May 27, 2024 

Motivated Diggins-Smith appreciates her journey as she reflects on her career

Diggins-Smith: 'I never thought I'd be able to be here'

WASHINGTON — One minute, Skylar Diggins-Smith was beaming a radiant smile while answering questions and posing for a selfie with a fan. A few seconds later, as the discussion shifted to her one-year-old daughter, she found herself unexpectedly dabbing away tears with the front of her sweat-soaked jersey.

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“That’s the mom side of me,” the Seattle Storm veteran guard told The Next a few seconds after she composed herself. “I cry at the drop of a dime.”

That powerful moment symbolizes Diggins-Smith’s courage and vulnerability as she continues her return to the basketball court. As neatly stacked brown boxes of the Storm’s postgame meal sat on a nearby table, Diggins-Smith stood outside the locker room clutching her phone and reflecting candidly about motherhood, her family, getting a fresh start in Seattle, and her legacy.

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Before she became emotional, Diggins-Smith’s eyes had sparkled with gratitude after seeing several excited little girls lined up along the railings, waiting patiently for photos and autographs. That precious pregame moment transported Diggins-Smith to her childhood roots in South Bend, Indiana, when she was one of them.

Now, a wiser and seasoned Diggins-Smith sees the same gleam in the eyes of her two kids, which fills her heart with delight whenever she looks at them. They watch her every move; everything she does now is for them. 

“They are my whys,” Diggins-Smith said after helping the Storm defeat the Washington Mystics, 85–76, at the Entertainment & Sports Arena. “Those are my reasons. You know, they’re always happy to see me. This is the longest I’ve been away from my daughter on this [three-game, five-day] road trip, so it’s been tough for me. Being a mom shows you different aspects of life. You know, it’s not just about basketball. We sometimes think this is the only thing, but the most important thing to me is when I go home.”

Storm guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) dribbles the ball while defended by Lynx guard Courtney Williams (10). Diggins-Smith is looking to the left with her left arm pointing toward another player.
Skylar Diggins-Smith (right) is excited for her 10th season in the WNBA. She scored 22 points in this double overtime loss to Courtney Williams and the Minnesota Lynx on Friday, May 17. (Photo credit: John McClellan / The Next)

Diggins-Smith says she has found the serenity necessary to balance motherhood and basketball as she returns to the WNBA from a 20-month hiatus to play her 10th season. She embraces every moment, no matter its significance. Intimate moments at home, like bath time and reading to her kids, matter more than ever. 

“I see everything through a different lens now, and it’s hard to explain,” Diggins-Smith said. “Seeing those kids here is special. I look at the WNBA differently since being out, I see it from different perspectives. I love the WNBA and am still excited to be here.”

Appreciating the journey

At 33 years old, Diggins-Smith possesses a deeper appreciation for her career, now finding herself with her third franchise after stints with Tulsa/Dallas and Phoenix. Her return to the league has been refreshing, and Diggins-Smith says she cherishes the opportunity to compete at the highest level again.

“I never thought I’d be able to be here,” Diggins-Smith explained. “I didn’t think I’d come back to the league. I wanted to come back to the league. I wanted to do the work to get in shape and play like Sky in this league, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it. Just the whole journey … the mom’s guilt and different factors that come into play. Luckily, I have a great husband [Daniel Smith], and he’s my rock. He just supported me to get back in shape and encouraged me by telling me I could do this. He also said I’ll help you.”

Diggins-Smith rebounded from a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2014 and postpartum depression after giving birth to her son in 2019. The adversity she experienced in Dallas and Phoenix are mere parts of Diggins-Smith’s story — they don’t define her.

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Conquering those challenges with uplifting grit has made her patient, stronger, more determined and more focused. Under the guidance of longtime friends and former coaches Bridgit Pettis and Elijah Knox, Diggins-Smith attacked workouts with ferocity and tenacity. She hiked, did yoga and Pilates, lifted weights and worked on regaining stamina. 

“I was working on different parts of the mind, body, and my spirit,” Diggins-Smith explained. “This game is very mental. I’m not saying I always do a great job of staying where I want to be. There’s a lot of moving parts to this game. Hiking helped me make that mental connection; even though it’s figurative, it helped me reach new heights.”

‘Heart of a champion’

Her new environment and teammates in Seattle have helped tremendously, and Diggins-Smith says she has found comfort in the familiar faces on the Storm’s roster. Specifically, Nneka Ogwumike, who hosted her during an official visit at Stanford when Diggins-Smith was in high school, and her former Notre Dame teammate Jewell Loyd.

“It’s awesome to play with Sky, and it’s a full circle moment for me,” Loyd told The Next. “I’ve stayed in touch with her through the years, and we’ve crossed paths through the years with USA Basketball. To have a chance to play with her means a lot, especially with somebody who has the heart of a champion and a lion, who is also a good person and a mom is nice.”

Diggins-Smith’s impact on the Storm has been significant through Seattle’s first six games. Even averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, she’s confident her best is yet to come as she continues to get back into basketball-playing shape.

