October 4, 2021
‘Her Home Court’: Now Natasha Cloud belongs to the ages
A mural pays tribute to Natasha Cloud's journey, on and off the court
When Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud arrived at New Hope Academy, a private school in Landover Hills, Maryland, on Sept. 9, she knew she was there to see a newly painted mural of herself on the outside of the school. But as soon as she saw the school’s girls basketball team, she forgot all about that.
“She was so—true to Tash form—so invested in the kids she didn’t even see that they were standing in front of it,” Ari Chambers, the founder of HighlightHER who brought together several partners to make the mural happen, told The Next. “They were facing the mural and she was facing them, so the mural was behind her. … When we told her, ‘Tash, stop talking and turn around,’ it was an instant reaction.”
“I cried like a baby,” Cloud said on Sept. 10. “… You dream of stuff like this from the time you’re a kid—like, this is my wildest dream. … To have something like this, so monumental, to kind of leave your legacy, to really realize your purpose and what you’re intending, what God intended you to do, it was surreal for me.”
Although the mural is quite literally a standalone project in the DC suburbs, it is also a continuation of HighlightHER’s work in 2021 to spotlight strong, community-oriented female athletes, including with a painting of gymnast Simone Biles for Black History Month and a mural of Atlanta Dream owner and former player Renee Montgomery at a local YMCA. Cloud was chosen for her philanthropic and advocacy work, from sitting out last season to fight for social justice to pushing for solutions to gun violence and gender inequality. As a biracial and bisexual woman, Cloud also provides “that representation that we don’t necessarily always see from athletes,” Chambers said.
“She’s found her voice year after year and [is] being more bold in that,” Chambers continued. “… Natasha stands for all of the, not only audacity, but all the bravery that we deserve as a community, and … we’re just so lucky to be living in a time where Natasha Cloud has found her voice and uses it on everybody.”
Cloud’s mural, titled “Her Home Court,” shows her wearing a red and white uniform and dribbling a basketball, surrounded by the words “SPEAK OUT,” “BLACK LIVES MATTER AT NHA” and “HEAD UP, STAND UP, BE YOU.” Below that is another painting of Cloud in profile facing the words “REMEMBER YOU GOT THIS!” The mural is roughly 22 feet tall and 10.5 feet wide, and the blue and purple background and white lettering pop against the brick school building.
At first glance, New Hope Academy might seem like an unlikely setting for such a large mural, as it serves fewer than 300 students in preschool through 12th grade and plays its “home” basketball games off campus rather than in its small on-campus gym. But Chambers loved how New Hope’s story mirrors Cloud’s: Cloud played at a small mid-major university and broke through to become a WNBA champion in 2019, and New Hope Academy is a small school in Cloud’s community that won the 2019 GEICO high school national championship.
The mural was painted by a small crew of local Black female artists and completed in just three days. It was important to Chambers to give local artists opportunities and recognition, just as Cloud is recognized in the finished product. The mural is on the back of the school, overlooking a playground and next to the entrance to New Hope’s gym.
“We drive around there for practice every single day, so every time we’re about to get in the gym, get some shots up or something, that’s one of the first things that we see,” Jalyn Brown, a senior wing at New Hope Academy who is committed to Louisville, told The Next.
HighlightHER worked with Bleacher Report and Zelle to make the big reveal unforgettable for both Cloud and the New Hope players. When the back of the school was closed off during the painting process, the players assumed it was construction, Brown said, so the mural was a surprise. And when they saw Cloud painted on the wall, they had no idea they would also soon see her in person.
“We were downstairs making TikToks” after seeing the mural, Brown said, “and as the TikTok is going, we turn around and she’s just there. And everybody’s like, ‘Whoa!’”
“It was exciting because we’ve never had [a] WNBA player just walk up to us,” said senior point guard Kennedy Fauntleroy, who is committed to Georgetown. “It was cool … everybody I know knows Natasha.”
To Cloud, the mural validates all of her work as an activist and advocate to effect change. “When I stepped into this realm of activism, I was just doing things because I care about people, I care about my community,” she said on Sept. 19. “And sometimes within this activism, you don’t know if you’re having the impact … that you intended to have on your community. So that mural, in a thankless job, was solidifying to me that I am having the impact that I set out to have, and it almost fuels that fire for me to do more, because I am being seen, I am being heard and I am helping this community.”
During her visit to New Hope, Cloud spoke with the players at length, surprised them with a cash gift from Zelle to help them attend a holiday tournament in Puerto Rico and even stayed to watch practice. She also filmed an episode of a video series that will be released on HighlightHER’s Instagram and YouTube on Oct. 12.
“It didn’t have a limit to her wisdom,” Chambers said of Cloud’s talk with the players, which included her answering questions on everything from making the WNBA to embracing her identities as a biracial and bisexual woman. “It was really amazing to see because, once she opened the door for a look into her vulnerability and personal life, they kept asking.”
