MINNEAPOLIS — The women filed through the revolving door and into the lobby of the Radisson Blu hotel, each pulling luggage for this business trip. Tayler Hill had a different carry-on.
Dressed like the others, she wore a white T-shirt and a tan jacket over skinny jeans and sandals, her hair tucked in a tight bun. But while the other women pulled roller bags Tuesday, Hill lugged her son, Maurice, shifting the 1-year-old in her arms while his nanny trailed a few feet behind with bags of clothes and toys.
For Hill, 24, the news of Maurice’s impending arrival last summer was met with nervousness. Like many women, she worried about how starting a family would affect a career for which she had worked so hard. More than a year later, the lines between job and motherhood intersect for the Washington Mystics guard, one of four active WNBA players who have given birth.
A first-round draft choice in 2013, Hill has had to make sacrifices in her basketball career since Maurice was born 14 months ago, and she now balances being a young mom with the arduous task of returning to top playing form. That means bringing Maurice and her live-in nanny, Nicole Sackett, with her to most of the team’s road games.
Hill and her teammates had a game Wednesday against the Minnesota Lynx, but after checking into the hotel, unloading her luggage, changing a diaper, fixing a bottle, swapping her sandals for sneakers and attending practice, she had a birthday party to throw.
“When you become a mother, you learn how to balance your life between your profession and your children,” Hill said. “There are definitely harder times than others.”
While Hill unpacked, Maurice explored. She put a row of milk and juice bottles on the hotel room’s built-in counter under the television and then placed the diapers and the baby wipes next to that. Sackett opened a travel bag with a handful of Maurice’s favorite toys, handing him a small basketball.
This was, officially, a basketball family now. As Maurice bounced the small ball around the room, Hill got ready for practice. Her boyfriend and Maurice’s father, David Lighty, was with his team in France, more than 4,000 miles away. The two met while playing basketball at Ohio State.
Hill used to tell her mother she wanted to start a family before 30, but she didn’t think it would happen so soon. She was the fourth overall pick of the star-studded 2013 WNBA draft that included Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. In her rookie season, Hill averaged 17.4 minutes and 6.5 points per game, and she signed with an Israeli team after the summer of 2013. It wasn’t until she had her physical in Israel that she learned she was pregnant.
“It definitely wasn’t the plan,” Hill said. “But I wouldn’t change anything now that he’s here.”
Hill moved from one end of the hotel room to another, getting herself ready for an afternoon practice in Minneapolis while also tending to Maurice. He tried to go where she did, and he cried as soon as she closed the bathroom door behind her. She swung it back open after hearing his sobs, motioning for him to come inside, too.
He tried to follow her when she walked toward the door to go to practice. “You’re not coming,” she told him, and he started to cry again as she left him with Sackett.
The most nerve-wracking part of the pregnancy was having to tell Mystics Coach Mike Thibault the news. Hill was his first draft pick as the Mystics’ coach and general manager, and now she had to inform him she would have to sit out all or most of her second season.
She was relieved when he was supportive. Her absence put the team in a compromising position, especially since before this year, an organization couldn’t replace a pregnant player on the roster. Mystics three-year veteran Tianna Hawkins, who had her son, Emanuel, on June 17, has yet to play this season.
WNBA players who are expecting are paid 50 percent of their salary until they start playing again and still have full medical benefits, though an around-the-clock nanny can add to the financial strain. A first-round draft choice like Hill would make a base salary minimum of about $45,000 in her second year, with the number going up with each year of experience.
“As a parent and somebody who has a couple kids of my own, I can empathize and understand that,” Thibault said. “My first response is that basketball is not who you are; it’s what you do for a living. If your choice is to start a family and everything else, then you obviously know the ramifications, so I’ll be supportive from that standpoint.
“As a basketball coach, it’s a business, and from my standpoint, my job is to win games with the team that I have. I don’t make promises one way or another to a player. I don’t say, ‘Hey, your spot is there. You’re going to just walk right back into it.’ But I also don’t divorce them from the team either.”
Sheryl Swoopes set the standard for women’s basketball players having children in the middle of their career. The face of the WNBA in 1997, Swoopes announced she was pregnant just before the inaugural season. She missed the first six weeks of that season and was back on the court by August. Taking her young son to road games didn’t prevent Swoopes from winning three WNBA MVPs. Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, two of the league’s best players, also went on to have children while still playing.
“Male athletes don’t have to worry about taking time off and worry about how that’s going to affect their career,” Swoopes said. “We as females, if that’s something that’s important to us and something that we want to do — becoming a mom — we have to think about those things. How is it going to affect my career? How is it going to affect my body? Especially if you’re an athlete, will you be able to come back? And if and when I do, what kind of shape will I be in?”
Nervous about what having a baby would mean for her career, Hill reached out to Los Angeles Sparks star forward Candace Parker early in her pregnancy. Parker missed the start of the 2009 season after giving birth to her daughter, Lailaa, that May.
