Q&A with Indiana Fever’s Natalie Achonwa

Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa.
Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been a rough start to the delayed 2020 WNBA season for the Indiana Fever. Two players, whose names were not released, tested positive for COVID-19, delaying their arrival at the WNBA bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. But the Fever are back on the court now with new head coach Marianne Stanley and preparing for a return to the top of the league. We went one-on-one with forward Natalie Achonwa about playing ball during a pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and what to expect from this year’s team.

What went through your mind when you found out two teammates tested positive for coronavirus right as you were heading into a COVID-19 hot spot?
It just ramped up our approach even more, knowing we had less training-camp time. We knew we would have to come in that much sharper. For me, it was getting practice in during isolation, getting to an empty court, getting some running in. Just trying to come in as prepared as I could be to help my team out.

Is it difficult to balance a competitive mindset with everything going on?
Being off the court creates some difficulties trying to keep that mindset, but once we get on the court it’s basketball mode.

What’s it like having the league all in one place?
We see teams in passing—at COVID-19 testing, meals, or just heading to practice. Seeing the other teams doesn’t change anything personally for me. If we were at an away game, we would see the opposing team at shootaround. But when you step on the court, it’s time to focus on Indiana Fever basketball and getting a win.

Last month, you were spotted with former Fever players Tamika Catchings and Jeannette Pohlen at local Black Lives Matter protests. What did you see around Indianapolis that made you feel hopeful that change is possible?
It’s always the youth. The young women who organized the rally I was at I think were 17 through 21. Knowing that the younger generation is that passionate about pushing education and ending the systemic racism that exists in this country is what gives me the motivation to continue, and gives me hope that change is coming. Future generations won’t be dealing with the same issues we are today.

What advice do you have for allies who might not know what to do beyond protesting?
Educate yourself. Even as a Black woman, I take the time to look up terms I don’t know. I was looking into medical racism yesterday, specifically Black women and childbirth, and that’s something I didn’t even know about, and I’m a Black woman. People who experience racism still need to educate themselves, and it’s also the most important thing an ally can do.

One of the proudest moments in the Fever franchise came in 2016 when players took a knee during the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. The team was fined by the league, but those fines were eventually rescinded. Now the WNBA is embracing social justice. What is different this time around?
The door is open for conversation between the players association and the WNBA. They understand the players are passionate about using their platform, and it benefits the league to help amplify our voices. Especially when you have a league that is two-thirds African-American women.

If not for COVID-19, Tamika Catchings would have entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. What’s the most important thing Catch has taught you?
How to be a pro. I remember one of my first days of training camp my rookie year. I’m definitely not a morning person and I walked sluggishly into the locker room and sat down, and Tamika was watching and said, “Hello! Good morning! How about you leave and try that again.” She taught me that I’m coming into work. Her mentality is lead how you act. If I come in and I’m not cheerful and I don’t say good morning to my teammates or I don’t try to lift myself or my teammates up, then it’s a lost opportunity.

What is Marianne Stanley asking of you this season?
Use my experience. Use the intellectual aspect of my game that I made my name in the league with. Don’t change who I am. She has really pushed me to be a threat offensively and use my voice to lead. We are very fortunate to have a coach who really believes in what you bring to the team. 

Indiana finished 13-21 in 2019. Why should fans be excited about this year’s team?
The fight we are going to have. If you know anything about Stanley, it’s that she’s a fighter. From her career and legacy in women’s basketball and what she has done pushing for women’s equality in athletics, you see she is a fighter. And that is trickling down to our team. We are young. We’ll get up and down the court. And we are definitely going to fight.

You are in Florida. If you could have a meal delivered from a local Indianapolis restaurant, what would you choose?
I am a foodie at heart, and I just thought of four different restaurants. But I’m going to have to go with Chef Oya’s The Trap. They’ve got seafood, clam chowder, loaded salmon. The crab legs! The seafood in Florida has been great, and if I could have Chef Oya’s sauce that she puts on her food, it would be fire. Can I bring her out here? Chef Oya, I want you to come out here.