January 26, 2022
How Natasha Cloud is powering women’s basketball at home and abroad
From Jordan to Vegas, 'it's the rooms that we've been wanting to be in'
The typical WNBA player spends most of the offseason overseas, playing nearly year-round to supplement their salary and refine their game. Nine of the 12 players on the 2021 Washington Mystics roster are going this route, according to team PR, playing in seven countries on three continents.
But Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud has always been a trailblazer, and her offseason has been unprecedented and action-packed. Most notably, she competed for Jordan in the 2021 Asia Cup in November and is the headliner for the five-week Athletes Unlimited season that starts on Wednesday. The new experiences have reinvigorated her after a difficult WNBA season and given her a strong sense of purpose as she strives to elevate women’s basketball both at home and abroad.
Cloud took a month off of basketball after the Mystics’ season ended short of the playoffs in September. A few weeks into her break, she vacationed with her wife, Athletes Unlimited softball champion Aleshia Ocasio, in St. Kitts and Nevis, and flew to Jordan soon after.
The Jordanian national team had reached out to Cloud’s agent, Stephanie Stanley, about six to eight weeks prior to try to recruit Cloud. Cloud told The Next that she has “never really enjoyed” playing overseas, but she had always wanted to visit the Middle East and see sights that “date back to the beginning of all things.” In addition, the commitment was only about a month, and it was evident how much the team wanted and needed her.
“I’m always getting calls with folks wanting Tash to come over for a short-term deal, but this one was definitely more appealing,” Stanley told The Next. “… They needed that position … they wanted a leader and she was the ideal fit for them.”
Cloud arrived in Jordan for about a week and a half of practices and scrimmages before the Asia Cup. She hit it off with her teammates and coach, fellow Saint Joseph’s University alum Faisal Ali Yousef Ensour, right away.
“His belief in me was awesome,” she said. “… He’s seen me play for years … Everything that I was is everything that they needed, and that’s always a good feeling.”
Jordan entered the Asia Cup ranked 123rd in the world, the lowest of the six teams in the tournament’s Division B. The winner of the tournament would be promoted to Division A, from which teams can advance to World Cup qualifiers and other international events. Cloud carried the host country to the Division B finals—and a subsequent 40-point jump in the international rankings—with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals in the semifinals against Kazakhstan. Across the four games, she averaged 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 3.3 steals and 0.8 blocks in 35.9 minutes per game, all team highs except for rebounds.
“I just got to work on what I needed to get better on,” Cloud said. “… I was just pushing myself outside my comfort zone, which obviously here in the W, [when] you’re playing with some of the best players in the world, you don’t always get to do that. But over there, I was just really able to work on my game and kind of expand and try different things. And I was really confident. Like, I was getting bucket buckets. I was like, ‘Who am I?’”
Told that that sounded like the play of a certain WNBA MVP, she jokingly agreed: “I channeled my inner Elena Delle Donne.”
Beyond Cloud’s on-court success, the new setting allowed her to reset her feelings about basketball after she led the Mystics through an injury-riddled and sometimes frustrating season and was snubbed for the WNBA’s All-Defensive Team. “[I was able to] find my passion and joy back for the game,” she said. “… That was huge for me. I was surrounded by really good people, the great organization over there [and] a federation that just welcomed me with open arms and let me be me. So I had so much fun.”
“Just looking at the photos, I haven’t seen her this happy in I don’t know how long,” Stanley said.
Cloud felt the love from fans, who sold out the arena for the championship game against Lebanon, and support from the Jordanian federation and the king. She met with heads of state and immersed herself in the Jordanian culture during her month abroad. And she felt that she was making a difference by mentoring her teammates and helping her team show the country how great women’s sports can be.
“I could tell that they never had a sold-out crowd before. I could tell they never had been in this type of environment,” she said. “… Afterwards I was like, ‘You should be really proud of yourselves because we have pushed women in sport and women in basketball forward here.’”
Stanley said that the Jordanian people “adopted” Cloud as their own—and to compete in the Asia Cup, Cloud had to adopt Jordan, too. She became a naturalized citizen, which allows her to retain U.S. citizenship but prevents her from competing for USA Basketball going forward.
Cloud had participated in USA Basketball training camps for 3×3 in 2020 and 2021, but she had not competed internationally in 3×3 or five-on-five. After the Jordanian federation reached out, Stanley said that she asked USA Basketball whether Cloud was in consideration for future tournaments but was “not … able to get a definitive answer.” In contrast, Jordan had never had a player of Cloud’s caliber and was thrilled to get her.
“You want to play with your country’s name across your chest, but my number was just never called,” Cloud said of her decision to naturalize. “… So you find people that want you and you go with them.”
Cloud and Stanley anticipate that she will compete for Jordan in future events, but, Stanley said, the WNBA is Cloud’s priority.
After the Asia Cup, Cloud got back to work in Philadelphia with her trainer, James Clark—“doubling down on myself,” as she wrote on Instagram this month. With the WNBA All-Defensive snub still fresh in her mind, she said, “I’ve been working my ass off to prove myself. There’s a lot more that I want to accomplish here in the W, and I really truly see myself as one of the best point guards in this league. And so I just want to establish myself and kind of just do it for me.”
