Shyra Ely, an All-American forward at Tennessee, etched her name in the record books during her four years in Knoxville and has carved out a role with the Chicago Sky in her fifth year as a WNBA pro.
Ely tied her career high with 16 points against the Los Angeles Sparks last week and has been a sparkplug off the bench for the Sky with defense and board play. She is averaging 5.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game for the Sky in her first season in Chicago. She has hit 11 three-pointers this season, already surpassing her career high of nine that was set when she was a rookie at San Antonio, which drafted Ely in the second round in 2005. She has 117 points this season – her season high is 139, also in 2005 – so that career mark should fall, too.
After two years in San Antonio and two years in Seattle, Ely has settled into a comfort zone in Chicago.
“I think so; I do,” Ely said. “And that’s the thing a lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you playing so well?’ Or ‘I didn’t know this or that,’ or ‘I didn’t know you could play.’ I’ve always been able to play; I was always a scorer. It’s just that in San Antonio that wasn’t my role and certainly not in Seattle with all the All-Stars and Olympians that we had.
“It’s just a different fit. It’s a different role. I am very thankful to have a bigger role. That was one of the reasons why I decided to leave Seattle and come to Chicago so that I may have a bigger role and just more playing time. I’ve got a great relationship with the coaching staff and my teammates, and I am really thankful that they have the confidence in me to put me in that position. I am having a lot of fun and hopefully we can make it further into the playoffs.”
Chicago, 10-11, is just behind Atlanta, 11-10, which has won four in a row, for the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six weeks left in the season – WNBA Standings. Washington, Connecticut, Atlanta and Chicago are jockeying for position behind Indiana with Detroit, the defending champion, and New York also hovering.
The Sky has 13 games remaining, including a Saturday matchup with Atlanta, with the next three on the road - the aforementioned Dream and then at Detroit and New York. But Chicago is 8-2 at home while posting a 2-9 mark on the road this season.
If the Sky intends to play past mid-September, the team will need to tally some wins on the road.
“It’s really, really important,” Ely said. “We don’t want to have to wait until the last part of the season to have to really play hard to determine whether or not we’re going to get into the playoffs. We’re trying to assert ourselves now and make sure we have a spot in the playoffs. We haven’t really played that well on the road (so far), and hopefully we’ll be able to be successful on the road and that will help us out in the long run.”
Ely’s role is to provide some scoring and defense off the bench. At 6’2 she is an undersized power forward, but Ely still does her best scoring inside the paint. Her first step is likely the fastest in women’s basketball – though Tennessee’s Glory Johnson comes very close – and it has served her well in college and in the pros.
“Honestly I do believe it is God-given talent,” Ely said. “That’s funny because my dad is always the one who’s like, ‘Just take them off the dribble. You’ve got the fastest first step ever.’ I guess I am just blessed with quickness, especially for my size when I’m at the four. I’m smaller so usually I have to rely on my quickness to get around those bigger players. I can’t give you an answer as to what I do or don’t do. That’s just part of my game.”
It would be interesting to watch Ely and Johnson on the same practice court – both players have first steps that are nearly indefensible, especially at their size as Johnson is also an undersized power forward and they are usually guarded by taller, but slower, players – and Ely said she would like to make a trip back to Tennessee to practice with the current team.
Ely tried to rearrange her schedule to attend Pat Summitt’s ceremony in May to honor her milestone of 1,000 career wins, but she was unable to get to Knoxville.
“I would love to get back down there,” Ely said. “I would love to come down there and practice and get up and down with them, because that is how you get better. (Tamika) Catchings would come back to our practices, and she rose the level of our practices so much with her work ethic and how hard she played.”
Ely, a native of Indianapolis and a heralded recruit coming out of Ben Davis High School, also could impart some hard-earned wisdom to a team that is still very young. The 2009-10 Lady Vols have no seniors, three juniors, seven sophomores and three freshmen.
Despite playing in Cyprus over the winter, Ely tried to keep up with last year’s Tennessee team via the Internet. That squad went 22-11 and set school records in the worst way – most losses in the SEC and the first team to ever lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I did know about the lackluster season and losing in the first round,” Ely said. “It was kind of bittersweet because they lost to Ball State, and I knew a couple of girls on that team, but, still, my loyalty is first and foremost to Tennessee. It’s unfortunate and our standards are so high that stuff like that is unacceptable, especially for the women that have been there before them and built that legacy along with Pat.
