Brittney Griner still has it sitting in a case in her old bedroom back home in Texas. Nneka Ogwumike won it and showed her sister what was possible if she kept working. It was given to Sue Bird at a time when the concept of high-level pro basketball was just coming into picture. The Gatorade Player of the Year award has a long history of prolific winners.
The latest is Paige Bueckers, without a doubt the best high school female hooper in the country and a gold medalist at the age of 18. She’s on her way to the University of Connecticut this fall, but opened up her trophy case one more time this week when Gatorade named her its Athlete of the Year, chosen from a group of finalists across all sports as the high school athlete who demonstrated excellence on the court, in the classroom, and in the community. The honor was shared by Arik Gilbert, a five-star tight end recruit who will play his college ball at LSU.
Bueckers led Hopkins High School in Minnesota to the state championship game her first two years before ultimately pulling through with a title as a junior. Hopkins was headed toward a repeat this spring before the championship game was canceled due to the pandemic. Along the way, Bueckers started her own non-profit basketball clinic called Buckets With Bueckers that doubled as a training camp and fundraiser. And of course, any Athlete of the Year has to have at least a 3.8 grade-point average.
Though it was announced virtually and comes after a senior season that ended abruptly, Bueckers is proud to be honored.
“It means everything to me,” Bueckers told Uproxx over the phone. “This is the most prestigious award you can win in all of high school, especially being the female Athlete of the Year among all the sports. It’s really big for me because it’s not just the player I am, it’s also the person I am, and I take huge pride in that, just being a great person, being somebody that kids can look up to, being a great (member) of the community, and using my platform to make a positive impact in the world.”
Gatorade was determined to give Bueckers her moment, and a video released Thursday features faces of past winners congratulating the latest Athlete of the Year. The history of Gatorade’s top prize is a who’s who of women’s basketball: Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Skylar Diggins-Smith. It’s company Buecker is inspired by.
“It kind of shows that if I keep working hard and if I can keep staying on the right path, I can fill their shoes one day and hopefully play professionally and do the things that they’re doing,” she says. “To be in the likes of those athletes at such a young age, seeing what they did with it, it inspires me and helps me understand that I need to keep pushing so I can get to their level.”
Particularly in a year of progress and change for women’s basketball, the chance to welcome Bueckers into the ranks of great young athletes is important. Sabrina Ionescu’s record-breaking senior season at Oregon gave way to a new collective bargaining agreement in the WNBA, which led to the league and its players agreeing on a plan to save the 2020 season.
In interviews with Uproxx, Ogwumike, Griner, and Bird expressed the same sentiment: That the road was being paved for young players like Bueckers to surpass those that came before her in every way.
“We want it to be better (for) those who come after us,” Ogwumike said. “Being able to instill change that outlasts you, it’s something to be very proud of. I hope that what we’re doing now creates a better future for players like (Bueckers).”
As the president of the executive committee of the WNBA players’ association, Ogwumike was the face of negotiations on the CBA and the clean site in Florida, where the league will play its 24rd season. It’s where rookies like Ionescu will make their debuts, but even that is a far cry from where the league was when Bird was, in the late 1990s, moving from high school to UConn just as Bueckers is now.
Back then, there was nothing more than a few TV appearances over the course of the year and the vague sense that there was some money to be made playing professionally in Europe.
“I really had nothing to see, I had nothing to visualize, I had nothing to strive for,” Bird said. “That’s what’s so great about young players now. The WNBA is established, it’s here, the coverage is just continuing to get better, we just did this amazing CBA, and here we are in a Bubble about to have a season. It’s all going to be televised and you’ve got all these young basketball eyeballs watching it.”
While Bueckers is getting settled in Mansfield and Zooming with new Husky teammates, it’s a safe bet she’ll be among the young people watching the league. But Griner believes Bueckers is already in an elite class of human beings who just so happen to play basketball.
“(She’s) coming out of high school and is already hitting all of the criteria to be an elite, prestigious athlete,” Griner said. “She’s ahead of the curve, and a lot of us can learn from her.”
Griner is happy to bet on Bueckers to continue growing the game, but she hopes there’s less to fight for by the time Bueckers is on WNBA radars in a few years. The new CBA increased maximum salaries and the rookie scale, and the league hopes the coverage and business keep building, too. Players like Moore and Bird are on the national radar in a way they never were before.
Many already know Bueckers’ name, too, but Ogwumike hopes the Gatorade award can be the first stepping stone toward people seeing Bueckers as someone on the rise in the world of sports, regardless of her gender.
“It’s an award that shows no discrimination, and I feel as though that’s what we need more of,” Ogwumike said. “There’s a history of so many WNBA players receiving this, and there’s a reason. It’s because we go on and we do great things, and having an organization like Gatorade that continues to support women in sports, it’s exactly what the world needs right now.”
It’s hard to say now what will come of the WNBA season, which tips off this weekend, or Buecker’s UConn career. But there is undoubtedly momentum around women’s sports, with many fighting toward equitable coverage and treatment of female athletes. It won’t always be as uncomfortable or challenging as it was for Bueckers’ predecessors.
— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) July 24, 2020
Said Griner, “I hope the platform that she’s walking into if she gets all the way there, to the pros, is (past) the injustice of equal pay, the injustice of just being a woman in sports, I hope she doesn’t have to fight that fight that hard.”
“What I hope for her and her generation,” Bird said, “she can do even bigger and better things than what we’re doing right now.”
While Bueckers prepares for the challenge of the bright lights of NCAA hoops and thinks about what comes next in the community work that earned her the Athlete of the Year award, the Gatorade family as well as the women’s basketball community is looking out for players just like her. It is, for better or worse, the work of female athletes not only to play the game but build it up.
In Bueckers, the game has another great leader.
“She is changing the way, she’s the new way,” Griner said. “Where we lack, she’s going to pick up the slack and she’s going to push through for us.”