Potential for profit helped keep Evina Westbrook from leaving UConn for the WNBA

Photo of Paul Doyle

As Evina Westbrook contemplated her basketball future last spring, the UConn senior considered the finances.

As a potential top-5 WNBA Draft pick with an opportunity to also play professionally overseas, Westbrook could begin making money as a player. But Westbrook was also aware that life in college was about to change.

With state laws allowing college athletes to profit set to go live in the summer, the NCAA seemed poised to allow athletes to earn income off their name, image and likeness. College opportunities that were denied to Westbrook for four years were likely to flow.

“It did cross my mind,” Westbrook said last week.

Was it the overriding reason for Westbrook’s return to UConn this fall? No. She is still earning her undergraduate degree after some credits did not transfer from Tennessee when she changed schools.

There’s also the matter of winning a title with UConn. The Huskies lost to Arizona in the Final Four in April and Westbrook — who emerged as a leader — is not ready to leave a close-knit group.

But…there is NIL activity in the works.

“I do,” Westbrook said. “More to come for that.”

Westbrook, 23, is embracing the opportunity to earn money, but she is proceeding with caution. She is talking and listening, considering the tax ramifications of her next move, planning what she can do to capitalize on her name.

The player known as “Momma E” is very much viewing the world of NIL with the eye of a parent.

“I’m very cognizant of what deals I do want to make, but I definitely have some things in the works that I’m excited about,” she said.

Westbrook said she understands why the college sports industry was slow to change. A scholarship, she said, is “a ticket in itself.”

But, she has thought about the unfairness of others profiting off the names and images of college athletes.

“How are people able to make money off of us and I can’t make money off of Evina Westbrook?” she said. “I’m Evina Westbrook. I should be able to make money off of myself as well.”

“But we’re very grateful for this opportunity. I think if people really take advantage of (it) in a smart way that it can be very beneficial.”

Westbrook does look forward to a WNBA career starting in 2022. She and her UConn teammates recently attended a Connecticut Sun-Chicago Sky playoff game.

Seeing the likes of Candace Parker and Diamond DeShields — two former Tennessee players — on the court was thrilling. Seeing her contemporaries made her own future tangible.

“Even people that I’ve played with and against, Dana Evans, my class … just seeing people out there like that just playing and living out their dream just makes me excited to get there next year,” Westbrook said.

Westbrook spent two years at Tennessee and had to sit out a season after transferring. She has battled knee injuries and didn’t feel fully healthy until the spring.

She averaged 9.4 points starting 30 games for UConn. But she was playing some of her best basketball by the end of the season. The mental strain of her injury finally subsided during the Women’s NCAA Tournament, she said.

“No one really knows the mental aspect of it and 90% of the game of basketball is mental,” she said. “So just throughout every single day you don’t know if your knee is going to hurt, you don’t know if it’s going give out in any moment. So you have those thoughts constantly while you’re in practice, while you’re in rehab, while you’re in the game, so when I got to the tournament it was kind of like I was feeling great, and I just totally blocked it out, and I was fine.”

Coach Geno Auriemma said Westbrook’s performance in the tournament was the primary reason why she is back this year.

“Why would somebody come back that could have gone and gone pretty high in the draft?” Auriemma said. “She saw what could happen during the NCAA tournament. That was the best she played all year, and she wants to challenge herself. She said, I want to see what I can be like, what our team especially can be like, if I can do that from October to March. So that was a big motivating factor for her.”

Westbrook spent the summer playing out west. The Salem, Oregon native played in the Portland Pro-Am Basketball League, competing with high-level men’s college players and a few NBA players.

She was the first woman to play in the league, although she shrugged at the suggestion there was anything unusual about it.

“I grew up playing with guys and boys, all the time,” she said. “A couple of them, I kind of grew up with them, but they’re obviously a little bit older. So they kind of already knew like you know this is … I’m just like, hey, I’m here to ball just like all of you guys are, so please don’t take it light because I’m not taking it light on you.”

She also worked out in Las Vegas and spent time working out with teammate Paige Bueckers in Montana.

Now she’s back in Connecticut, acting as leader for a roster with three freshmen. She is one of three seniors with Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

“E is the momma of the team,” Williams said. “We need a player like her on the court at all times. It means a lot that we have her back in.”

The freshmen have taken to calling her “Grandma E.”

“I’m trying to change that narrative,” she said. “I’m cool with Momma E … the sophomores just don’t like the freshmen to call me mom, because I’m their only mom. They’re real territorial. I respect that. But Grandma E, I’m not really sold on Grandma E yet. I’m not that old.”