For rising WNBA star Shavonte Zellous, this season was supposed to be about taking New York by storm. The fierce player has been amassing accolades and reaping the rewards of her dedication to her dreams; recently landing on the New York Liberty as a guard. This season was supposed to be about great things for the Orlando native. And it will be. But it will also be remembered as the season of Pulse.
The horrific attack on the gay nightclub took place in Zellous’s hometown. A place she thought of as a “sanctuary” was violated by a shooter with an assault rifle, unbridled homophobia, and an apparent allegiance to terrorists. In the early morning hours of June 12, Omar Mateen killed 49 people, mostly Latinx, mostly LGBTQ, who had gone out to dance, to kiss, to be free. The shocking massacre is now the largest mass shooting by one person in United States history. And Zellous can’t stop thinking about it.
People across the globe have felt—are feeling—this gut-wrenching crime deeply. And like so many LGBTQ observers, Zellous is shaken by the news of an attack on a primarily gay space only five minutes away from her own high school. In her youth, she had spent many nights partying at another Orlando nightclub, Parliament House, and she understood deeply the role such places play in a person’s life as she begins to come into her own as a young gay person. But Zellous also had a personal connection to Pulse, and in the early morning moments that she first heard about the shooting, she confronted the possibility that someone she loved had been injured or worse.
Since then, she has struggled to shake off the very real fear of tragedy striking close to home. At the same time, there are games to be won. So Zellous, an ascending athlete who has just been through personal anguish, is processing her feelings the only way she knows how: on the basketball court.
The ringing phone
Zellous was sitting in the lobby of her hotel in San Antonio, waiting with her team for the bus to the airport, when words flashed across a TV screen that struck her with terror to her core. The news was just breaking about a mass shooting on familiar turf. Zellous thought immediately of her little sister, who she knew partied regularly at Pulse.
Time slowed down as she dialed her sister and waited for what felt like eons between rings, according to a personal account Zellous published later. Finally, her sister picked up. She was on her way to the club when she got a call from her shift manager to come in at 6 a.m. So, she turned the car around and went home. But two of her friends whom she was on her way to meet died at Pulse; another friend is in critical condition.
Zellous chronicled those jarring moments in a moving essay for the Players’ Tribune, a site for athletes to publish first-person stories. Her piece, “I Am Orlando” spread far and wide. “In a club’s darkness, there’s freedom,” Zellous wrote beautifully in her essay. “With freedom of self comes something like light. Out of light comes love.”
Fear for a loved one who could have easily been in that exact place at the exact time its safety was being destroyed doesn’t fade easily. Being away from home has only made it harder. Zellous is new to the New York Liberty this season, after five years with the Indiana Fever. She has only just begun exploring New York City, and still very much identifies with the city in which she grew up.
“Just being a native of Orlando is amazing,” Zellous tells GO. “I love my city. I love everything it brings… I have Orlando spirit right now.” But the Pulse attack has transformed her beloved city. “Right now everyone is just in the house not really doing nothing,” she says. “It’s like a creepy town now. Everyone is feeling shocked from what just happened.”
In the short time since the shooting, Zellous has found her passion—basketball—to be the perfect distraction. “Right now, I’ve really been focusing on my games and on my opponents,” she says. On the court, “I’m not thinking about what’s going on at home.” Her teammates are supportive. “They know how hard it is for me and they hear my stories. They try to keep my mind off of it.”
But games always come to an end, and thoughts about the tragedy keep coming back. “When I step off the court, it’s back to reality.”
Finding her way out
Zellous fine-tuned that laser-sharp focus on the court over years of working toward excellence in the sport. But it was a meandering road that brought her to basketball in the first place. She started as a track athlete, and “eased into” basketball to stay in shape. A standout athlete at Jones High School in Orlando, Zellous received some sage advice from one of her coaches. “He said, ‘Nah. You need to be on the basketball team,’ and that’s why I switched from track to basketball.” Standing 5’10” with the handle and moves of a guard, it only made sense.
She wasted no time in proving that coach right, helping to lead her team to multiple state championship appearances, finally winning the whole thing her senior year and making her family very proud.
Though her athletic prowess was apparent to everyone, Zellous kept part of herself hidden.
