opportunity—which Pamela could only dream of—to play in an established professional league in the United States. Had the WNBA existed in 1984, when Pamela graduated from USC, she could have played many more than 57 games.
In addition to games played and started, JaVale outperforms his mother and sister in most of the scoring categories, including points per 40 minutes and effective field goal percentage. (This comparison uses per-minute statistics because Pamela played over 50% more minutes per game than Imani and therefore had much more time to record per-game statistics.) JaVale also has the highest player efficiency rating, which is calculated such that the league average is 15.0, and the most win shares per 40 minutes.
Defensively, JaVale leads his family in blocks per 40 minutes and commits the fewest fouls per 40 minutes. “I wish I was as athletic as him,” Imani said in 2017. “He’s just freaky athletic.”
But Imani has one honor her brother and mother can never duplicate: a spot on the WNBA’s All-Rookie Team in 2016, after ranking third in the league in block percentage and eighth in rebound percentage. For her career, she outperforms her family in offensive and defensive rebounds per 40 minutes and assists per 40 minutes.
“What I bring every day is energy,” Imani told Just Women’s Sports earlier this year. “I talk. I’m loud. I’m locked in. I’m a defensive presence and a rebounder. Defense is what I enjoy doing, and it’s what I’m known for doing.”
However, that defensive focus doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about offense. Earlier this summer, she staked her claim as the family’s best 3-point shooter on Twitter—and the numbers back her up. No one in the family is a prolific outside shooter, with 3-point rates all under 3%, but Imani has made 29% of her attempts, 10 percentage points clear of Pamela and JaVale.
Despite joining the WNBA out of retirement, Pamela’s comeback was successful enough to win several categories in this comparison. As previously mentioned, she was drafted the highest and averaged the most minutes; she also had the most steals per 40 minutes and the highest usage rate, which measures what percentage of a team’s possessions end with a given player shooting, going to the free throw line, or turning the ball over. And, although Imani was the best free throw shooter in college, Pamela improved on her percentage at USC by over five points as a professional to win that category, too.
In 2014, Pamela starred in a reality TV show on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Mom’s Got Game. Alayna and JaVale also appeared on the show, which delved into Pamela’s relationship with JaVale as both his mother and his business manager as one of its storylines.
One day, Imani may end up on television, too, but not as a reality star.
“I was on a panel with Billie Jean King today and she said I can be a congresswoman,” Imani tweeted on August 20, “and I know my mama been saying that but I believe it now. I can’t let Ms. King down.”
If Imani does enter politics one day, Pamela will need a new catchphrase to describe her family. Both on her reality show and several years earlier, Pamela summed up their accomplishments in eight words:
“The Kennedys do politics. The McGees do basketball.”
Families previously featured in this series include the twins in the West Coast Conference, the Vanderquigs, Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner, Chennedy Carter and Jia Perkins, the Joneses, the Samuelsons, the Ogwumikes (Part 1 and Part 2), and the Mabreys.
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.