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Gaming, Culture, and a Trip Up North: How Aerial Powers Overcame Injuries to Shine for the Minnesota Lynx

Lynx guard Aerial Powers caught up with Canis Hoopus’ Jack Borman this week in an exclusive interview.

Indiana Fever v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The moment you walk out onto the practice floor at Mayo Clinic Square, Aerial Powers is almost always the first person you hear.

“Even if you don’t know Aerial, you know she brings that energy,” fellow first-year Lynx Natalie Achonwa said last September after practice. “That’s something we need, especially when you have a team that’s so focused. She really drags it out of us and pushes us to be outside of ourselves.”

But, after Powers spent the 2020-21 offseason rehabbing a right hamstring injury only to strain her left hamstring three games into the 2021 season, while sitting on the sideline, she was the one feeling outside of herself.

“When I first hurt my hamstring, I was definitely disappointed. But then, working through everything with [Lynx head athletic trainer] Chuck [Barta], I was relentless in my rehab and the first game back was LA. I was feeling good,” Powers said late last season.

Then, disaster struck.

Los Angeles Sparks v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Powers suffered a torn UCL in the thumb on her shooting hand while going for a loose ball on the night she returned from injury; she missed the Lynx’s next 13 games.

She added, “I hurt myself again, and in my head, I could say, ‘Okay, boo-hoo,’ or ‘What is the rehab process? How do I get back to being me?’”

This time around, with the injury being on her hand, the Michigan State alumna feared she would be without not only basketball, but also her passion off the floor: video games.

I sat down this week in an exclusive, one-on-one with Powers to learn more about her recovery and what went into her success after she returned to the court.

Video games have been built into the fabric of who Powers is since she was a young child growing up at home in Detroit playing the Nintendo 64.

“I remember playing playing 007, Tony Hawk, Mario Kart, and I feel like I’m missing something,” Powers said with a laugh while counting on her fingers and looking up for answers. “I remember playing all those games with my cousins, my mom, my dad, and my brother. It was just always a part of me.”

Powers and her brother, Juan Jr., had so much fun with the Nintendo 64 that it prevented them from arguing and fighting. That came as a surprise to their mother, Cecelia, who thought it was a little too quiet.

“We were playing a video game together, Call of Duty. My dad is a Marine, so he likes games like that,” Powers recalled, wearing a wide smile. “He came in and was like, ‘Oh this is cool!’ The next day, he came home with two more Xboxes, two more headsets. We’re in this small ass house in Detroit playing a game and driving my mom freaking crazy.”

That bond forged on the sticks in a Motor City living room only grew stronger, and was crucial to Powers surviving what she called a lonely experience playing overseas in Turkey and China.

“That’s a way I continued to stay involved with my family, too, when I went overseas,” Powers said.

The increased time she spent connecting with family and friends while playing abroad made her think about how she could make a secondary career from video games.

“So, after that, when I came back, I was like, ‘I want to take [video games] more seriously.’”

Powers ran an incredibly successful, all-women NBA 2K tournament by herself — with no advertising help — that generated over 26,000 views in 24 hours.

The 2019 WNBA Champion joined professional eSports organization Team Liquid, soon after her roaring success as an event operator, not only as a Twitch streamer (a platform through which players can live broadcast themselves playing video games and speak over it), but more importantly as the team’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chair — a position Powers takes great pride in.

Powers’ goal in her role is to ensure women have a safe place to enjoy video games and the gaming community at large — many parts of which are male and carry a toxic, misogynistic culture — while serving as a mentor for and connecting women who have like interests.

She continues to run NBA 2K tournaments for women in the USA and abroad in hopes of driving more women to the NBA 2K League, which has only three women draftees in its four-year history.

“I did a tournament in Ghana with my brand management team. My brand management team helped me facilitate it. Even though I had to be here because of COVID, they were able to go out there and actually run the tournament,” Powers said. “It turned out amazing.”

The platform Powers created with her two events has undoubtedly served as a model for the NBA 2K League when it began conducting all-women showcase camps and tournaments to generate visibility for women with dreams of making it to the NBA 2K League.

“It’s pretty cool. Sometimes I have to sit back and just realize how much I’ve done in the last year. I’ve been with Team Liquid and the strides I’ve made. It’s pretty crazy because gaming has just always been like second nature to me,” Powers said reflectively when asked about what her impact means to her. “Basketball was always my first love and then, you know, video gaming was right there.”

Powers channeled a season-ending injury in 2020 and two injuries that took away most of her 2021 campaign into changing the gaming community for the better. Her work in service of others is equally impressive as it is a reflection of what she has shown as a teammate in the W: making people feel welcome while bringing the best out of them.

“To be able to make a career out of it and also invite people into this ecosystem that gaming is involved in, whether you want to be an actual gamer, you want to do coding, you want to be in video tech (producing), there’s so much you can do,” Powers added passionately. “I think I’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes to it. So, it’s been a crazy ride. It’s been great.”