She had been worried, too, not about how she would bounce back as a basketball player but whether she could be “a normal mom.” Her mother had stayed home with her, so she wanted to be just as hands-on. She and Lailaa didn’t spend a night apart for the first 2
“You’re going to have a child that’s going to be a part of your career and be able to grow up and remember watching you play,” Parker recalled saying. “I think that was the biggest thing for me, like how special is it that I get to share this experience with the thing I love most in the world?”
Parker was playing again within two months of having Lailaa, averaging 13.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game that season. Hill was back on the court just five weeks after having Maurice and played the final five games of last season. When her older brother, P.J. Hill, suggested she take her time before returning to practice, she told him Parker said returning quickly was doable.
Since Hill grew up in Minneapolis, the routine for this road trip was more hectic than the others. Sackett, the nanny, and Maurice typically relax in the hotel room while Hill is at practice or a morning shoot-around. They might walk around and explore, like when the Mystics had a game in New York City and Maurice got to see Times Square.
Though there was a crib in Hill’s hotel room, Maurice slept with her, occasionally waking her up in the middle of the night with pleas of, “Baba,” his way of asking for a milk bottle. The only time Sackett makes sure Hill isn’t interrupted by Maurice is when she takes her regularly scheduled nap before every game.
Hill’s teammates sometimes help with Maurice when she needs a break. They taught him how to say “balloon,” when one hotel they stayed at gave Maurice a balloon. Whenever Mystics guard Natasha Cloud says “flick of the wrist,” Maurice mimics a shooting motion.
“He’s a part of our family,” Cloud said. “I treat him like he’s my little brother.”
After Hill’s practice, she met the rest of her family at a Chuck E. Cheese’s for Maurice’s first birthday party. There was pizza, presents, a birthday cake made of cupcakes and singing — even if it came two months after Maurice’s actual birthday, which was celebrated back home at a Northern Virginia Chuck E. Cheese’s.
After blowing out a candle, Maurice dipped his small fingers into the frosting of a cupcake, bringing them up to Hill’s mouth for her to suck clean. Hill and Maurice did a video chat with Lighty, who was in France, where it was around 2:30 a.m. at the time of this birthday celebration. Maurice kissed the phone screen.
The third oldest of seven siblings, Hill often helped her mother take care of her four younger sisters and brother, the youngest of which is 6. She loves kids so much that she wants to open a day care after her basketball career is over.
“I knew she’d figure out a way to make it work,” said Monique Hill, Tayler’s mother. “My husband was a little bit like, ‘Oh no, why? She should’ve waited.’ But it’s been good.”
At Target Center the next night, Hill’s younger sister moved Maurice’s arms up high in the air and started shaking them back-and-forth as Hill and her Mystics teammates ran onto the court for pregame warmups. Hill came off the bench as she has all season.
She spent the last year leading up to the season getting back in shape after her pregnancy. The roster now lists her at 5 feet 9 and 145 pounds. Instead of playing overseas last winter, she and Maurice went to France to be with Lighty, but that meant Hill was essentially off from basketball for more than a year. She has averaged 7.6 points per game this season.
“She did take a step back,” Thibault said. “I think she would tell you that. It was in a couple ways. Within our team and kind of the expectations and we had to kind of move on and develop other players. She had to fight her way back into the rotation.”
In the final five games of last season, Hill played sparingly. She hadn’t lost all of the baby weight yet, and she was still breastfeeding Maurice, which often left her uncomfortable and needing to pump milk at the end of a lengthy game. Parker said she nursed her daughter for 15 months, playing both in the WNBA and overseas during that time. She just made sure to stay hydrated and wear an extra sports bra.
Motherhood and Hill’s career will keep crossing as Maurice gets older. Hill said she wants to play overseas after this WNBA season. But when Maurice is old enough to start first grade, the year-long basketball schedule may not be an option unless she wants to home-school him or be apart.
Parker dropped off her daughter for her first day of first grade Thursday, faced with those decisions now that Lailaa is 6. When she was in kindergarten last year, Lailaa would spend a month with Parker in Russia, then come back to the United States to go to school for a month, but Parker said she wants more stability for her now.
“My thing is, for the first four and a half years of her life, everything was all about mom and my schedule,” Parker said. “The kid was in 15 different time zones and traveled all over the world. She’s done everything on my terms, and I think when she starts school, it’s about her. . . . I’ve played my years overseas, and it’s about her now.”
After the Mystics’ 79-61 win over the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday night, Hill’s family and friends stayed in the arena to wait for her after her 10-point performance. They applauded when she came out, her younger siblings running to hug her while others took pictures. She waded through the crowd to get to Maurice, who was sitting atop his grandfather’s shoulders.
Hill picked him up and pressed her face close to his, a postgame moment she looks forward to after every road game. The next morning, they boarded the team bus — mother, baby and nanny — to the airport for a flight to Chicago for the Mystics’ next game, where the trio would do it all over again.