“It was disappointing, but they’re a young team and I’m positive even before that season was over that Pat had a plan for next year. She’s on top of it, and I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Ely didn’t know that Summitt had the team on the practice court within 48 hours of the loss, but she let out a laugh that indicated she wasn’t surprised.
“They should have been,” Ely said. “That is unheard of. I was joking around with Tasha Butts and Ashley Robinson, and I was like, ‘I know those girls did not sign up for that.’ I am sure they had no idea that that was the way their season was going to go, but just because you put on that jersey it doesn’t mean you’re going to win games. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.
“I think sometimes young players coming into the program they lose sight of that. Just because you’re there with Pat Summitt and you wear that orange doesn’t guarantee you wins. You’ve got to go out there and get them. I think it will be a great lesson for them and hopefully they’ll be able to bounce back next year.”
Ely played in four Final Fours and made it to two national title games in 2003 and 2004, but she fell short of a championship ring. The 2005 loss in the semifinals of the Final Four in her hometown of Indianapolis in which Tennessee surrendered a double-digit lead to Michigan State is still a painful one for Ely.
“That one was especially hard because I was in my hometown and that was my senior year. It’s still difficult for me to talk about,” Ely said after a considerable pause. “I still remember it like it was yesterday. It’s disappointing that I didn’t get a ring. At Tennessee our standards are so high that it is pretty awesome that I went to four Final Fours, two national championships (games). But it was very difficult and not performing well either was especially tough. It is hard for me but I feel like everything happens for a reason, and it kept me hungry.”
Another painful loss for Tennessee – the one to Ball State – set in motion a series of events that likely saved the life of current Lady Vol Amber Gray. The team held full-scale workouts – not the individual workout sessions the coaches usually schedule in April after the season ends – and Gray injured her shoulder while playing defense in a five-on-five full-court drill.
She underwent shoulder surgery in early July, and complications from that procedure led to the discovery that Gray had a brain aneurysm that had started to hemorrhage. She underwent 12.5 hours of brain surgery in mid-July and is recovering in her home state of Ohio.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” Ely said. “I am a very strong Christian and I believe that there is a plan and a path for everyone. I always try to find the message in everything and I would be so thankful for those practices, for that loss. It’s amazing to see how God works. There is a plan. I wish her the very best.”
Summitt held the team workout sessions – it included some gut-check time with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach – and then dismissed the players so they could prepare for final exams. She instructed the players to use the off-season in the summer to get better.
“I was so thankful to go to Tennessee and have the kind of mental knowledge about the game, the Xs and Os, evolving from just an athlete to a cerebral basketball player,” Ely said. “I am still thankful for that. I am so very thankful for that. And as hard as we worked in the gym, in the weight room, strength and conditioning – Heather Mason is amazing – and while you’re running and doing that stuff you’re probably cussing her out, but I am so thankful for what she put me through. It just made everything else so much easier when I got to the professional league.
“One thing that I regret is how hard I could have worked in the off-season and I think that had to do with how hard we worked during the season and our season is so long, and when summer finally comes you kind of want to relax, but that’s actually the time where you need to be working just as hard, especially for me when I played the four most of my career and then transitioning into a three player in the WNBA. I just wish I would have taken that more seriously and really, really gotten better each year in the off season.”
Ely, a Kodak All-American in 2004, tallied 1, 673 points at Tennessee – No. 11 on the all-time list – and also pulled down 940 rebounds to place No. 7 all-time. Her 671 made field goals ranks No. 10 all-time, and she played in 139 games, also No. 10 all-time. Ely would tell the current players that their college careers end all too quickly.
“It flies by,” she said. “You’ve been there for so long and once you graduate you are like, ‘Yes!’ but once I got out I was ready to go back. I love the family and the close-knit relationships that you have with everyone. It’s not the same. You’re on your own now. It’s the real world.”
Ely has supplemented her WNBA salary by playing overseas in the fall and winter, including stints in Israel and last season in Cyprus. She plans to cut back on her time overseas as she looks ahead to life after basketball.
