July 23, 2020 

Why Bridget Pettis left the WNBA to devote herself to Project Roots

'It was just time for me to go and do my work'

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Bridget Pettis. (photo courtesy of Chicago Sky)

Growing up in housing projects in East Chicago, Ind., Bridget Pettis and her family would compete with the rest of the community each year to see whose front yard was the prettiest. A short distance from the rows of trimmed hedges and homemade gardens was the community recreation center where she’d spend countless hours after trying basketball out at age 6. Between gardening and hoops, Pettis was set up for a life of two passions that sustained her the first several decades of life. 

Just a few weeks ago, Pettis decided to give up one love to commit herself more fully to the other when she stepped away from her post as an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky to grow Project Roots, the Arizona community garden she originally opened in February. The decision made headlines because of Pettis’ concern over the WNBA clean site in Florida, but for Pettis, it was truly just about a transition. 

“The situation that’s going on in our world right now made me feel like what I’ve already started doing is a little bit more important for myself, getting our health back in a stable place,” Pettis told The Next this week. “I started Project Roots thinking about my own family and the health concerns that we have, so (during the pandemic), it was like, let me stay on this (path) that I’ve already started and not give (my attention) to basketball.”

While Pettis agrees the WNBA did as much as possible to make the clean site safe, Pettis just couldn’t commit to the risks. 

“I kind of found out that people were having so many doubts,” Pettis said. “It’s not the Sky, but the choices that the league made that the season needed to (go) on, which I understand because we still, after 23 years, are building. I’m still supportive of them and the WNBA as a whole, but it was just time for me to go and do my work.”

The death of George Floyd on May 25 has already spurred so much change in American society, and Pettis admitted it changed her perspective as well. Around that same time, WNBA facilities opened up for player workouts, so it was not as if Pettis knew she would be opting out from the start. In fact, Pettis went into the delayed 2020 season believing it would be her last as a WNBA assistant.

As a former player herself, Pettis understands that even those who want to reinvest in marginalized communities and defeat white supremacy will do good through the WNBA platform this summer. But it no longer made sense for her.

“I feel like the players are in a good situation, and they’re managing it to make the most out of it, which they should, but for me, after 22 years, I would rather give my attention to our people in ways that can benefit us through this process,” Pettis said.

Project Roots is an expansive effort to get healthy food to folks who need it throughout the metro Phoenix area. Pettis last winter acquired land in the underserved south Phoenix area, part of which came from Agave Farms, a separate community garden she’d been part of for years. Project Roots now delivers raw food across the city as well as cooked meals to food kitchens. 

With the need for mutual aid projects like these growing since the pandemic, Pettis and her team raised enough money to buy water tanks that make it easier to farm. Project Roots has been able to plant over 100 fruit trees and partner with 20 or so volunteer gardeners in recent months in addition to sustaining a weekly farmer’s market that Pettis hopes can add locations over the course of 2020. A student from the University of Arizona hosts weekly seminars on Project Roots social media channels to educate the Arizona community about how to eat sustainably and cook healthy food. 

“It’s just a place of love and nurturing,” Pettis said.

It’s a far-reaching organization that allows Pettis to give back to the community where she played six seasons and coached four. Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, a plant-only eater for five years and decades-long Phoenician, says Project Roots is a culmination of lifelong passion for her former teammate and coach. 

“She’s had a profound effect on my career in a lot of ways in terms of how to treat your teammates and treat your community,” Taurasi said. “She’s affecting a whole community and doing it in an interesting way. … She’s trying to change the mindset that it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic class you’re in, you should still be feeding your body good things.”

As another adopted Phoenician with a husband on the Sky coaching staff and an entire family relocated to the WNBA clean site, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello (who also competed against Pettis as a player and coach) respects the difficulty of Pettis’ decision to step away from the game. 

“She’s so energetic and wants to give back everywhere. I have a lot of respect for that,” Brondello said. “She’s fighting other battles at home that we’re appreciative of.”

Project Roots truly is a product of love and fervor for Pettis, who has been in Gary, Ind., since leaving Chicago to spend time with family. Between taking on a young nephew in basketball here and there, Pettis has been exploring land where she might be able to set up a second chapter of Project Roots closer to home, where her family has taken to farming and gardening. She hopes to continue privately training young basketball players as well, either in Phoenix or the midwest.

It’s the first season Pettis has been able to rest in years, and she hopes it can be a time to reconnect with family and build Project Roots into something that can “benefit all humans” and adapt to the needs of the community and the moment. And Pettis won’t be tuning out completely from the game she loves, but instead watching from afar how the players are taking advantage of the moment and continuing to grow the league she committed nearly half her life to.

Said Taurasi: “She’s a pioneer in so many ways.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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