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Humble and hungry, Erica Wheeler becomes Fever standout after circuitous road to WNBA

Guard Erica Wheeler is averaging 11.1 points per game for the Indiana Fever this season. Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Erica Wheeler grew up in Liberty City, a Miami neighborhood that she describes as "rough."

When she was younger, two of her close friends died in violent incidents -- one was a bystander during a shootout, and another was stabbed to death when the store he happened to be in was robbed.

"That's how I grew up," she says. "If you go into this certain place, you have to know something may happen, so keep your eyes open at all times."

Wheeler, ever the optimist, turns even this haunting portrayal into a positive: "I think that's where my court vision comes from, always having my eyes up."

Sports were Wheeler's outlet, keeping her active and out of trouble. Her quickness was evident from an early age, and she preferred testing her skills against boys. Eric Nottage, her half-brother, remembers one instance when a 14-year-old Wheeler was playing football in the yard against older boys.

"One guy was talking trash," Nottage says. "She was talking back." She taunted the receiver she was defending, claiming he wouldn't catch the ball anymore during the game. On the next play, she leaped for a one-handed interception. "That's when I knew she was tough," Nottage says.

But it was her basketball skills that got her noticed, and now the 26-year-old -- after an improbable international journey -- is having a breakout season for the Indiana Fever.

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Wheeler left Liberty City in 2009, choosing Rutgers and Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer for college ball. Although she wasn't always the most sought-after player at her high school or on AAU squads, Stringer says she appreciated Wheeler's willingness to hold others accountable and always give maximum effort.

Stringer was in Disney World on a family vacation when Wheeler's mom, Melissa Cooper, called to say her daughter would be committing. "'I'm counting on Erica to get that degree,'" Stringer recalls Cooper saying. "'I want you to promise me you'll always look after her no matter what happens.'"

The Scarlet Knights reached the NCAA tournament in each of Wheeler's first three seasons at Rutgers. The 5-foot-7 jitterbug led the team in steals as a sophomore and junior, and averaged just under 10 points a game those seasons.

Stringer is famous for her full-court press, a scheme that requires players to be in exceptional physical shape. At the start of Wheeler's junior year, it appeared not everyone had put in the necessary work over the summer. Stringer realized the team wouldn't pass her annual preseason conditioning test, so she announced a plan to scrap it. Many players were relieved. Wheeler was angry.

According to Stringer, Wheeler stood and spoke up. "Coach, I don't like that. I want you to respect us and treat us how you have all your other teams. I came here to be pushed at the same level as everybody else." Wheeler pointed to early-season matchups with top programs, knowing Rutgers wouldn't win if the team couldn't press.

"Erica wasn't looking for an easy way out," Stringer says. "I knew she'd be somebody real special."

Wheeler ended her junior year with a career-high 28 points in an opening-round NCAA tournament loss and looked primed for a memorable final campaign. Instead, it turned into a season she would prefer to forget.

That summer, Wheeler's mom died from cancer at the age of 44. Wheeler hadn't just lost her mom, but her best friend. "I strayed away from basketball, kind of lost focus. My passion wasn't there."

Stringer stepped in as a mother-like figure. She, too, had dealt with loss; her husband had died unexpectedly in 1992, and her father passed away while she was in her final year of graduate school. Like Wheeler's mom, he was still in his 40s.

"There were days after practice or during practice where I'd have my meltdowns," Wheeler says of her final season at Rutgers. "(Stringer) would tell me to go in back, and she'd go back there and cry with me."

Ultimately, Stringer made good on her promise to Cooper: Wheeler stayed the course and graduated, fulfilling her late mother's ultimate wish.

Wheeler's senior year stats were solid, but not spectacular. So it wasn't a surprise when she wasn't selected in the 2013 WNBA draft, instead deciding to sign with a team in Puerto Rico for $200 a week. Not having her mother around was difficult -- it still is -- but Wheeler found peace.

"My mom loved watching me play," she says. "Now that she's up there ... she's watching me more than ever. Every time I wake up I've got to give it my all because I've got to make her proud."

She signed a new agent, Fabio Jardine, who facilitated a move to Brazil, where Wheeler continued to play well for little pay. She was competing outside of top-level leagues in Europe or Asia, so the WNBA wasn't even on her radar. But a chance encounter at an airport between Jardine and Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper just before the start of the 2015 WNBA season earned Wheeler a tryout.

