Meet the New York Liberty’s turnaround point guard
FORTUNE — Cappie Pondexter was the last to leave the court after a summer practice in the Greenburgh, N.Y. gym the New York Liberty shares with the Knicks. Pondexter typically stays after her teammates have left — she’s a franchise player in the WNBA, which means that teams bring her on to turn their seasons around.
Three years ago, the Liberty traded for Pondexter, who left the championship-winning Phoenix Mercury. So far in 2012, the Liberty have won three out of nine regular-season games. Pondexter has averaged about 20 points per-game.
The 5’9” guard grew up in Chicago, went to school at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has played abroad in Europe, and signed on with the WNBA in 2006. She’s earned numerous accolades during her basketball career, including a Gold Medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Now, the heat is on to whip the Liberty into shape. Last year, the team lost to the Indiana Fever in the first round of the WNBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. Also in 2011, Pondexter had to face her fans after she tweeted an offensive comment related to the tsunami in Japan. She’s learned some hard lessons about leadership, she says, and is getting into the business world, starting her own image consulting company.
She spoke to Fortune about how she’s building her personal brand while trying to turn the Liberty into a championship-caliber team.
Fortune: What does it feel like to know that so much of the success of a team depends you?
Cappie Pondexter: I think the coach does a great job of helping everybody recognize that we all have a part and that it’s not about me.
But I like pressure, I kind of rise in those moments. I like last-second shots or close situations. I tend to think better. A lot of people are afraid to fail, but for me, when I risk failure, it takes me to a higher level. And I have a high level of faith, not only in myself but also in God. He’s definitely allowed me to take those moments and be the best I can be.
You helped lead your previous team to the championships. If you take the Liberty to the top, will you feel the need to turn another team around?
Hell no. That’s too much work. I want to retire here. I love New York. It’s a great city. It’s me: adventurous.
So adventurous that you started your own image consulting business. What inspired you to do that?
I started it to target athletes, because a lot of times, coming out of college, and this is even speaking for my own experience, you don’t realize the importance of your image and how your image creates your brand. And your brand is what people want to invest in, and that’s money, you know what I mean?
Were you always into fashion?
I was. When I was younger, I had a tomboy thing. I don’t know if you remember Aaliyah, always in Tommy Hilfiger, wearing boxers and big baggy shorts and hats. I was like that growing up. Then, as I got older and I began to go over to Europe and make a little bit more money, I started to learn about different designers and find people I enjoy wearing.
Do you have to be more conscious of fashion than, say, the NBA players?
For us, it’s important because basketball is an aggressive sport, and a lot of times, fans don’t relate feminism and that aggressiveness. Me personally, I take it as a challenge. It goes back to branding, so I’m always making sure I’m dressed to impress. It feels good.
Also, our game isn’t above the rim yet. People want to see NBA games because you see guys jump really high and do acrobatic moves and dunks. Not to say our game isn’t exciting, but it’s a lot more fundamental.
Why are Americans so conflicted about athletes being both aggressive and female?
I don’t know why it’s like that, but for some reason it is. But I also learned that our biggest audience is males, the president of the WNBA was telling me this. We thought it was lesbians, but it’s not. It’s African-American males.
What do you think the league could do to expand its audience?
Maybe we need to be marketed a little differently to help the game grow. For example, if you look at Sports Center, sometimes it’ll show a clip of a girl making a nice little layup. But you have so many crazy shot blockers like Candace Parker blocking a shot and then looking like, “get that out of here!” I really like the president now, because she’s open to the idea that a little bit more drama could help increase our fan base.
What’s the biggest career challenge you’ve faced off the court?
I think probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is the whole Twitter thing. Even on Facebook or any social outlet, you’ve got to make sure that you’re posting the right things or saying the right things because you never know who’s watching. At the end of the day, even if you don’t want to be a role model, you still are.
It sounds like a high-pressure job.
We work hard, that’s for sure. You’re always putting in extra time. I think hard work always beats talent, no matter how skilled you are. If you’re the best offensive person and somebody’s outworking you, you’re going to lose. That’s just something I always think about on and off the court.
Somebody is always looking to take your place at something. So if you’re not on your toes, or you’re not working hard, then you’re going to get run over. It’s just how it is.