Three years ago Bridget Pettis worked in a community garden for the first time in Phoenix, Ariz., and she was inspired by the amount of food it could produce. During an eight-year career in the WNBA, she became more invested in the food she ate and a few years earlier she began growing her own food. This experience made her realize how easy it could be to help feed a community.
Pettis partnered with a local food bank and eventually acquired a half-acre plot in south Phoenix, which led her to create Project Roots in December. The non-profit organization focuses on providing education on healthy eating and growing healthy food for people who don’t have access. Project Roots also supports the homeless community, feeding them from community gardens and mobile kitchens while also supplying hygiene items, clothing and shelter.
It’s the work that led, in part, to her decision to step down from the role of Chicago Sky assistant coach last month, opting out of joining the team at the IMG Academy in Florida.
Instead, Pettis, who grew up in East Chicago, moved to Gary, Ind., to get closer to family and focus on improving the accessibility and affordability of healthier foods in her neighborhood. She also served as an example to push others to start growing food. Her garden is filled with cucumbers, carrots and squash, and she’s started encouraging her family with theirs — her mother’s tomatoes are plentiful and her sister’s collard greens are seeing good progress.
It’s been a month since Pettis decided to walk away from basketball and she feels at peace with her decision. Gardening and spending more time connected with nature have given her clarity.
“I don’t know, it just feels like I should’ve been living this way all my life,” Pettis said during a phone interview this week. “It brings me back to playing in the playground, just that freedom.”
Pettis first entered the WNBA as a player in 1997, when she was drafted seventh overall by Phoenix in the league’s inaugural draft. She played eight seasons for the Mercury and Fever before transitioning to coaching. She joined the Sky’s staff last season.
Returning to the court this year did not sit right with Pettis, however, and she opted out with a press release calling into question the league’s health protocols and the idea of playing amid social unrest around the country.
“She’s always been more than a basketball player, more than a basketball coach,” Sky coach James Wade said. “Her passion for helping people has always been at the forefront. When this came about, we talked through it. I understand where she’s coming from.
“We’re a family, so we’re always going to support our people, no matter who it is. I more than understood it with the time and where we are in society.”
The WNBA has answered the first question because the bubble is working. The league announced Friday no player has tested positive for COVID-19 since the initial quarantine period ended on July 10. The league currently has 139 players on campus.
But the idea of staying in a secluded environment for months because of basketball didn’t appeal to Pettis, not when there were bigger issues on her mind. One of the many things the pandemic exposed was how quickly access to food could become an issue with unemployment numbers soaring.
The WNBA has dedicated this season to pushing for racial justice and women around the league have gotten involved in several causes, but Pettis joins a list — which includes the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, Dream’s Renee Montgomery and others — who opted out of this season to focus on advocacy.
“It was a tough decision not to be a part of it, but I know that I am a part of it at the same time,” Pettis said. “It’s just time for me to do God’s work in a different way.”
Pettis still commended the WNBA for the job they were doing uplifting the message around Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. She sees sports as a way to continue the country’s racial awakening, bringing the message to the front of American consciousness.
“After they understand that we matter they have to show that,” she said. “We have to invest into that in every way that we can. If you care about the well being of Black lives then make sure that Black lives continue to matter and invest into us. Continue to stow into us and continue to educate us. And those are things we have to do within ourselves.”
Whether this is the end of her career in basketball, Pettis did not want to commit fully either way.
She will still continue to mentor and coach some young players. She keeps in touch with several members of the Sky and acknowledges she will miss the team camaraderie. But after spending most of the past 23 years in the game, she’s content to take time away and focus on a worthy cause
“I think I’m in a place where I can say, I’m alright being where I’m at,” she said.
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