“I really do enjoy different cultures,” Ely said. “That is something I really enjoy. However, I am not really a fan of spending that large of an amount of time overseas. I am very family-oriented so I feel like I miss out on my family and what they’re doing. It’s kind of a sacrifice right now but it’s part of growing up and maturing and wanting to be your own woman and be financially sound. I think from now on I’ll probably only go over for half the season. I believe I am tapering down and in the next few years I’ll retire, so I want to make sure I have things in place in America so that I can make an easy transition.”
Ely has always maintained an interest in fashion – Summitt said one thing she would remember about Ely is that her shoes and purse always matched when she got on the team bus – and offered insight on the Sky’s website, including this gem, “Attention! Leggings ARE NOT a substitute for pants. Make sure your shirt covers your rear end!” at: Shyra’s Tips.
“I love fashion,” Ely said. “I think that was my first love even before basketball and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of players styling them. I styled a few of the players for the All-Star (events). I am really interested in image consulting and personal style and personal shopping. I have been fortunate to have some pretty high-powered players come to me and say, ‘Hey, can you help me out?’
“A lot of times players just don’t have the time to shop and sometimes they don’t know what to shop for. Some people can dress really well casually but they’re not so inclined when they’re trying to dress up and be more business-like. I try to find a happy medium while still keeping their style.
“I think some people are scared because I am such a feminine kind of girly girl and they think I am going to put them in frills and hose, but that’s not really the objective. The objective is to stay within their style and give them what they’re looking for whether it’s casual or they need more glamour or single events, wedding, occasions, things like that. So that’s cool. I really hope to grow with that.”
Ely, oddly enough the only player in the WNBA whose last name begins with “E” – “I did not know that,” she said – also has developed an interest in working in the field of representing athletes.
“I am also thinking about transitioning into sports agencies,” she said. “My agent has asked me to partner with her and help her out, so I am learning the business and interacting with contacts. I have never really wanted to coach, but I would like to stay around basketball. I think being an agent and being an advocate for athletes would be cool.”
Ely interacts with athletes and fans on the social media site, Twitter, and she can be found at: Shyra Ely Twitter.
“It is a fun way to interact with people and keep up with people,” Ely said. “Originally I had it so my account was locked (where readers must make a request to see the ‘Tweets’), but then I thought it would be a good way to interact with fans and keep up with people. I think it’s another way to stay personal with your fans and people in general. That’s something I devote to my fans and then I have a Facebook page that is for friends and family. I try to keep them separate, but I love Twitter. I’m addicted.”
Ely’s Tweets are often offbeat – she very much enjoys manicures and pedicures – and she will discuss food and juice choices and mention that her mother doesn’t need to get another dog, along with banter with other WNBA players. On the day the news broke about Michael Jackson’s death several Twitter regulars checked on her because Ely has always been a fan. Anytime she was asked at Tennessee what music she was listening to, it was always Jackson.
“I guess I was a true, loyal fan for everybody to be like, ‘Oh my God you were the first person I thought of,’ ” Ely said. “It was really hard for me. I was emotional. I felt as if a family member had died, but I am really thankful to have had Michael Jackson in my life. If I am having a bad day or I’m feeling sad I’ll pop in a CD or watch one of his concerts, and I feel great. He’s a big part of me.”
She still maintains contact with former Lady Vol players and coaches.
“I haven’t talked to Pat in awhile, but Pat actually still talks to my mom, probably more than she talks to me,” Ely said. “I texted her and called her on her birthday (in June). I saw Mickie DeMoss a couple of weeks ago. She was up here for a tournament. I am best friends with Tasha Butts, Ashley Robinson and Loree Moore. I talk to Holly (Warlick) here and there. I try to stay in touch. I miss them.”
Ely is one of 13 former Tennessee players in the WNBA – the most of any school this season – and she attributes that number to Summitt and the assistant coaches.
“I think it’s just the way they prepare us,” Ely said. “When I was in high school I was just a really good athlete. And when I was at Tennessee I was a good basketball player. She teaches you the game.
“When we are ready to transition into the league we know what’s going on. We know the Xs and Os. We know how to chase on a screen and how to read defenses. She prepares us so well, and I think that is what sets us apart.”