On the surface, Imani McGee-Stafford is used to winning.
The 6-foot-7-inch center for the Atlanta Dream comes from a family of champions. Her mother, Pamela McGee, is a WNBA Hall of Fame inductee and a 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medalist. Her half brother, JaVale McGee, is a 2017 NBA champion.
But during a childhood when people knew her mostly because of her last name, McGee-Stafford found herself in a constant battle for both her identity and her life.
McGee-Stafford grew up in chaos. Her parents divorced when she was 3 years old, launching a nasty custody battle that saw her mother get jailed for two days for contempt of court.
Her father, Rev. Kevin Stafford, claimed Pamela McGee’s nomadic lifestyle as a professional basketball player wasn’t a proper environment for their daughter, and the court granted him full custody.
While McGee and her son returned to Flint, Michigan, McGee-Stafford found herself 2,300 miles away in Inglewood, California. Devoid of any contact with her mother, she spent her childhood bitter and depressed.
“I blamed my mom for her absence,” McGee-Stafford said. “In your head, you have this perfect picture of what your parents are supposed to be, but in reality, they’re still human. My parents weren’t prepared to have kids, and I saw the effects of that.”
That depression intensified when McGee-Stafford’s step brother sexually molested her at the age of 8. Unaware of what was happening, she remained silent as the assaults reoccurred for the next four years.
McGee-Stafford took another plunge at the age of 10 when she stumbled upon court documents from her parents’ divorce. The files revealed every heart-wrenching detail, including a claim by both sides that she was first molested as a toddler.
The revelation struck McGee-Stafford’s core. She reached for some headache medication and downed a handful of pills, intent on ending her life.
To her disappointment, she survived.
McGee-Stafford suffered in silence, her father unaware of the cause of her near-death experience. By the age of 15, she had attempted suicide on three separate occasions. The series of close calls even landed her in a treatment center for two weeks.
McGee-Stafford’s father put his foot down and kicked her out of the house, forcing her to live with various family members.
With neither parent in the picture, McGee-Stafford turned to basketball. Despite being 6 foot 4 inches tall by the age of 13, she struggled to live up to the family name.
“Everyone expected me to be good, but I was terrible the first time I played basketball,” McGee-Stafford said. “It made people upset, but it made me tougher and gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
McGee-Stafford kept at it, becoming the nation’s No. 11 recruit in 2012. She took a chance that summer, making the 1,400-mile journey to visit the University of Texas. The California native fell in love with the Longhorns’ coaching staff, the campus and the “Keep Austin Weird” culture. Her family wanted her to play at USC, where her mother won two national championships, but McGee-Stafford wanted to blaze her own trail.
On Nov. 12, 2011, she committed to Texas. McGee-Stafford’s freshman year was a struggle, though, as the Longhorns went 12–18, leading her to consider quitting the team.
Instead, she found Tasha Philpot during her sophomore year. The government professor served as a mentor to Nneka Enemkpali, a teammate of McGee-Stafford. Once Philpot got through to McGee-Stafford, she became her confidant.
“She was very headstrong at first, but it was like night and day once I got close to her,” Philpot said. “To know Imani is to love Imani, and I just watched her grow.”
McGee-Stafford also found an outlet in poetry, joining the “They Speak Austin” poetry team. Although she’d been writing since the age of 12, McGee-Stafford finally began reading her work in public, pouring out her emotions in a therapeutic, judgement-free environment.
“I credit (Texas) for saving my life,” McGee-Stafford said. “I’d dealt with everything myself for so long, so to be in an environment where people genuinely cared about me was really big.”
Things continued to improve for McGee-Stafford. Tensions with her father dissolved after she told him of the sexual assaults, and she established a relationship with her mother and half brother.
With a proper support system in place, McGee-Stafford dominated on the court. The rim-protecting center averaged 11.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game during her senior season, leading the Longhorns to their first Elite Eight since 1990.
Those accomplishments were recognized on April 4, 2016, when McGee-Stafford was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the WNBA Draft by the Chicago Sky. Now with the Dream, McGee-Stafford spends her offseason raising awareness for the importance of mental health, speaking at events such as the Black Student-Athlete Summit in January 2018.
“(Imani) is a survivor,” her mother said. “She’s incredibly gifted, and I never worry about her because I know that she’ll just get things done. She has this internal desire to be great no matter the circumstances, and she inspires me.”
The 23-year-old continues to write as well. She published a book, Notes in the Key of Heartbreak, on Jan. 29. McGee-Stafford is also in the process of starting a nonprofit called the Hoops and Hope Foundation, which meshes sports and arts while advocating mental health.
“My goal is to be the person that I needed when I was younger,” McGee-Stafford said. “If I can encourage just one person to keep going, then it’s worth it.”