Another key way video games were helpful to Powers in her recovery is that they served as a necessary outlet through which the fiery guard got in her competitive fix.

“It’s another way to get that competitive edge and fix, because — like you said — I am very competitive. I get just as excited as I do making the game-winning play in Call of Duty as I would for the game-winning shot on the court,” a giddy and laughing Powers said. “You know, my Twitch fans can attest to that. I get hype yelling [playing video games]. That’s just me; that’s just who I am.”

But when Powers first tore her UCL, she didn’t know if video games would be an option until it healed.

“You don’t realize how much you use your thumb in video games. I use a controller, so not being able to use my thumb was crazy. So, I went out and bought the Oculus,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Dang! I can’t play basketball now. I can’t play video games. What the hell am I going to do?’ I got the Oculus, then I was able to still game. That was pretty cool.”

The potential of losing her ability to play video games meant Powers would not have been able to work on a necessary skill in both gaming and basketball: communication.

“I have realized through gaming that communication is key,” Powers said. “If you’re playing 4s in Call of Duty, you got to communicate. If someone comes behind your back and the other person sees them coming, but they didn’t say anything, that [type of problem] does translate to the court. You have to be able to communicate with your teammates to be successful, period.”

2021 WNBA Playoffs - Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

If there is anyone who values communication, and understanding how to connect with people on a personal level, it is Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve. Reeve made a concerted effort to understand video games and connect with Powers about the guard’s off-court passion during the unrestricted free agency period last year. That told Powers all she needed to know about Reeve and the way the four-time champion coach operates.

“It meant a lot that she actually cared and took the time to learn about it because most people don’t,” Powers said. “When she was able to talk to me and sound informed, I was like, ‘Yeah this is dope that she actually care about that, cause it’s not on-court stuff.’ She doesn’t have to care about that, but she does. It speaks to her character and who she is as a person.”

When a coach like Reeve does something like that on a consistent basis off the floor, it’s no surprise when her players always fight like hell for her in between the lines.

“Her demand is always there,” Powers said of Reeve’s coaching style. “But when you have a coach that cares about you in those ways, you have no choice but to respect and give them everything they demand back.”

Minnesota Lynx v Indiana Fever Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lynx culture — relentless intensity coupled with deep empathy — Reeve has fostered is a good match for Powers, who thinks people on the outside may not always see the latter part of the culture.

“I think people always see the outside, her going crazy on the sidelines and yelling and all that, but she’s very, very personable,” Powers said. “If you listen to her podcast or are able to have a conversation with her, which most people aren’t able to, she’s very personable. And she has a really, really great sense of humor. Sarcastically funny, which I love about her.”

The team culture was put to the test early on last season when the team dropped its first four games, culminating with a loss at Seattle on May 28 during which the Lynx trailed by as as much as 30 points.

“The team and the organization — and this includes the fans, too — we started 0-4 and they never wavered. They weren’t in my DMs; weren’t on Twitter talking shit,” Powers said with a laugh. “We believe in our players; we believe in our coaching staff. Even when we went to 0-4 we’re like, ‘Okay, we good. We just haven’t figured it out yet.’ And when that was able to all come together, you saw tremendous turnaround.”

Powers went on to extensively credit the team’s collective character, explaining that the Lynx’s battle-tested nature was pivotal for overcoming adversity while working new players into the mix.

“What’s crazy is we have new girls, myself included, right? Me, Kayla [McBride], Nat [Achonwa] coming into the mix. We were still trying to find everything, but not only that, we didn’t give up on each other,” Powers said leaning forward in her chair, clapping to the cadence of her proud recounting. “We had new girls, new chemistry. It says a lot about our organization as a whole.”

The especially difficult part for Powers while trying to assimilate into her new team was that she had to do it from the sidelines. The time off the floor forced her to think about the game in the context of her team so that she could be as effective as possible upon her return.

“I know it was really, really hard to sit on the bench and watch, but I did learn more about myself as far as, ‘What — when I started playing — could I do better? What does the defense need? What does the offense need?’” she said.

Powers could learn from the bench what the team needed from her, but gaining a comprehensive understanding of how she would fully fit in on the floor couldn’t happen from the bench.

Dallas Wings v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

But, a team whose players understand each other as people and enjoy one another’s company is usually a more cohesive one on the floor. In the midst of a lonely rehab experience throughout which she worked on her own in the facility, Powers knew connecting with her teammates was what she needed to take the next step.

An inflection point in her recovery was plotted during a trip up north to Barta’s cabin, where she began to click with her teammates off the floor.

“During the Olympic Break, we were able to go up to our trainer’s cabin. Actually, that’s where I felt even more connected with my teammates. A lot of times during practice, I was doing my own thing because I was trying to rehab every day and get back on the floor with them,” Powers said. “I love fishing. I was able to do that and just be around the girls in a chill spot where we not worried about layups and shooting drills and plays. I was able to, in my eyes, feel closer to my teammates after that trip than I had been the whole season.”