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The Storm recently finished a wild stretch on the road, playing four games across four cities in six days (Minnesota, Washington, New York and Seattle). Diggins-Smith averaged 31.6 minutes and finished the grueling slate by guarding No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark in Seattle’s 85–83 victory over Indiana.

She has also had a handful of impressive offensive games since her return, scoring 22 points during an overtime setback to Minnesota, and 18 points while helping the Storm earn its first win of the season over the Mystics. She also scored 16 points and handed out nine assists in a home win over Washington this past Saturday.

But it’s been more than just the stats for Diggins-Smith, as her spirit has translated into additional leadership, experience and poise to help guide the Storm’s younger roster. During Saturday’s game in Washington, she displayed her leadership as a veteran point guard by pointing out subtleties to her teammates and encouraging them during a timeout.

“There needs to be respect about the fact that she had two children and hasn’t played in 20 months,” Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said during the postgame press conference following Monday’s loss to New York. “We must respect and honor that. I do. As a coach and as an organization, we do. So, my grace as a coach is to know she’s working her butt off every day. This decorated athlete has done amazing things for this league, women’s basketball, and the world. Give her grace.”

‘One of the best guards’

Since she’s been away, some may have forgotten that Diggins-Smith has been among the top point guards in the WNBA throughout her career, especially over her last five seasons in the league. 

A complete package of electricity, elusiveness and enthusiasm, Diggins-Smith has ranked in the top 10 in scoring and assists in her last five seasons and is one of just three players to do so six or more times. In 2022, her last full season in the league, Diggins-Smith finished third in scoring (19.7 points per game) and seventh in assists (5.5 assists per game) en route to earning her sixth All-WNBA selection.

Now, Diggins-Smith still commands respect. She returned to the game on her terms, giving herself the grace and space to decide when the time was right to sign with the Storm.

“She’s still got a big heart,” New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said before their game against Seattle. “You know, she just plays so hard and competes so hard. You love that about her, and she’s got speed, but you know, she’s going to go to another level. I suppose the thing now is she’s getting to the rim, probably not as finishing as well as she has in the past. Once she gets her legs, it’s going to be scary. I’m excited for her to be back in the league. I mean, this is one of the best guards in our league.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) signals a timeout during a game against Minnesota. Storm guard Jordan Horston (23) walks behind her on the left.
Diggins-Smith (4) has brought a steady veteran presence to Seattle’s point guard position. (Photo credit: John McClellan / The Next)

Diggins-Smith is a six-time AT&T WNBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist whose impact has always extended beyond basketball. Merging style, fashion, and culture as an influencer enhanced Diggins-Smith’s celebrity status.

Early in her career, when she appeared on runways, signed with Roc-Nation, participated in ESPY award skits and had rappers wearing her jersey during concerts, Diggins-Smith strategically used her platform to raise awareness for the WNBA. She was also part of ESPN’s “Three to See” marketing campaign alongside Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne during the 2012–13 NCAA season. 

As her basketball career continued, Diggins-Smith has continued to have her finger on the pulse. She has been with Puma since 2017, designing apparel and sneakers that fit her personality and style. Now, she’s modeling in the WNBA’s recent campaign with SKIMS

“I stand on the shoulders of people before me,” Diggins-Smith said. “The pioneers in our league helped keep it to a point where I could be in it. Now that I have a daughter, I hope to sustain it so she can see it one day. I am excited about all the new fans coming to the league and all the new talent here.”

Legacy and impact

Diggins-Smith says she has been blessed to play a game she loves at an elite level. As a gatekeeper of the game, she’s been adamant about seeing the league continue to evolve. Diggins-Smith has also been outspoken about how the WNBA is covered and opportunities for advancement.

In addition to the passionate and diverse content creators and reporters covering the league, she says those with decision-making power could improve practices to ensure more minorities are hired.

“It’s important because we make up most of the league,” Diggins-Smith said. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to play in this league. The first time I saw people who looked like me playing on this stage was the 1996 United States Olympic team. I remember the ‘We Got Next’ campaign, so the representation was important to me growing up. I have a one-year-old daughter and want to ensure she sees people like her.”

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Eventually, her kids will grow older and be able to fully appreciate their mom’s legacy and impact on women’s basketball. Diggins-Smith admits she’s still learning each day about parenting, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Motherhood puts everything in a whole different realm,” Diggins-Smith said. “You have to be extremely selfless. That translates into how you talk to and deal with people. You learn little things and realize you’re only sometimes in control. I appreciate the whole journey because I am still here. Now, all I want to do is take advantage of every moment and stay present.”

Confronted with the prospect of not playing again, Diggins-Smith persisted, worked tirelessly, displayed unshakable resolve, showcased the soul of a champion and maintained belief. Her motivation may be different, but her passion for basketball is greater than ever.

She feels like those smiling kids again — the only difference is Diggins-Smith has a new purpose. She is playing for something bigger than herself.

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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