“In high school I really didn’t come out yet because I didn’t know how my family was going to take it,” Zellous says. “I didn’t know how people would look at me any different. Like, ‘I can’t believe you do this.’” Her religious family, she says, at first “believed God didn’t make a man and a man, that kind of thing.” So, she waited until she got to the University of Pittsburgh.
It was there that she came into her own as a star player, from 2005 to 2009. Dominating on the court, she finally felt comfortable enough to open up about her sexual orientation. “After a while you get tired of hiding who you are. The stress of that even takes a toll on your body. I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to live my life and be me.’ So I came out,” she says. “This is who I am, man.”
Zellous found out that unconditionally embracing her own identity would eventually lead to acceptance on and off the court, from family, friends and teammates. That love and acceptance now extends to her relationship with her fiancée, Silvia Massey, who Zellous met in Indianapolis. “We were at a club and we were both eyeing each other up. I told my best friend, ‘I’ve got to meet her,” and four years later, here we are,” Zellous laughs. “We are in the process of figuring out dates for our wedding. My plan with the Liberty is of course to win the WNBA championship, so we have to look at when I’ll be able to come home. But it will be sometime next year for sure.”
She continues, “What’s great is that both of our families are so supportive. Both sides are accepting, both are there when we need them.”
Give her Liberty!
Zellous was picked 11th overall by the Detroit Shock in the 2009 WNBA draft. Later that year, she was named to the All-Rookie team, then moved to the Tulsa Shock in 2010, followed by five fruitful years playing for Indiana. In 2013, Zellous was, impressively, named to the WNBA All-Star Team and received the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award. Lots of teams took notice, and when she became a free agent this year, she was quickly scooped up by the New York Liberty.
Still new to the Big Apple, Zellous is looking for-ward to the freedom New York City offers, afeeling that comes into clearer focus in light of events in Orlando. In New York, “you don’t have to worry about whether someone is looking at you, thinking of you differently,” Zellous says.
“New York is the fast life. Everything is on the go whereas in Indiana everything is pretty mellow. It’s a transition but I love it. Coming here was a big thing for me.”
So far, it’s been a good match for Zellous and the Liberty. The team is a game out of first place, she trains regularly with her “mentor,” Liberty legend Teresa Weatherspoon, and is developing fast synergy with her teammates. “I gel with everybody on the Liberty, but especially Brittany Boyd and Tina Charles,” she says. “I played with Tina before coming to New York so we already had a relationship, but this year Brittany and I bonded because we’re on the second unit and I’ve been focused on trying to lead and put us in the right direction, so we became very close.”
Zellous revels in crowd enthusiasm and feeds off the positive energy from the fans in the stands. “It’s amazing, doing something that kids and even some adults dream of doing,” Zellous says. “It’s good to know you have people looking at you because you’re on a big stage. Everybody’s there. You never know who might come to the games. So we just feel blessed that we’re in a situation where we can change lives, in the community or on the basketball court.”
The season has kept Zellous too busy to enjoy nights out on the town with her finacée, Massey. But she is comforted to know there are so many places for LGBT people to commune in New York with some level of safety, even if safety has proven to be shakier than anyone ever dreamed.
“It’s different from a normal club,” Zellous says of LGBTQ spaces. “Other places, you always have people looking at people differently. Or when people are holding hands you got people that are like, ‘Nah ah, this shit ain’t right,’ or they make fun of people.”
Gay clubs like Pulse, she says, are “just places where you could hold hands, you could kiss, you could dance. It’s like freedom. It’s like being free and you can finally live your life for what you believe in and as who you think you are.” The shooter in Orlando “took that away,” she says, “and that’s devastating.”
Zellous considers how to reconcile the crippling fear that she and many others in the LGBTQ community are feeling, with the need to keep creating and fostering safer spaces that are full of energy and love. “Right now, I’m sure a lot of people are living in fear, not knowing…whether to turn the corner left or right, because you just don’t know,” she says. “We as a community must stick together.”
Healing from Pulse won’t be easy—for her, for anyone. “It might take years,” Zellous says. “The one thing I can say is we cannot live in fear. I know a bad thing has happened, and it’s tried to deter us from living our lives.”
“But we cannot live in fear.”
Photos courtesy Shavonte Zellous and The New York Liberty