'I contemplated leaving the team': Tiffany Mitchell's rocky journey at the Melbourne Boomers

Tiffany Mitchell had just finished a grueling team training session inside a Parkville basketball stadium when assistant coach Paul Flynn of the Melbourne Boomers approached her on court for a chat.

The 27-year-old newly arrived import had just recovered from injury after her sixth season with Indiana Fever in the WNBA, and was in Australia looking for a new challenge in the WNBL. Mitchell knew nothing about the league initially but as someone who's played basketball internationally since 2016 in far-flung places like Russia, Turkey, and Israel, she was open to playing in a new country. After a conversation with her agent, the WNBL piqued her interest: the competition was tough, it would be another pay cheque, and the shorter season meant she could take some time off in March before training camp in Indiana.

Mentally, physically, financially, the WNBL ticked all of the boxes for Mitchell.

The global pandemic was still a wrecking ball for sports leagues. It caused delays to the start of the 21-game WNBL season. Melbourne Boomers head coach Guy Molloy tested positive for COVID-19 and wasn't the only one. It was hard to predict how the league could make it through another wave of coronavirus. Even with the uncertainty, Mitchell went into the year focused on testing her mettle against elite talent and winning the championship with her new teammates.

By the end of November the Boomers had completed two practice matches - Mitchell missed the first one because her body wasn't ready but played in the second. The team then had a week to fine tune and condition before their season opener against the Southside Flyers.

A few days after Mitchell's first hit out, Coach Flynn, who had taken over the reins while head coach Molloy was isolating with COVID-19, told Mitchell and Ezi Magbegor in two separate conversations that Basketball Australia had asked those players with braids they needed to tie their hair up otherwise they couldn't play. The reason: if left untied could cause injury. It was one of the rules in place for the upcoming year and was sent out in a league wide email to all general managers.

Mitchell was caught off guard. The 5' 7" guard left training rattled and drove home that night to try and absorb what had happened and how it made her feel.

"I slept on it. Once I woke up, I just felt very uncomfortable. I felt targeted. That's never been a thing here. It's never been something that was mandated for people with braids," Mitchell said. "If you look around the league, what type of people wear braids in their hair? Black people."

If you ask WNBL players, league executives, and managers they'll say the braid rule hasn't been enforced in years and struggled to remember if it was still a rule. Mitchell has played basketball overseas in five countries and her braids were never an issue. She's laced up for Team USA, the WNBA, NCAA and Olympics. She's never been asked to tie up her braids because it could inflict injury.

Mitchell kept asking herself, why is the braid rule all of a sudden "a thing", and why was the rule enforced this season, a couple of days after she played in her first practice match in the WNBL?

Mitchell fell in love with basketball at the age of seven growing up in Charlotte. She lived with her mother Cheryl and older brother Tory and idolized her big brother. Everywhere he went, she went too.

When Tory started playing basketball Mitchell saw the trophies he won from tournaments he played and that provided enough of a catalyst to try the sport. Mitchell admits she wasn't very skilled and she didn't know the rules, but what she did have was the ability to pick things up quickly, a lot of energy and she hated to lose.

For two years Mitchell trained and played against boys older than her, stronger than her. Cheryl would sit and watch from the bleachers as her daughter chased down boys defensively, got the ball, and ran the ball back up the court to score.

"People would come out just to see this girl play and how she was dominating, and beating teams. Some of the guys would cry because they got beat by a girl," Cheryl said. "She earned their respect. They used to say, 'she plays ball like Dwayne Wade'."

Cheryl moved from Brooklyn to Charlotte, became a teacher for 18 years with two master's degrees, one in School Administration and became an assistant principal for 12 years. She recalls as a kid she always had a drive to do the things she wanted to do and through her career developed patience, discipline and didn't want to fail.

The dream of creating a better life for her two kids was her sole motivation. Being a single parent she was determined to make sure her kids had everything plus extra. When Mitchell and her brother Tory fell for basketball, Cheryl juggled work, took them to training, drove to tournaments three hours away, and made them do school work in the car on the road.

"I taught my kids to be good to people and they will be good to you. Be honest. And humble yourself," Cheryl said, describing Tiffany as a straight shooter. "At the same time if you see someone is in need and you can help by all means, step up."

Those early years plying her trade against boys helped fast track her development. Mitchell was soon playing in AAU in Charlotte but was too advanced for girls her own age so she played up an age group. She caught the eye of high school and college coaches. She won championships. Basketball became her life. What started out as admiration for her older brother's success, quickly developed into a deep love for the game of basketball. It was during her teens that she started to think of basketball as a job.

At 16, Mitchell's basketball dream was shattered when she tore her ACL. The timing was brutal. It was the age where teens got lured to college programs and started to chart their hoops future with offers from schools. Mitchell was devastated. The college offers dried up. She cried for weeks until the recovery process started.

"I kind of put my head down and I just wanted to prove everybody wrong so bad that it kickstarted my rehab," she said. "I shocked everybody coming back in six months."

Mitchell played under her idol Dawn Staley for four years at South Carolina where she averaged 13.6 points overall, and became one of the program's most decorated players. Following that she got drafted by the Indiana Fever with pick No.9 in 2016 where she set the record for consecutive free throws (43) in 2017. Through her journey she developed a special bond with Coach Staley, describing her as a "second mother" and someone who's challenged her on and off the court.

"Coach Staley used to say, 'what is delayed is not denied', meaning, it might not not happen right when you want it but at the same time it doesn't mean it's never going to happen. That's always stuck with me," Mitchell said. "She made me realize life is much bigger than basketball. If I'm in a position to help others, then I should do it."

In the lead up to the Southside Flyers match, the Boomers' second WNBL game of the year, Mitchell's head was anything but clear. The week was filled with phone calls back and forth to Basketball Australia. She said initially the conversations weren't met with empathy and were defensive and tone deaf. She told them their stance on braids made players feel like they shouldn't be here, and different from everybody else.

"I contemplated leaving the team and going somewhere else to play because I didn't want to feel targeted and out of place," Mitchell said. "The club, my teammates, the coaches - everybody was so supportive of me and Ezi. It made me feel better about staying and fighting for what I knew was wrong."

Mitchell and Magbegor both received apologies. The braid rule was removed immediately after FIBA confirmed it was no longer a rule. And through this, as a team, it was decided they would take a knee during the national anthem at the Flyers game on Dec. 11 to send a message that they don't stand for racial discrimination. Boomers staff, coaches all took a knee. And Flyers players joined them. That night Mitchell dropped 22 points. The Boomers won 91-72.

The next day Mitchell posted a note to Instagram explaining her week, with images of her and her teammates taking a knee. The post went viral. Mitchell says she received messages from family, WNBL peers, the WNBA, former teammates in Israel and even grocery stores, saying they were proud of her for speaking up against what she felt was wrong. She was also told to "just tie up her braids" from some, and that "it's just a safety protocol".

"Being so far away it's hard to fight a battle like this alone. Knowing I had an army behind me supporting our feelings and emotions made taking that knee easier," Mitchell said. "I'm just glad I made that awareness, have people talking about it, they can see it's time to change things and how things are done when it comes to Basketball Australia."

Christy Collier-Hill, who has only been head of the WNBL since January, said before she signed on as the league boss she was the general manager for three seasons with the Boomers and was still at the club when the braid rule shook Mitchell.

"This was a really dark patch for her. The event should never have occurred. Through that she's been able to have a really strong voice around racial discrimination in sport," Hollier-Hill said. "They're using the platform they have to continue to raise awareness to it. Tiffany in particular is using her platform and voice to continue to raise awareness. It's come from an unfortunate situation but I think she's handled herself so admirably."

ESPN contacted Basketball Australia [BA] to have them explain the timing around why they sent out the communication when they did, and why this year, but they did not respond to an interview request or follow up before this story was published.

In December, Basketball Australia chief executive Matt Scriven, called the rule an "oversight" and in a statement from BA, they said: "the policy has been deemed discriminatory and inconsistent with Basketball Australia's Diversity and Inclusion framework by the WNBL Commission."

Collier-Hill doesn't recall seeing a Basketball Australia communication around the braid rule during her time with the Boomers.

"It's not a rule made up by BA, but was a long standing FIBA rule. It's definitely an outdated rule which is the reason why it doesn't exist anymore. They (Tiffany and Ezi) certainly found it really offensive and found it really culturally insensitive," she said.

The Daily Telegraph reported that FIBA "has never had an official rule stating players must wear their hair up." Rather, players were encouraged by match officials to tie their hair up during games for safety reasons. In 2011 a 14-year-old basketball player from New Zealand was told her hair was a "weapon". Basketball New Zealand chief executive Tim Hamilton said at the time, "If the referee deems it obstructing, then I guess it's their responsibility." It's hard to know when the FIBA rule on braided hair was instituted but Collier-Hill says she thinks it's been around for at least 40 years and remembers during her playing days in the 1990s being asked to tie up plaited hair.

In the days and weeks after Basketball Australia removed the braid rule a review panel was established to make sure all rules and policies align to BA's diversity and inclusion policy, says Collier-Hill, who has since joined the Diversity and Inclusion committee.

"It doesn't change the way it was communicated and it doesn't change the way the athlete's felt about it, but there's discussions taking place to increase awareness and prevent situations like Mitchell's happening in the future," she said. "We're not there yet, and we may never be, but as long as we continue to be aware, recognize and take some action that's what can be done at the moment."

Indiana Fever and Boomers teammate Lindsay Allen, who has known of Mitchell since college, has been a WNBL figure for the past three seasons. She says Mitchell's racial discrimination from Basketball Australia opened her eyes to what was happening in the WNBL.

"It was insane to consider someone trying to tell you how to wear your hair in the places that you work," she said. "The hope is that things change, improve and get better but it just remains to be seen."

When Allen and Mitchell both ended up on the Fever's roster they soon discovered they knew the same people off the court. Over a short period of time the pair bonded. They took the same flight together to Melbourne. They both live in the same building in Richmond. And they both share stories about playing basketball overseas. And when things went south for Mitchell in early December, Allen was there for her.

"Tiff is the same person on and off the court. She's chill, laid back, have a good time, all that kind of stuff, but she doesn't put up with any s---," Allen said. "She's always going to stand up for herself or something she doesn't think is right."

Allen said Mitchell was a good fit for the Boomers. On the court this year she averaged 15.2 in 19 games, shot 288 points (the most of any Boomers player) and shot 87 percent from the charity stripe. Off the court Mitchell became a leader, a communicator and a voice for her team. Allen says Mitchell's impact sent ripples through her peers, families of the Boomers community and even resonated with Millennials and Gen Z of the WNBL community.

"When adversity happens you either come together or you split up. And I think that really brought us together," Allen said. "She was clearly hurting. It was just mutual respect for Tiff and how strong she was.

The dust hasn't fully settled on Mitchell's Australian journey. She's still in championship mode as the Boomers try to win Game 2 on Wednesday, after falling 27 points short to Perth in Game 1. Through the pandemic-interrupted year with matches getting shifted, constant testing, and Omicron taking over as the dominant strain, there hasn't been much time for Mitchell to reflect wholly.

Even now, she still looks back and feels like she was running around with a target on her back. She says it was all "left field" and without the support of her family and the Boomers, she was willing to cut ties with the WNBL and fly back to the United States before the season started.

Mitchell has felt uncomfortable playing overseas before and wasn't willing to endure another season of stress, eating and sleeping less for another pay cheque.

The silver lining in all this from Mitchell's perspective is that an opportunity arose from something deeply hurtful and inappropriate. It gave her a platform to step up, be brave, and call out what she thought was wrong. Little did she know the ripple effect it would have - the braid rule gone, the awareness around the issue by taking a knee, and her peers and basketball community embracing her story. Mitchell's story alone won't end racial discrimination in women's basketball in Australia, but she paved the way for others to know it's ok to fight for what you believe in.

"In the States we've already been dealing with injustice, when it comes to black people, black women, not getting treated fairly. Putting these issues on display in another country is what's drawn the most attention. It's often swept under the rug in different countries when it comes to black people and black women," Mitchell said. "That's part of the issue. The ignorance of really just not knowing. You should take the time to know. A lot of the rules in place are very insensitive to people of colour in this league for sure."

Mitchell's basketball year doesn't stop. Once an WNBL champion has been crowned she is back on plane to see her family for a short visit before training camp with Indiana and her next WNBA season which kicks off on May 6. She's undecided on whether or not she'll be back on Australian shores next season. The 10-month grind of basketball is becoming less appealing with each year. But the Boomers basketball club fills her heart.

"On the outside looking in it looks like I'm living the dream. I get wrapped up into the everyday grind, always wanting more, being successful," Mitchell said. "I don't feel like I have to prove myself anymore but at the same time I don't like to be complacent. That goes to every part of my life."