In particular, she has been working on her offensive consistency, including her 3-point shot and shooting off the dribble. She has also added moves to her arsenal and practiced them at different speeds. “A lot of times we’re taught in girls basketball the fundamentals, and that’s what makes our game so beautiful, but we’re not always taught the craftiness, the shiftiness, the playing with pace and playing with a flow,” she said. “So … making sure that I’m changing my paces, utilizing my strength of being a bigger guard and slowing down and being able to create and dissect those pick-and-rolls.”
Cloud then represented the Mystics at the 2022 WNBA draft lottery in December, sporting her Grandpa Duane’s lucky watch and securing the No. 1 overall pick for the city she calls a second home. She also accompanied Ocasio to donate sports equipment to a YMCA in Cloud’s hometown of Delaware County, Pennsylvania—and even gave a young basketball player a brief shooting lesson.
“She’s always made it a point to be accessible to younger generations,” Ocasio told The Next.
Next up, Cloud will compete in the inaugural Athletes Unlimited basketball season in Las Vegas and meet with Converse, the company with which she has a shoe deal, to map out their plan for 2022.
Athletes Unlimited is a new concept for offseason basketball, not only because it provides a domestic alternative to overseas play but also because it follows different rules than traditional five-on-five basketball. There are 44 players and no coaches, and the teams change each week. Players earn points for individual and team performance that accumulate throughout the season, and the top four players in the standings each week draft the teams for the following week. At the end of the season, the player with the most points is named league champion.
Cloud first learned about Athletes Unlimited through Ocasio, who has participated in both softball competitions to date. In a promotional video, Cloud said that she had pushed for the league to add basketball for a while:
“When Aleshia told me about AU in the first place, I was like, ‘This is going to be an amazing league … But I’m a little jealous—when’s the basketball coming?’ And then volleyball came and I’m like, ‘This is amazing. Where’s the basketball?!’ Then lacrosse came and I’m like, ‘This is even doper. They’re just continuing to grow. But where is the basketball?!’ So now that it’s kind of coming around to me, it’s just really exciting.”
Once basketball’s turn came, Cloud was one of the first players to sign. She is featured in many promotional graphics and videos as arguably the league’s highest-profile player, and she is on the five-person Player Executive Committee that makes key decisions alongside the Athletes Unlimited staff.
“Athletes Unlimited is unlike any other sports league I’ve ever seen,” Cloud said. “And they really give power to the players. Everything goes through us; every decision is made with us. There’s no GMs; there’s no owners. So it’s a really powerful thing.”
Cloud expects the league to be highly competitive this season, and she is excited about the innovative points system. Surprisingly, her favorite element is the deductions for turnovers, missed shots and fouls.
“The deductions add another competitive kind of edge to it to be as on top of our game as we can,” she said. “… I really do believe that pressure is a privilege, and I think Athletes Unlimited brings a different pressure because you do have to be on your game at all times.”
Cloud was chosen just eighth overall in the Week 1 draft, but she is determined to finish the season as the champion. “Aleshia put a lot of pressure on me with winning Athletes Unlimited softball this summer,” she laughed, “so … I might get some shit-talking in the house when I come home if I don’t win.”
“I give her some, [for] lack of better words, crap on that sometimes, kind of make sure she knows that I’m the champion in the household until she can hold her own,” Ocasio confirmed. “But … I have faith in her.”
Beyond the individual leaderboard, Cloud is playing for charity and for the future of the league. Each player designates a charity that will receive a donation separate from the player’s compensation. Thinking about the fraught political landscape today as well as her personal experiences, Cloud decided to play for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
“Obviously, it’s been a war on women the last few years, but especially this year, and [on] a woman’s right to her body and the right to a choice for her body,” she said. “So, for me, it was important for me to play for Planned Parenthood.
“Even in high school, I had situations where my dad had lost his job, we didn’t have any insurance and Planned Parenthood was where I would go for my checkups. I think that we have an ignorance in this country of … what is actually going on at Planned Parenthood. And so it’s really important for me to play so that young women and women everywhere have access to proper health care and proper treatment, and obviously to have the rights and choices to their bodies.”
The hope is that this inaugural season will position Athletes Unlimited as a stable domestic league that complements the WNBA. For non-WNBA players, Athletes Unlimited offers another avenue to play domestically—and, with nationally televised games, greater exposure than playing overseas. And for WNBA players, Athletes Unlimited allows them to get more rest and stay closer to their families than they likely would playing overseas.
Those are huge positives for Cloud, who has battled homesickness overseas and will have Ocasio with her for part of the Athletes Unlimited season.
“It’s the rooms that we’ve been wanting to be in to progress women’s sports here in the States,” Cloud said. “And my hope is that one day we won’t have to go overseas, that we’ll be able to transition from the W straight into Athletes Unlimited and then back to the W. So [I’m] just really excited to be a part of this, excited to be a part of progressing our sport.”
Between the Asia Cup, Athletes Unlimited, the WNBA draft lottery and even her charitable endeavors, the common theme in Cloud’s unique offseason has been going where she is wanted and needed. That has rejuvenated her and prepared her physically and mentally for the 2022 WNBA season. And the hope is that going where she’s wanted will get her where she wants to go: an Athletes Unlimited title, a career year with the Mystics and maybe even another WNBA championship.
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 and FanSided.