The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Why am I different?’ Behind this WNBA player’s activism was a search for the answer.

Natasha Cloud in the Mystics' locker room Friday, when she followed through on a "media blackout" to discuss only gun violence. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)
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Some 30 minutes after the Washington Mystics lost to the Seattle Storm on June 14 in Southeast D.C., starting guard Natasha Cloud moved from her seat along the back wall of the Mystics’ locker room to stand at the front, pausing twice to maneuver around various reporters pointing TV cameras and cellphones at her face.

She was not among the Mystics’ leading scorers that night, but she would be their only player to address the media.

Her voice quavering but strong, Cloud, 27, read a prepared statement on behalf of the team rather than answer questions about the game. She followed through on plans she announced the day before on Instagram to hold a “media blackout” to address only gun violence in Washington.

Mystics player says she will only publicly talk about a gunfire incident at a D.C. school until she sees action

Cloud’s public action came together over little more than 24 hours. But it was the culmination of a long journey, the result of maturation, her increased status with the Mystics since the start of last season and, most importantly, a level of comfort in her own skin that took years to achieve.

“This is my fifth year in the league, and it took me five years to be like, I know something’s wrong, but how do I use my voice? What is my voice? Who am I to speak on the situation?” Cloud said. “You know, I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up in a privileged, white family. How do I correlate that?”

‘That gray-area kid’

Cloud thinks she was around 12 years old when she learned of her biological father, but she can’t remember exactly. She recalls she and her mother were in a Blockbuster video store near the family home in suburban Philadelphia when Natasha — who a year or two before had started hearing remarks from classmates about how she didn’t look like the rest of her family — turned to her mom.

“I was just like: ‘I’m different. Why am I different?’ ” Cloud said.

Her mother, Sharon, explained that, unlike the rest of her siblings, Natasha had a black biological father. She was the youngest of five children brought together in a happy mishmash: two siblings from her mother’s first marriage and two from the first marriage of Emil Cloud, the man who “became everything I’ve ever needed in a father,” Natasha said. Her family never treated her differently growing up, and for years she didn’t quite realize she was black.

“For the longest time I was like: ‘What are y’all talking about? Me, I’m just tan!’ ” Cloud said with a laugh.

Cloud was just “Tash” at home, but she couldn’t find her place at school.

“You’re not white enough; you’re not black enough. You’re kind of that gray-area kid, and I think that’s one of the hardest spots to be in,” Cloud said. “Kids are brutal, and if you don’t fit in, where do you go?”

Basketball helped. Cloud eventually started thinking of herself as a black woman, helped along by the realization that when the outside world looks at her, they don’t see a woman raised by two white parents or even a biracial person.

She still felt between identities, but she always has a place on the court, especially playing college basketball at Saint Joseph’s, where she transferred after a year at Maryland. That was reinforced during a visit home during her junior year when Cloud’s family house burned down after a dryer caught fire. Waked from slumber, Cloud, her parents and her sister ran to the safety of the front lawn just in time, but they didn’t have a chance to grab anything on their way out.

“We lost everything and the cat,” Cloud said. “And I had to go back and grab him, too, when everything was — you know, settled down.”

Back at Saint Joseph’s, her team consoled her and the men’s team collected money to donate to her family. One day Phil Martelli, the men’s basketball coach, stopped practice so his team could give Cloud a hug.

“I’ll never forget him hugging me and saying: ‘This is a family here. We’ll always take care of you,’ ” Cloud said.

‘I feel safe here’

It was the Mystics and the WNBA, Cloud’s basketball family after Saint Joseph’s, that helped Cloud feel comfortable not just in her own skin but enough to speak out when she felt passionate about an issue.

“Coming into this league, I kind of fell into my own,” said Cloud, who was selected by Washington in the second round of the 2015 WNBA draft. “I’m a gray-area kid, but there’s a lot of gray-area kids in this league. There’s a lot of people who aren’t mixed race but still feel gray area. I also came into myself as, I’m a bisexual woman. And I feel safe here.”

Over the past three years, Washington has become one of the more outwardly socially active teams in the WNBA, in part by taking advantage of its location. Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault encourages that culture, and players follow through, from Kristi Toliver’s prepared statement on the first anniversary of the deadly protests in Charlottesville to Thibault-organized visits to the Supreme Court and with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Cloud’s awakening came in 2016, when the Mystics wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts the day after the league fined the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury for wearing black warmup shirts in the wake of a rash of police-involved shootings.

The guard was the players’ union representative for the Mystics at the time. She had a front-row view as teams organized their actions and weighed the consequences. Within days of issuing the fines, the league rescinded them.

“That was kind of the first moment I realized, oh, what we do has impact,” Cloud said.

Her confidence would grow further last season when she broke into the starting lineup and averaged career highs with 8.6 points and 4.6 assists per game — totals she has increased to 10.0 and 5.9, respectively, in starting all nine games this season. She switched agents, signing with a smaller firm run by Stephanie Stanley, who has quickly became like another family member to Cloud. And when the Mystics moved to their new home in Southeast, Cloud made it a point to become more involved in the community.

She skipped playing overseas this past offseason and instead did promotional work for the Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group, accompanying Mystics star Elena Delle Donne and the Wizards on a trip to London and doing community outreach.

Then came a visit June 13 to Hendley Elementary, less than a 10-minute drive from the Mystics’ home court.

Cloud and teammate Ariel Atkins went to read to kindergartners, and they learned that the school had been hit with three bullets in the past month. Cloud left with a pit in her stomach. She took to Instagram, where she shared her experience, called out D.C. council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and initiated the media blackout.

“We would be doing a disservice if we didn’t bring light to the terrible things that are going on in this community, so there will be no statements made about the game,” Cloud said after the game June 14. “Again, it’s just a game. We’re talking about people’s lives within this community.”

Thibault said the Mystics organization would support Cloud’s stance as long as all of her teammates are on board.

“We’re not just going to make a statement and not do anything,” Thibault said. “We’re going to be involved with schools, we’re going to be involved with Ward 8, and we’re going to try to make a positive impact, whether it’s bringing kids to clinics, bringing kids to games, letting them interact with our players, because that’s our best platform to help.”

Cloud intends to continue speaking up. After Tuesday night’s 81-52 victory at Los Angeles, she posted statistics about gun violence on Twitter, saying she told them to reporters before she would field questions about the game.

“As soon as we get back from our long road trip” — which will continue with games against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday and the Chicago Sky on Wednesday — “I will be meeting with policymakers to educate myself better, especially on gun laws,” she said.

“This league has helped me tremendously, coming into a league full of strong, diverse women and just seeing strong role model figures, whether that’s being in the locker room with Elena every day or seeing my idols growing up with Lindsay Whalen and Diana Taurasi,” she continued. “That’s a lot of power. When you look around this league and see how much women are doing, it’s hard not to follow in their footsteps a little bit.”

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