The following story originally appeared on the W&M Athletics website. – Ed.
The first time Sugar Rodgers teed up a golf ball, it was on a large field behind a church. She told everyone she would crush it, and she did. Unfortunately, she also broke a window.
“The church’s alarm went off, and I took off running,” said Rodgers, a first-year assistant women’s basketball coach at William & Mary. “I said, ‘Don’t tell anybody because I’ll get in trouble!’
“A couple days later, the golf coach came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, I heard you can hit it.’ And I knew someone had snitched.”
Someone had, but Rodgers was spared any discipline. Instead, she was invited to join a local golf team. After losing her first tournament, she got pretty good. And then really good.
Yet it wasn’t golf that Sugar Rodgers used to escape a neighborhood ravished by poverty, gangs and drug dealers. To guarantee a roof over her head and food on her table after years of wondering if either would be available the next day.
Rodgers’ ticket out was basketball, which took her from the streets to the WNBA with a connector (and two degrees) at Georgetown. Because of that bouncing ball, against all odds, Sugar is all smiles today.
“Basketball saved my life,” she said. “And when I say that, I really mean it saved my life. Basketball created these opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have without it.”
Rodgers, 32, grew up in Suffolk, Va., the youngest daughter of Barbara Mae Rodgers — a.k.a. Bob Mae. It was Bob Mae who first called her daughter, whose given name is Ta’Shauna, Sugar. It was more of a term of endearment than a nickname, but it stuck.
Bob Mae, a former high school basketball player herself, was a single parent who worked two jobs and relied on food stamps. Their one-story, three-bedroom house leaked and was infested with roaches, but it was home.
Their section of Suffolk, called Williamstown, was known mostly for bad reasons. In her memoire, “They Better Call Me Sugar: My Journey from the Hood to the Hardwood,” Rodgers candidly describes how those harsh streets shaped her life.
The most heart-breaking stretch begins when police raided their home when Sugar was 13 years old. Bob Mae was bed-ridden with lupus at the time and had no control of the drug dealers hanging out on the front porch.
Not only did the bust lead to several arrests, Bob Mae was taken away in an ambulance and the house condemned. Sugar ended up staying with one of her coaches for a while, but she had lost her home.
It wasn’t long after that when Sugar’s AAU basketball team, the Suffolk Blazers, traveled to Orlando for a tournament. On the morning of July 14, 2005, she was eating breakfast with her teammates when one of the coaches asked to speak with her.
Bob Mae had died back in Suffolk.
“She was definitely a strong, independent Black woman,” Sugar said. “She didn’t play when it came to us. She would support us no matter what.”
Like when Sugar had this crazy notion of taking up golf. “That’s a white person’s sport,” Bob Mae scoffed. Not to mention pricey. But she bought Sugar a pair of khakis at the Dollar Store and scraped up enough money for golf shoes.
Sugar quickly rose from beginner to advanced, but Bob Mae eventually stopped coming to her events. And without her mom there, Sugar began to lose her passion for golf.
But not basketball. She quickly took to that after her older brother, DeShawn, bought a seen-better-days goal and put it in the street in front of their house.
“It was a raggedy, old wooden backboard with the rim leaning low,” Sugar said. “But who knew it would impact my life the way it did?”
That second-hand goal drew kids wanting to play, but it also drew drug dealers betting on the action. While Sugar never went down the drug path, she did become quite the hustler. One time, she took more than $100 from a dealer in a one-on-one shootout.
Sugar had never played organized basketball until she was in the sixth grade at King’s Fork Middle School. She knew nothing about the game’s rules or how to do the drills, but all that came. So did her immense talent.
In four years on varsity, Sugar broke just about every school record that existed. She was named Southeastern District Player of the Year three times. With her AAU team, coached by the legendary Boo Williams, she was named Most Outstanding Player at the U16 Nike Nationals in 2007.
But college basketball? That meant actually getting into college, a foreign concept in Williamstown.
“Before I started playing for Boo, I didn’t really know what a scholarship was,” Sugar said. “I just played for fun. It was a safe haven.
“But when I got with Boo, he told me ‘You can get a four-year scholarship. You can go to school for free.’ Once he said that, I started taking off.”
Sugar’s game, both at King’s Fork and with Boo’s team, began drawing recruiters. One of the earliest was the staff at Georgetown. The Hoyas’ head coach was Terri Williams — Boo’s younger sister. It was an easy decision.
“I knew a scholarship from there could change my life forever,” she said. “And Terri being there helped a lot because I trusted Boo. I knew she would take care of me.”
In four seasons with the Hoyas, Sugar became the leading scorer in Georgetown history — male or female — with 2,518 points. She also set career records for 3-pointers (346) and steals (326) with the women’s program.
After not making the NCAA tournament for 17 consecutive years, the Hoyas went in each of Sugar’s first three seasons.
“You knew she’d be really good,” Terri Williams said. “You just didn’t know how good. She definitely showed how good she could be.
“Once she got on the court, life was easy. I think all of Sugar’s difficulties were off the court. On the court, my god, she was a pro from day one.”
Rodgers graduated Georgetown in four years with a degree in English. That came after an early, and valuable, lesson.
“The first year, I almost flunked out because I didn’t ask for help,” she said. “I was scared to ask because not everyone wants to help you.
“I was going from Suffolk to Washington, D.C., to a predominantly white institution. But when I asked for help, I was able to take off and be very successful academically.”
After college came another previously impossible dream: The WNBA. One of the top guards available, Rogers was drafted No. 14 overall by the Minnesota Lynx. Before the 2014 season, she was traded to the New York Liberty, where her game flourished under head coach Bill Laimbeer.
In 2016, her fourth season, Rodgers started all 33 games and was the Liberty’s second-leading scorer at 14.5 points a game. The following year, as a part-time starter, she was named the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year and scored 10 points in the All-Star Game.
Rodgers played eight seasons before retiring in 2020. A year later, she finished up her Master’s work in Sports Industry Management at Georgetown, which made her a “Double Hoya.” She spent the ’21 season on Laimbeer’s staff with the Las Vegas Aces.
After returning to Georgetown as an assistant for one year, Rodgers had an opportunity to return (almost) home. Erin Dickerson Davis was hired as head coach at William & Mary last April and immediately reached out to Rodgers.
“I told her about the impact she could have on these young ladies, especially being from this area and knowing what it’s like to go to a high academic school,” Davis said. “And just the story she could tell that would resonate with all the student athletes.”
Rodgers brings a unique perspective. Having played and studied at Georgetown, she can relate to the rigors William & Mary student athletes face. And on the recruiting trail, she has a strong connection with Boo Williams’ renowned AAU program.
“She knows how strategic you need to be balancing your classwork and athletics,” Davis said. “And she also know what it does for your life after college. When you graduate from a high academic institution, people talk to your differently.
“And playing for Boo, that’s such a big deal. That’s not just a powerful AAU program, that’s also home for her. Being able to keep some of those premier basketball players who are from around here home is so incredibly important.”
Of course, Rodgers can talk about all she overcame to get here. Few know more about overcoming obstacles.
“I always tell these young girls, and young boys, don’t let anybody kill your dreams,” she said. “There will be a lot of nay-sayers and a lot of negative people in your life. Even in your circle. Don’t let that get in the way of your greatness.”
Sugar Rodgers didn’t.