Cappie Pondexter has never shied away from taking risks. As a junior at Chicago's John Marshall High the 5'9" guard had the WNBA logo tattooed on her right arm, along with the words THE FUTURE. In the decade since, not only has she made good on that prediction, but the three-time All-Star has also won an Olympic gold medal (2008) and two WNBA titles with the Mercury ('07 and '09).
Last fall Pondexter decided it was time to expand her aspirations beyond the WNBA, so she initiated her trade from Phoenix to New York to better develop her burgeoning fashion business. "I'm very ambitious," says Pondexter, who landed with New York as part of a three-team deal on March 30. "If I believe strongly in something, I'm going to do whatever it takes to pursue it and get it done."
A fashion-show devotee who cofounded a New York City--based style consulting firm, 4 Season Style Management, last summer, Pondexter isn't the first pro athlete to use sports as a platform to create a multifaceted brand. But she may be the first in the WNBA to ask for a trade to achieve that end. "Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, LeBron, David Beckham—there are so many athletes out there [building their brands]," says Pondexter, 27. "For somebody in women's basketball to do it, it's something different."
Pondexter won the Russian Superleague A title with UMMC Ekaterinburg on April 28, and when she arrives in training camp next Sunday, she'll immediately enhance the prospects of the Liberty, which has missed the postseason three times in the last seven years, including last season, when it stumbled to a 13--21 record, second worst in franchise history. She fulfills the team's two biggest off-season needs: a player who can create her own shot and a leader who can sharpen New York's competitive edge. "When things didn't go well last year, we didn't come out fighting," says coach Anne Donovan, who guided the '08 Olympic team and took over the Liberty last July after Pat Coyle was fired. "Cappie is one of the fiercest competitors I've ever coached."
After averaging 19.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists in her four years playing in the shadow of 2009 league MVP Diana Taurasi in Phoenix, Pondexter will be reunited with two former Rutgers teammates, center Kia Vaughn and guard Essence Carson. She'll also be joined by two other off-season acquisitions who are familiar with success: forward Nicole Powell, who won a title with the Monarchs in '05, and center Taj McWilliams, who helped the Shock win the '08 championship. "These are championship-experienced veterans who automatically change the dynamics of our team," says Donovan. "I'm looking forward to that winning mentality."
Pondexter, who can play both guard spots and is able to defend any position in a pinch, says leadership may be the biggest asset she brings to New York. "I really want to lead this team," she says. "It'll be a challenge, but I'm ready for it."
Off the court, New York's diversity and perpetual hum are calling to Pondexter. "I'm a city girl; I love noise," she says. "I can fall asleep with the window open." With so many realms to conquer, who's going to have time to sleep?
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Of the 98 women who took part in the league's first season, in 1997, only Tina Thompson(below), the No. 1 pick that year, is still active. The 35-year-old forward has won four WNBA titles and two Olympic gold medals, and her career point total (5,865) ranks second to that of former Sparks teammate Lisa Leslie. With Leslie retired, L.A. will be counting on Thompson to at least match the 13.0 points, 5.9 boards and 34.8 minutes she averaged in '09. Consistency has never been a problem: Before every game she applies the same lipstick, MAC's Diva, that she's been using since she played at USC. "I never wear that color except at games," she says. "It's way too dated." The same can't be said of Thompson.
DMITRY ARGUNOV (PONDEXTER)
GOAL ORIENTED A decade after tattooing her future on her arm, Pondexter added a Russian Superleague A title to her impressive résumé.
ELAINE THOMPSON/AP (THOMPSON)