‘I feel free’: Natasha Cloud embraces fresh start, purpose with Phoenix Mercury

Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud settles in Phoenix after spending her first eight WNBA seasons with the Washington Mystics. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – After morning shootaround on a game day in late May, Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud made her way to the corner of the Verizon 5G Performance Center court. While discussing her time in Phoenix, she raised her hands and drowned out Kodak Black’s music playing over the speakers in the background with three spoken words: “I feel free.”

The young girl, raised in hard-nosed Philadelphia, became a woman in fast-paced, politicized Washington D.C. during her eight seasons with the Washington Mystics.

The East Coast made her who she is today. It matured her. It nurtured her.

It was all she knew … until Dec. 13.

The Mystics informed Cloud that they wouldn’t re-sign her on that Wednesday. She marked the date on her calendar and reminded herself of the fateful day before she played her old team in the fourth game of the Mercury’s season. She views Dec. 13 as the day she “got fired.”

“That was a tough day for me,” Cloud said. “You know, people just look at us as players, but I am human. I had to completely uproot my life and my whole family.

“It’s hard to leave a place where you thought you were going to retire, but God has a way of ripping the band-aid off and moving us when we need to, and that’s what I felt.”

Six weeks later, she substituted the cold winters of the East Coast for the cool desert breeze of Phoenix after signing a two-way contract to join the Mercury. Since joining the team, she’s averaging 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.

“Coming up on this next stage, I’m so happy to have found my home,” Cloud said. “I’m excited to be able to speak. I’m happy to be embraced as the dog that I am. I’m not being villainized in a bad way, I’m just accepted for the passion that I have for the game. I’m super thankful to be here.”

Cloud still holds a deep affection for Washington, D.C., a place she called her “second home.” The approach to life on the East Coast helped Cloud adjust across the country.

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“I think it’s just that East Coast grit and that East Coast hustle (that helped me acclimate here),” Cloud said. “I’m from Philly, and D.C. is only two hours away. The East Coast is just a very blue-collar, you got to work for everything, get it out the mud type of mentality. You just got to go get it.

“And that’s what I’m bringing here every single night. Whether my body feels good or not, I will give 40 minutes of myself and make sure I leave everything on the court for the Mercury.”

Cloud finds herself guarding positions one through five at times, making a strong case early in the season for all-defensive team. Additionally, her ability to pass the rock this year has produced historic numbers.

After a 10-assist performance against her old team, Cloud joined Diana Taurasi and Temeka Johnson as the only players in Mercury history with back-to-back 10-plus assist games, and Ticha Penichiero and Courtney Vandersloot as the only players in WNBA history to have back-to-back 10-plus assist games on at least four occasions.

She added another 10-plus assist night to her season resume Sunday against the Los Angeles Sparks, making her the only player this season to have 10-plus assists in four games.

Cloud’s vision on the court hasn’t skipped a beat since her time with Washington, where she holds the team’s all-time assists record. She’s averaging a career-high 7.4 assists this season.

Adapting to a new environment and maintaining consistency in play presented a unique challenge for the first time in Cloud’s professional career. Still, her smooth transition to Phoenix has contributed to stability on the hardwood.

“I think more than anything, I feel safe and embraced to be 100 percent me,” Cloud said. “I just get to be me on the court. With everything this organization offers off the court, I only have to worry about basketball. This is the first time I’ve only had to worry about basketball in nine years. No politics, no b——-, no food, no travel, no gear. I just get to lace up and go hoop, which allows me to be myself and play freely.”

Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts said Cloud brings a “pop” to the team. Her “pop” has also made adjusting to Phoenix easier for other first-year Mercury members.

Assistant coach Matt Wilbert arrived from Dakota Wesleyan this season, where he served as the men’s basketball coach. He walked over to the same corner of the performance center where Cloud expressed her joy during shootaround, surprised at his services being requested. But more than one may perceive on the surface, the two shared more in common than expected.

“Her energy is so contagious, and she came in with that energy on day one. When she walked in, you could feel a different lift because of who she is,” Wilbert told Cronkite News after the morning shootaround. “She has been who she is the whole time, and from my stance, she’s great every day and leads our team in high fives.

“I like to think of myself as an energy guy, too, and she’s been embodying that. When you are talking about making a major coaching change in the basketball world and moving over (to a new place), having someone like her around every day where it’s just so welcoming makes me feel a part of what’s going on here in Phoenix.”

Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud provides a "pop" for Mercury forward Natasha Mack and her teammates, coach Nate Tibbetts says. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud provides a “pop” for Mercury forward Natasha Mack and her teammates, coach Nate Tibbetts says. (Photo by Shirell Washington/Cronkite News)

While the scenery is unfamiliar, Cloud has reconnected with former teammate and 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, who was traded to Phoenix in February. The duo’s connection at the guard spot hasn’t skipped a beat.

“She’s always super encouraging … and always giving confidence to everyone,” Copper said. “I just know if I’m out there (on the court), and I look to my left and Tash is there, we are going to work.”

Tibbetts discussed Cloud’s early impact on the team during a pregame press conference in late May. Filled with complimentary words about the two-time All-Defensive team player, Tibbetts made the 10-minute presser go over time. Although new to the team as part of six players brought in during the offseason, she brings an old-school style of play, he said.

“Tasha is a competitor who loves to play fast,” Tibbetts said. “She reminds me of an old-school point guard trying to get others involved. There are many more shoot-first guards in today’s game, and she is not that. You almost have to encourage her to look to score herself.”

Selflessness is in Cloud’s blood. The former second-round pick’s ability to look out for others also translates off the court.

During her time in Washington, Cloud was a championing voice for social justice. She sat out the 2020 season in response to racial injustice and police brutality after the death of George Floyd, who died when ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin buried his knee into his neck for nine minutes and 26 seconds.

She advocated for gun safety reform, initiating a team-wide media blackout in 2019 in response to bullets hitting Hendley Elementary in crime-plagued Southeast D.C.

Her focus on children in disadvantaged Washington communities earned her the 2019 Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award “for outstanding efforts in the community throughout the 2018 season.” She once said the community leadership award surpassed “every other award” she’d ever win.

For Cloud, stats are valueless if service is forsaken.

Cloud, who intends to bring the same spirit of community involvement to her new home, said she plans to attend a Moms Demand Action event Thursday. The organization advocates for public safety measures to help end gun violence across the country.

“I absolutely wish to do community service in Phoenix,” Cloud said. “It’s essential for athletes in their market to not just see it as a place we play in. We have a responsibility to utilize the platform, cameras, and magnifying glasses on us at all times for a greater purpose, and that’s for our communities.

“My activism is always the same. I don’t want to guess what this community needs. I want to come into the community. I must hear what they need and where I can be a vessel.”

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Shirell Washington expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Washington has worked for Virginia Wesleyan University Athletic Communications and Arizona State University Stream Team.