'A complete change': Indiana Fever's Alaina Coates prioritizes mental health in WNBA return

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INDIANAPOLIS — Alaina Coates has experienced peaks most people only dream of, but to find herself again, the Indiana Fever center had to take a hard look in the mirror and analyze the valleys.

She couldn't outrun what she was feeling, not after everything she'd been through. So, in order to save her career, Coates temporarily let it go.

"Not playing last year, I just took that personal, but not in a bad way. I just needed to work on myself," Coates said. " ... I feel very accomplished. I worked very hard to get back here."

As Coates stood on the baseline of the Fever's practice court Thursday — about two years removed from her last WNBA game with the Washington Mystics in 2020 — she peeled back the curtain on her hiatus from the league in 2021. During that time off, she got a therapist and made her mental health a priority. It was the first time Coates had truly examined the highs and lows of her life.

Washington Mystics center Alaina Coates (81) steals the ball from Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor (13) during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Washington Mystics center Alaina Coates (81) steals the ball from Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor (13) during the second half of a WNBA basketball game Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

In a two-year span, she went from winning a national championship at South Carolina and being drafted second overall by the Chicago Sky in 2017, to missing her entire rookie season due to a right ankle injury and having her 55-year-old father, Gary, die from cardiac arrest on March 13, 2018 — just over two months before she made her WNBA debut.

Admittedly, Coates said she wasn't in the right head space when her pro career began, and while she tried to push through it, she eventually realized that keeping her foot on the gas pedal wasn't the answer.

"I took (my mental health) serious, but I didn't take it as serious as I should have," Coates said. "And at one point I was like, 'You know what? I think this is what I truly feel like I need to do to help get me back to where I used to be.' I was just very glad that I was able to recognize that because it was a lot. My dad passing and not really being able to see any of my WNBA career, and then how it's went since then. This is my fifth team in four years, so I was just like, 'Something's gotta change.' And I know that a big part of what could change starts with me."

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Coates said it wasn't easy to face the feelings she previously tried to suppress, but as a result she's certain she's become a better person and player.

The 6-4 center returned to the court in October 2021, competing overseas for Nesibe Aydın GSK in the EuroCup and Turkish Super League. Coates averaged 14.9 points and 12.8 rebounds in 10 EuroCup games, and 17.9 points and 12.9 rebounds in 29 Turkish Super League contests.

The Fever took notice of Coates' stellar play and signed her in February. She missed the first three games of the season while finishing up in Turkey and became an active member of the roster Wednesday. Coates was held out of Friday's road win against the New York Liberty as she gets reacclimated to the team.

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Indiana hosts the Atlanta Dream on Sunday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, which will likely be Coates' debut. The 27-year-old believes it'll mark a pivotal point in her career.

"I just want to show people that there's a new narrative behind my name," Coates said. "I know so much has been said about me over the years, with the different teams and not really producing and all of that stuff, but that doesn't really matter. I use that as motivation. You can say what you want about me, but what you can't say from this moment on is that, 'She's not going to work hard,' because I made sure that it was a complete change when I went through what I went through."

Coates still goes to therapy and will have virtual sessions throughout the season. She hopes that by being transparent about her struggles, it'll break down mental health stigma and empower others to seek the help they need.

"Mental health is just as important as being physically fit," Coates said. " ... And I feel like if you recognize that a lot of things are going on and you may need help, you should just go. There's nothing wrong with it. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. It doesn't make you any less of a person. We're all human. We all have emotions. We all have feelings, and life can get overwhelming sometimes. I know for me, going to therapy there were a lot of underlying things that I didn't even realize I was dealing with, and it has helped me get to the space I'm in today.“

Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: jboyd1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana Fever: Alaina Coates discusses mental health, therapy, Turkey

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