October 31, 2021
‘I just want the people in L.A. to be able to see me’: Erica Wheeler on tour
Sparks guard is bridging the gap between players and fans
VENICE BEACH, Calif. — It was a warm and sunny Southern California Saturday in mid-September. The perfect weather for beach and boardwalk activities, which is exactly what most people were doing at Venice Beach.
But on the famed Venice Beach basketball courts, a group of middle school-aged children were hard at work going through drill after drill and sweating in the sun under the leadership of Los Angeles Sparks guard Erica Wheeler.
The Sparks were hosting a girls high school basketball tournament dubbed ‘Balln On The Beach,’ throughout the day. As part of the event, a group of younger kids got to participate in a little basketball skills clinic alongside Wheeler. The clinic included shooting drills, dribbling, defensive drills, and more.
The event was one of several that Wheeler has participated in since arriving in Los Angeles as a free agent this past offseason. After spending the first four years of her WNBA career with the Indiana Fever, Wheeler headed West to join the new-look Sparks.
She had a strong first season with the team, putting up a career-high 13.6 points per game and shooting 35.5% from three-point range. She was the only player to start all 32 games and she was the one consistent, driving force behind the Sparks this season.
But perhaps her biggest impact wasn’t what she did on the court, but what she’s brought to the community off the court. Leading the girls in a skills session was important for her in that these basketball hopefuls got to have real interactions with a professional player.
“At the end of the day, it’s important for them to see a WNBA player in the flesh,” Wheeler told The Next. “To see what hard work looks like, what energy looks like and see what direction looks like. I think it’s very important. I’m new to Cali so it’s important for them to see me.”
Throughout her career, Wheeler has always been a staple in her community. She hosts an annual basketball camp for young girls in her hometown of Miami. For Wheeler, bridging that gap with the community is one of the key ways to build support for the WNBA.
The 2021 WNBA playoffs were the highest-viewed playoffs since 2014. The 2021 season was the highest-viewed regular season since 2012. The WNBA and women’s basketball as a whole is experiencing a time of exponential growth and a lot of that begins with players and teams being accessible and visible to the communities they play in.
“That’s how you bring fans, that’s how you allow these kids to be able to see what the women’s game looks like,” Wheeler said. “And it’s growing every year. I think it’s very important to get out in the community and let people know that we’re not just the LA Sparks in Staples Center, it’s a whole community.”
Wheeler will continue to host events back home in Miami, but since she’s come to LA, she notices a similarity in terms of community support. Having done her basketball camps back home and now getting to see some of the local youth talent in LA, she sees similarities in talent as well.
She grew up playing in the hot sun in Miami and she sees some of that same energy from the kids playing in the warm weather in Southern California.
“It’s kind of similar. Miami and LA are hot and we’re outside playing ball,” Wheeler said. “For me, to be able to come here and do these things here that I do in Miami, it’s a blessing. It’s super amazing to see the different talent from Miami to LA. I just want the community to know that I’m here to give myself and help support.”
Since the Sparks season ended, Wheeler’s appearance at Venice Beach is one of a few Sparks community events she’s participated in. On Oct. 17, Wheeler hosted another skills clinic for the Jr. Sparks where participants got to work on ball-handling, shooting, defense, rebounding and footwork.
This past weekend, Wheeler joined a group of local youth for a tour of Snearkertopia, an interactive sneaker exhibit featuring some of the rarest shoes in existence as well as various art pieces focusing on sneaker culture.
The tour also featured a performance from the Sparks dance group the Sparkids as well as a meet and greet session with Wheeler at the end. Aside from being a big sneaker fan, the tour was another opportunity for Wheeler to immerse herself in the community and bridge that gap between fans and players.
“I told myself that when I signed here, my number one thing was to get out in the community. I want them to know that I’m a basketball player that cares about the people outside of basketball,” Wheeler said. “I just want the people in L.A. to be able to see me doing camps and doing pop-ups, that’s super important to me.”
Wheeler has another year left on her Sparks contract, and although the future can’t be predicted, while she’s here in LA, she wants the city to know this about her.
“I’m genuine, I’m human. Although I play basketball, I’m human,” Wheeler said. “I always want people to have a great time, I just want them to know I care.”
Written by David Yapkowitz
David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.