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Mystics’ Natasha Cloud gets shoe deal from Converse, for her activism as much as her play

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud works the microphone during the team's celebration of its 2019 title in October. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Natasha Cloud isn’t one to hold her tongue. But late last month, the Washington Mystics guard decided to hold off on the announcement that she was about to become the first women’s basketball player to sign a shoe deal with Converse.

History would have to wait. Cloud watched as the nation convulsed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer’s knee was on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests, organized and mostly peaceful, filled the streets from New York to Los Angeles. Civil unrest in Cloud’s hometown of Philadelphia and her adopted home city of Washington led newscasts.

Cloud knew the timing wasn’t right to announce a sneaker deal, but she also couldn’t stay silent. So she took to the Players’ Tribune — the website started by former baseball star Derek Jeter that gives athletes a platform for first-person essays — to get out what she was feeling.

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She wrote her story for the “millions of people who are helping to protect those racist cops, and who are helping to insulate those in power, by staying ‘neutral.’ … It’s all the people who think that — in 2020!! — they can still somehow just politely opt out of this. ...

“It’s to tell them that their silence is the knee on George Floyd’s neck. ... If you’re silent, I don’t [mess] with you, period.”

Her essay could be viewed as an unnecessary risk for someone about to announce a major endorsement deal. The 28-year-old Cloud and Converse don’t see it that way.

“I mean that [stuff],” Cloud told The Washington Post. “I mean that from the depths of my soul. If you are silent during this time, you are taking the side of the oppressor. You are telling me that my life does not matter and the countless amount of black American lives do not matter. And for that, you are dead wrong as a human being.

“You ask any white person in America if they would trade places and be black in America, if they say yes, they are lying to your face. If they say no, then they are consciously aware of the inequalities and the difference of life here in America. For that, you are dead wrong to stay silent.”

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Cloud’s outspokenness is why Converse wanted her on its roster. The shoe company, a dominant force in the NBA of the 1970s and ’80s, is getting back in the basketball business. The company signed Cloud, Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green to deals as much for their personalities as for their on-court success.

“Natasha Cloud’s recent piece is one of many examples of integrity, grace and strength she brings to the Converse team,” Ronald Johnson, general manager of global basketball at Converse, said via email. “We stand in solidarity with the black community, with our athletes, collaborators and our teammates, and we commit to act.”

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Cloud has long made such a commitment. She organized a media blackout last season to address gun violence in the District. She has become an unofficial sponsor of Hendley Elementary and Ward 8 in Southeast Washington. Cloud even sought out gun control advocacy group Everytown to learn more about the topic.

“It’s no secret how deeply she cares about gun violence, especially as it relates to race and domestic violence and school safety,” Everytown President John Feinblatt said.

When Cloud told Converse she wasn’t comfortable with announcing the deal right away, the company not only postponed but also made a $25,000 donation to a racial justice organization in Philadelphia. It also will release a film featuring Cloud advocating for change.

Cloud’s is a story of an underdog — a second-round draft pick out of mid-major Saint Joseph’s who grew into a starter and leader for the WNBA champions. Her father, Emil, remembers Natasha fighting boys who bullied others in the neighborhood.

“She was always protective of the underdog,” he said.

Emil Cloud was one of the first people Natasha called after reaching the Converse deal because she knew how much it would mean to him. The 73-year-old grew up in an era when the company dominated the basketball market. The Chuck Taylor All Star became the first signature sneaker in the 1920s, and the company’s commercials from the 1980s — featuring Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, among others — are classics.

Emil Cloud was wearing his Chucks to work even before his daughter signed with Converse. He broke into tears when she told him the news, and a large shipment of merchandise showed up shortly thereafter — items that even his daughter hadn’t received.

“When I was growing up, you were the cool guy in the neighborhood if you had Converse,” Emil Cloud said. “I’m just happy to see that the whole world is recognizing women’s sports now, and it’s very important for the women’s movement.”

Cloud believes her contract with Converse is another step toward gender equality in the marketplace. No current WNBA player has her own signature sneaker — although two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne of the Mystics does have a well-promoted Nike campaign — and Commissioner Cathy Engelbert sees progress in Cloud’s deal.

“If you build stars and build rivalries and build role models that young girls and boys want to be like,” Engelbert said, “you do that through the power of brands and the power of brands supporting our players. … And to market and brand your stars, you need big brands like Converse, Nike, Adidas and others to create them as role models.”

Given the current climate, Cloud will put Converse to the test right away. She is not about to go silent.

“A lot of times, athletes are afraid to use that platform in fear of consequences and not getting sponsors and getting backlash and not necessarily wanting to take on that role model role,” she said. “But at the same time, we do a disservice by not doing those things.”