The last two years have been a whirlwind for former Arizona star Aari McDonald. The ups and downs have been extreme. Returning to McKale Center to have her name placed in the Ring of Honor put her back in the arms of the fans and the program that have her greatness etched in their memories.
“It felt good to be back, especially with the Pac-12 game, the team’s first game in like a couple of weeks, and I really liked the fans gave me a warm welcome. I was just really happy,” McDonald said.
Her former teammates felt the same.
“It’s always great to see Aari come back,” senior forward Cate Reese said. “I mean, going from seeing her every single day in practice...to barely seeing her is different. So it’s great whenever she can come in and watch a game and we can all see her.”
Most important for those close to her, McDonald looked happy. She had been walking a very stressful path for the past two years. Like all college basketball players, she had her junior season come to an abrupt halt at the end of the 2019-20 season. During the 2020-21 season and school year, they were cut off from extended social groups and family. Then, she was off to the WNBA.
McDonald exhibited a great deal of grace as she handled a difficult rookie season with three different head coaches, no general manager, and inner turmoil between players. At least part of that ability to show grace under pressure was developed during her time at Arizona, and seeing her use it to get through difficult times meant a great deal to Arizona head coach Adia Barnes.
“Just proud of her,” Barnes said. “A lot of adversity. And I always told her you grow when things are hard. When it’s 70 and sunny outside and everything’s peachy, it’s very easy to be positive, very easy to be on your A-game. But it’s when things are tough and stuff hits the fan. How are you going to react? And she did a great job of sticking with it.”
After her tough rookie season, McDonald attempted to play her first European season. She left the team within days and returned to the U.S. At the time, she said that she needed to take care of her mental health. Today, she’s feeling like herself again.
“I’m great,” McDonald said. “I had my break. I’m back to working out, being my regular self, so I’m good to go.”
It wasn’t an unheard-of situation, even under non-pandemic conditions. Barnes spent over a decade playing internationally and knows how difficult it can be.
“A lot of times I think for rookies in the WNBA when you go overseas, it is challenging,” Barnes said. “All of us professionals, we all went through it. I’ve gone through that numerous times because of a couple of things. It’s a tremendous amount of adversity, you’re a lot of times on a team, you’re the only one that speaks English. I was in Russia and Ukraine. I couldn’t read the signs, can’t order, so it’s really challenging. And so that’s why I think you see a lot of players go through that and that’s really normal. It takes years and you know going to the right place and kind of sticking it out, but I’m sure one day she’ll be back overseas, but if not, she’s training and doing the right thing and working hard and doing marketing for the team. So she’s doing some amazing things going back and she’s happy and she’s with her fiance and family so I think it’s the perfect offseason.”
Part of being home with her fiancé has been doing fun things like making videos about their life together. McDonald said that they would be releasing a couple more soon.
“PG, though,” she joked. “They’re PG.”
Barnes ran with the light mood, appearing to reference the video that led to two Atlanta Dream players being told they would not be re-signed by the team.
“The Atlanta Dream, they like to make videos,” Barnes said.
The fallout of that particular video, which featured a fight involving some Dream players and some women at a food truck, and what it implied about the culture within the Dream during McDonald’s rookie season were part of the adversity the point guard had to rise above. Meanwhile, she was trying to raise her game and get on the court.
It wasn’t just the ability to handle the adversity that Barnes was proud of. Knowing that McDonald had taken the advice Barnes gave her about how to act in practice and games meant a lot, too.
“She got a lot of that throughout the process, I think,” Barnes said. “That’s maturing and growing as a person and as a player. The thing that I was most proud of was one of her coaches— because I know most of the coaches—one of her previous coaches called me and said she’s the first person here, the last person to leave and she boxes out great. Because I was always telling Aari, in her ear all the time, ‘Be the first person there. Be the last person to leave. Every time.’ You need to do that as a rookie. You need to have that work ethic, and I never thought she was really listening. So when I got that message, I was like okay, she listened to at least one thing I said. That was great. And then the box-out. Aari never boxed out. I used to get on her about boxing out. So when she said she’s great at boxing out, that was another proud mom moment.”
All of those in McKale Center soaked in the feelings of pride as McDonald and Barnes spoke to the assembled fans after the defeat of Washington State. It was pride tied to the past, the present, and the future.
The night was one of achievement all the way around. Arizona finally opened its Pac-12 season after not playing a game in 21 days, getting the win over Washington State in an up-and-down affair. Barnes notched her 100th win, passing Joan Bonvicini to reach that milestone the fastest. Reese moved into the top 10 scorers for her career with 1,306 points.