Raina Perez is used to looking at obstacles. It’s not just her sport, women’s basketball, that seems forever in the shadow of men’s football. It’s not just her height, 5ft 4in – tiny, even for a point guard. It’s not just that she’s Mexican American and there are few Mexican American stars in the world of hoops.
“When you look at me, you don’t automatically think ‘basketball player,'” she told me. “I don’t attract attention like that.”
It’s all of those things, and one more — the biggest obstacle of all. After playing in college and nearly guiding North Carolina State to this year’s Final Four, Perez hopes to make it into the WNBA. And it’s not at all easy.
Even as the league’s popularity has grown – last season it garnered its highest viewership since 2008 – making the full-time roster of a WNBA team remains one of the toughest jobs in sports. Americans, especially for young players who need seasoning. Each of the league’s 12 teams can only carry 12 players, and most teams play with 11 due to salary cap restrictions.
Said Breanna Stewart, the former league’s most valuable player, who anchors the Seattle Storm: “There are too many teams like ours: no rookies.”
This means the odds are slim for players trying to start a meaningful career in the top league in the world. They’re even slimmer for undrafted talent like Perez.
“I’ve dreamed of playing in the league since I was little,” said Perez, 23, who grew up with his hometown team, the Phoenix Mercury. “I discovered this year how difficult it is. No matter how good you are, you have to find a situation that suits you.
Perez was part of a powerful core that made North Carolina State a top-five Division I college team last season and a national title contender. One of her teammates, Elissa Cunane, was drafted with the 17th pick by the Storm. The Minnesota Lynx used the 22nd pick to take another teammate, Kayla Jones.
Perez was not selected in the three-round draft, but Storm coach Noelle Quinn sought to sign her as a free agent. Quinn had followed Perez’s unusual journey for years.
Known as a clutch shooter with a knack for reading the action before it fully developed, Perez graduated from high school as one of Arizona’s top players. Still, there were doubts about whether she was good enough to succeed in Division I basketball.
She went to northern Arizona and immediately blossomed. Then she transferred to Cal State Fullerton and once again thrived. Finally, looking to prove her abilities against top college competition, Perez moved on to North Carolina State, where she became a star.
Perez left college on a roll. His winning jumper sealed the North Carolina State ACC Tournament Championship. Then she led her team to the NCAA Tournament Round of 16 with a last-minute steal and layup to beat Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.
On April 14, when she signed a training camp contract with the Storm, she felt buoyed by the confidence of those performances.
On April 23, she played in a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks, scoring 9 points and recording 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist.
Quinn was impressed. Just like Stewart. “Raina is someone who understands, who knows how to play,” Stewart told me. “She’s a total stunner.”
On May 2, shortly before the start of the regular season, Perez was dropped from the team. Around the same time, Cunane and Jones were also cut.
The roller coaster continued.
Perez returned to Phoenix with her eyes set on training for the women’s professional leagues in Europe, which begin their seasons in the fall.
Then his cell phone rang. “How soon can you join us?” asked a Storm official. Epiphany Prince of Seattle had tested positive for coronavirus. The Storm needed a quick replacement.
That’s how Perez got on a roster for a regular season game: two minutes against the Mercury, long enough to dish out a pair of assists. She prepared for another game. And then, again, she was let go.
It shouldn’t be that way, Stewart said. “Women’s basketball needs to find a way to bridge the gap between college and professional.”
My thoughts exactly, especially since the WNBA is still working to gain traction with American fans who are primarily passionate about men’s sports.
Stewart is part of a chorus of veteran stars who speak openly about the need to keep more players like Perez, who gain significant followings in college only to seemingly fade away after graduation. “They need to be kept in the fold so they can continue to learn and then take on bigger roles,” Stewart said, before citing possible solutions: a more flexible salary cap; a development league inspired by the NBA’s G League; taxi teams that allow fringe players to stay with the teams for practice.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert acknowledged the problem and said growing the league beyond 12 teams is likely the best solution. Sounds good, but the expansion will likely take years.
Waiting too long for a solution could harm the future of the league. Suppose the WNBA continues to make it difficult to develop a viable career. How long must pass before the younger generation decides the WNBA is too far to aim?
Perez is now fitting into a newly created league for Fuerza Regia in Monterrey, Mexico. On Sunday, in front of 1,800 home fans in Fuerza Regia’s 100-79 victory over Abejas de León, she scored 9 points and provided 8 assists.
It’s far from the biggest step, and the season won’t last longer than mid-July, but it’s professional. The team provides him with an apartment. The crowds are small but loud and they love cheering on a Mexican American.
Perez knows the future is uncertain. She still plans to play in Europe eventually. But more players are looking for fewer jobs abroad. Because of the war in Ukraine, the Americans no longer play in Russia. Enthusiasm for performing in China has faded because of its politics. And yet, like so many others in his position, Perez vows not to give up.
“I’m a lifer,” she said in a firm voice as she prepared for another practice with her new team in a new country. “I’m going to stick with this for as long as possible.”