The connections Powers made on that trip changed her season.

“It helped me as far as after the break is when I was getting into the rotation of playing, too,” she added. “Because my teammates were able to really get the gist of my personality, like, that day, I really feel like it was a turning point.”

To no one’s surprise, Powers hit the ground running upon her return. She played only 14 minutes in her first game back on August 21 against the Sky, but scored 10 points in key moments that built Lynx build a lead in the third quarter that helped to stave off a late push from the eventual WNBA Champions.

She proceeded to rattle off six straight double-digit scoring outputs, after a tough second game back, before saving her best (and favorite) game of the season for last.

The Lynx traveled to Washington, where Powers won a ring as a member of the Mystics in 2019, to play a desperate team facing a win and you’re in, or lose and go home situation.

“My favorite part [of last season] is two parts. One, making the playoffs after the way we started,” Powers said. “This will sound real petty. The second one is playing against my old team. But, it’s just the way that it happened, because I was struggling to get healthy and I was able to come back, get healthy, play well towards the end and then play well against my old team.”

Powers did not think she was going to get the chance to play there given her thumb injury, but, man, did she play well. The ultra competitive Lynx guard turned in game and season-high 27 points on 10/20 shooting to go with two rebounds and two assists.

Her career-high-tying scoring night lifted the Lynx to a six-point win that ended Powers’ former team’s season.

“It was emotional for everybody because they needed that win to make the playoffs,” Powers said grinning from ear-to-ear. “So, that shit felt good.”

Thankfully, after a 2021 season mired with injuries, Powers has enjoyed a fully healthy offseason to work on her game, with an emphasis on conditioning and playmaking.

“You can always improve upon stuff on the court, but as far as stuff off the court like endurance [I’m improving that, too]. The first thing I did [last season] was pull my hamstring, so I’m not trying to do that,” Powers said of her offseason focus. “I’m getting back on the court, making sure I’m better in every way. I want to be able to showcase being able to see the floor a bit better as far as picking the defense apart and getting some good passes to me teammates.”

However, Powers also understands that things will look different when she returns to Mayo Clinic Square for training camp this spring.

Star forward Napheesa Collier in November announced her pregnancy that carries a May due date, which means she could miss most, if not all of the 2022 season.

Indiana Fever v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Layshia Clarendon and Sylvia Fowles are free agents, although both have made trips to Minnesota this offseason and appear unlikely to leave a team for which they could play major roles alongside Powers next season.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the roster, Powers understands — and expects — the league at-large to doubt the Lynx.

“Of course they will because Phee is such a great player. She brings a lot. If I was on the outside looking in, I would be like, ‘Aw, shoot!’” Powers said. “People will doubt us, and because Phee is out that’s only right, because you gotta respect a player like Napheesa Collier.”

Even without Collier, Powers believes the culture and cohesiveness of the team will carry the Lynx through to a strong season.

“We’re not going to come out 0-4. I guarantee that,” Powers said. “We just got to find some more chemistry and make sure we can pick up what we’re losing when it comes to what’s not going to be there with Phee.”

The veteran experience and chemistry the Lynx possess will key for a team who not only plays three games in the first five days of the season and 11 games in the first month, but also knows it cannot afford the lackluster training camp Reeve lamented for much of last season.

Minnesota Lynx v Connecticut Sun Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

“The thing I’m looking forward to most is starting off strong because this season, it’s kind of similar to bubble season as the games and how they’re back-to-back,” Powers said, adding that practice time will be few and far between, like the bubble. “It wasn’t a lot of ‘Let’s practice and go through,’ it’s a lot of film. It’s a lot of being able to talk to your players and then effectively doing what needs to be done on the court, making adjustments during the game. It’s, we’re going to have to be on top of our stuff, for sure.

That is where Powers’ communication skills will be relied upon quite heavily. Powers knows she has to come into training camp and be a leader from Day 1, but that it starts with being ready physically so she can be on the court.

“Just getting in here, coming in in shape, coming in ready. That alone will allow the leadership role to play its own part because I’ll be able to be in the fire with my teammates, which I wasn’t able to because I was hurt last season,” she explained. “You’re able to have a voice. I feel like I didn’t want to not talk, but it’s different to have a voice than when you’re not playing.”

2021 WNBA Playoffs - Chicago Sky v Minnesota Lynx Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Once she’s back on the court in May, you can expect that Powers will throw parties at Target Center that fans will want to be part of all season long. She’s a unique entertainer who holds the arena in the palm of her hand and can send it into a roaring frenzy in the snap of a finger.

“I expect that of myself all the time. It’s not even what the fans expect; I expect myself to do well. I expect me to perform well. I expect me to be efficient. So that just comes along with the game,” Powers said with that intense look in her eyes. “The passion of mine is always going to be there. That’s because that’s who I am. So, you guys call it putting on a show, but I call it who Aerial Powers is.”