Jardine called Wheeler, who thought her agent was pranking her. She left her phone behind and went to the gym. "I got nervous because this was her shot to make the WNBA," Jardine says. "I called her like 10 times and she finally answered."

Realizing the opportunity was legitimate, Wheeler packed for Atlanta.

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Wheeler made the Dream out of training camp and appeared in 17 games off the bench. But later in 2015, a multi-player trade forced Atlanta to shed personnel, and Wheeler was cut. She was then picked up by New York, where she saw the court briefly in three playoff games.

The Indiana Fever faced Wheeler's teams four times that season, and then-Fever coach Stephanie White was impressed, not just with her playmaking, but with her demeanor. "Regardless of whether she played a lot or didn't," White says, "her body language didn't change." Heading into the 2016 season, with Briann January still recovering from offseason knee surgery, the Fever brought in Wheeler.

"She's very humble, but she's very hungry, and those are two things that are really difficult to teach."

Former Fever coach Stephanie White on Erica Wheeler

She was thrown into the deep end, starting Indiana's first seven games and 25 overall, while averaging 8.4 points and 2.8 assists over the season. Wheeler was constantly asking the coaching staff how she could improve and better help the team. When they told her to slow her pace occasionally and not be too hard on herself when things went south, she improved in those areas.

"She's very humble, but she's very hungry, and those are two things that are really difficult to teach," White says.

In May 2016, White took the head-coaching job at Vanderbilt. The Fever brought in Pokey Chatman, formerly of the Chicago Sky, and before that, LSU. This marked the first year that Wheeler didn't have to worry about making the roster out of training camp, although she still had to prove herself to a new coaching staff.

Wheeler has done that and more for a Fever team (8-14) that is fighting for a playoff spot. She is first on the team in assists and steals, and second in minutes and points. She scored 20 in a win at Phoenix last week.

"She's super explosive in the full court," says January, who now starts with Wheeler in the backcourt. "You've got to pick her up and slow her down because once she gets a head of steam, she'll give a move, and you're 10 feet behind her."

Her quickness and strength make her a pest defensively, disrupting the timing of opponents' plays, a skill aided by dogged film study. After a loss to Los Angeles earlier this season, Chatman queued up a clip with a brief text description. Wheeler knew the mistake before her coach pressed play. She was supposed to force the Sparks' left-handed point guard, Odyssey Sims, to the right. "And I know better!" Wheeler said.

Chatman says that all players enjoy games, but a select few love everything that comes with being a pro: film, practice, conditioning, weight training, locker room banter. Wheeler falls into the latter group. Chatman reached out to her new players as soon as she was hired. Most of them were overseas, in various time zones, but Wheeler responded immediately, her text shouting off the screen. "We're going to go to war, Coach!"

"She's so excited," Chatman says. "And it [was] November. That energy, you can't fake that."

It is unrelenting. Before an early tip a couple of weeks ago, Wheeler was bouncing around the locker room, talking quickly and in cartoonish voices, making sound effects. "E, get out of my face," January told her, adding, "It's 10 a.m. I need another hour."

Comments like these are offered tenderly. Wheeler's teammates love her. Her coaches love her. Her community -- past and present -- is falling in love with her. She has already started a nonprofit, the Wheeler Kid Foundation, to help less fortunate youth.

She could easily be bitter about her childhood or her circuitous path to the WNBA. She's not. She could gloat about her standing the league, considering just 10 of the 36 players drafted in her 2013 class are still in the WNBA. She doesn't. "Erica succeeds in everything she does because she's so positive. I tell her she has the power to change peoples' lives," Jardine says.

"I've never seen a person play harder, play more with their heart," Stringer says. Keep in mind, this is a coach approaching 1,000 wins who led an Olympic team to a gold-medal finish in 2004. Like most who are asked about Wheeler, Stringer doesn't need any prodding or warm-up before the gushing begins. A question that typically elicits a 30-second response instead yields a 15-minute stroll down memory lane.

That's just how it is with Erica Wheeler. Those who know her can't wait to say nice things about her. She's busy giving them more reasons to do so.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to espnW. He writes about basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn