Val Whiting has cold memories of a cruel adolescence. Growing up in Delaware, the former WNBA player was taunted in middle school. It got so bad that she switched schools looking for relief.
“I had low self-esteem,” Whiting said. “I didn’t feel accepted. I felt ugly. I was teased for being tall, for being shy, for being smart and for being a nerd. I just wanted to be accepted.”
Now at the age of 46, she’s giving back. Whiting runs after school girls-only basketball programs in the Northshore and Lake Washington school districts.
She’s got the pedigree. Whiting was a two-time National Champion at Stanford. She was a two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year. After college, she played in the WNBA for the Minnesota Lynx and the Detroit Shock then in the ABL with the Seattle Reign.
But her life wasn’t earmarked for success. Not by a long shot.
By age 11, Whiting stood six feet tall. It marked her as a target for taunts. She tried out for the cheerleading squad, with hopes of gaining popularity and acceptance. But she got cut.
A math teacher suggested she try out for basketball. By her own admission, Whiting was “horrible.” In a moment of epic embarrassment, she even got confused and scored a basket for the other team.
But even as she struggled, the team provided her a place where she felt like she belonged. She began working on her game. Her dad woke her up on weekends 6 a.m. to go practice.
“I said I was going to show these bullies, these people who said that I wasn’t good enough, that I was good enough,” Whiting said. “Basketball empowered me. It gave me leadership skills. Sports showed me what hard work can do.”
It all amounted to a stellar collegiate and pro career.
In 2011, Whiting and her then-husband moved to Woodinville. Last year, she had a moment where she asked herself, What am I doing to make a difference?
She reached out to elementary schools in the Northshore, Lake Washington and Monroe areas. Her first after-school classes were at Redmond Elementary and Wellington Elementary. Both sold out. She added a boys session, and that too sold out.
“I’m not easy on them, that’s the thing,” Whiting said. “I’m not like `Heeeeeeey, let’s just have fun!’ We’re going to work, but we’re going to have fun while doing it. And they love it. Kids respond to structure, discipline and competition.”
While teaching the kids, Whiting thinks back to her own playing days.
“Some of the best days were the journey,” she said. “Working hard every day at practice with my teammates. Being so exhausted we couldn’t walk. But knowing that we were sowing the seeds for what we’d see down the road as success. That’s what I try to pass along to the kids.”
Whiting described one of her recent success stories.
“There was a young lady, a nine year old girl,” Whiting said. “I could tell she didn’t want to be there. Every five minutes she’d ask what time it was going to be over. Her body language made it clear she wasn’t comfortable. Every time there was a water break she’d go open up a Harry Potter book.”
Whiting was shocked when the girl signed up for the next session.
“I talked to the girl’s mom,” Whiting said. “I asked `are you sure you want to sign up for the next session?’ The mom said that her daughter considered herself the worst player and not very good. Her confidence and self-esteem were very low.”
“She felt self-conscious about being out there. I said, `First of all, everybody at that age is bad. She’s doing a good job. She’s always sprinting. Always hustling.’
“I think the mother communicated the message to her,” Whiting said. “Because the next day there was a complete turnaround. She had enthusiasm and was smiling more. It was almost like I had given her permission to not have to be perfect. I let her know she was just fine.
“It was okay to not be the best as long as you’re giving your best.”