The message that stuck with Fauntleroy was a simple one: Keep working hard. Meanwhile, Brown, who said she started following Cloud on social media after the visit, appreciated Cloud’s advice to build relationships with teammates off the court. “If you have to get on somebody in a tough game, if you don’t have that relationship with them, they’re not going to really respect it,” Brown said, relaying Cloud’s words. Brown added, “I felt like it was really important coming from her, because she is a point guard on a high level, to talk to us about leadership.”
Cloud was quiet during practice, but the players still felt her presence. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Tash is at our practice.’ So everybody was going hard,” Fauntleroy said. “… At first, we were messing up … but at the end, we actually brought it together and we had a really good practice that day, just because we were all excited that she was there.”
For many star athletes, that would be the end of the story—a mural, a feel-good appearance and some heartfelt words. But Cloud hopes that this is only the beginning, that she can help the New Hope players going forward as they transition to college. She spoke to the players again on Sept. 10, when they were in attendance to watch her collect 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in a win over Atlanta.
Watching Cloud play felt different for both Fauntleroy and Brown after she had visited their school and spoken with them. Fauntleroy, the point guard, wanted to emulate Cloud more: “When you meet somebody, you look at them different … I was looking at different aspects of her game and how could I be a leader like her and stuff like that. And just lead and score at the same time and also be still coachable.”
For Brown, the difference was less analytical and more emotional. “It was like she was a big sister,” she said. “… When you actually get to know them for who they are, seeing them play means so much more. You want them to excel to this extended level. I’m like, ‘Tash, you better not miss this shot!’”
Watching the New Hope players interact with Cloud was also a full-circle moment for Chambers, who first got involved in women’s sports after meeting several women’s basketball players at North Carolina State University.
“Hopefully we’ll have that same impact on them as it did on me when I was younger,” Chambers said. “And I’m sure it will, because now [Cloud] and Zelle and HighlightHER are the reasons why they’re able to compete at a high level; they’re the reasons why they can see their representation or they’re the reasons why they were able to go to a WNBA game the very next day.”
Motivated by that desire to support the next generation of players and amplify the current generation, Chambers, HighlightHER and their partner organizations will unveil two more murals and video episodes, starring South Carolina and Team USA head coach Dawn Staley and 2021 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles, before Thanksgiving. “This isn’t just for content,” Chambers said. “… We want representation. When I say the WNBA is so important, I mean it. When I say representation is so important, I mean it. And I hope that this project is exactly that and really provides imagery around that.”
Cloud explained exactly why that representation matters on Sept. 10, when the George Mason and Georgetown women’s basketball teams joined New Hope Academy at the Mystics’ game. “They can see themselves in us and that makes the world of a difference for their careers and for their aspirations for after they’re done with college,” she said. “So it’s a really special moment whenever we have teams in here, and each and every single one of us—not [just] on the Mystics but us as a whole league—we’re very conscious of what we are as role models.”
According to her teammates, Cloud is perhaps the ultimate role model on and off the court as a vocal leader who uplifts others, which makes her a perfect choice for the mural. “We all see Tash on the court and what she does via social media and things like that, but as a friend, she’s such a genuine person and she would take her shirt off her back and give it to anyone,” Mystics forward Theresa Plaisance said. “So the fact that she’s being recognized for not only her work on the court but off the court, what she does for social justice, what she does for DC, what she does in all these platforms that she has a hand in, it’s really impactful. … When she gets home from practice, she’s on phone calls making things happen for different people here and there. Tash never stops, and it’s so nice to see her being able to be recognized.”
“I think that that mural is just a small glimpse of how big her heart is and … a really powerful testament to who she is,” added guard Sydney Wiese.
Chambers hopes that anyone who sees the mural, whether they play basketball or not, identifies with Cloud’s story of being an underdog who grew into a champion on and off the court. The mural’s impact is already evident beyond New Hope Academy: In addition to the photos circulating on social media, Brown shared that she had fielded several calls from former teammates at a larger, Baltimore-area high school.
“They’ll be like, ‘Did Natasha Cloud come to y’all’s school?’” Brown said. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, and her face is on it!’
“I just thought that that was really cool because it’s like a worldwide thing, especially when people got to reposting it. And when other people see it, I feel like it doesn’t only inspire us because it’s on our school, but I feel like it inspires other people around us, just seeing it happen.”
Just as she showed during her visit to New Hope, Cloud has always had a larger-than-life personality, willing her team forward on the court and driving her country forward off of it. But now, with her likeness immortalized on the brick school wall, Natasha Cloud is literally larger than life, ready to inspire anyone who sees that powerful visual of what she means to DC and beyond.
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.