Leistikow: Cut by WNBA, national player of year Megan Gustafson plots comeback

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Megan Gustafson was at the mall when she got the call.

She knew right away what the call was about. She had seen three other Dallas Wings teammates receive the same call, then get told they’d be sent packing from the WNBA. Now, almost unfathomably, it was Gustafson’s turn to go meet the coach and general manager in the lobby of the team hotel.

Wait … the consensus national player of the year in women’s basketball was getting cut?

“To be honest, it was kind of like hitting a brick wall,” the greatest player in Iowa basketball history told the Register on Tuesday night from her parents’ home in Port Wing, Wisconsin. “I was doing so well for so long. It’s definitely been new territory for me, to be able to go through this.”

Did you catch what she said there?

To be able to go through this.

Megan Gustafson said she has been overwhelmed by the level of support she's received from Iowans. “It’s been awesome to see how much they really love me," the former Hawkeye said.

Gustafson, a 6-foot-3 post player, is embracing the fight she'll need to absorb a very public gut punch of humility.

When most players are waived from the WNBA, nobody notices. When the college game’s top player is waived, it gets attention.

During our 25-minute conversation, it was clear that Gustafson was bringing the same undeterred conviction that fueled her Iowa rise from quiet freshman to exuberant senior.

“I’m not going to let this waver my confidence, not one little bit,” Gustafson said. “I’m going to take it and run with it. I’m going to come back and shock the world.”

Before talking about what’s next, there are a few things worth at least trying to understand about why Gustafson got cut. Because that’s the question, right?

Why would a WNBA team draft the fourth woman in Division I history to score 1,000 points in a season … and then cut her two days before the season starts? Especially when that someone carries such an infectious personality and relentless desire to improve?

The WNBA style of play favors athletic guards. So, Dallas decided 6-foot-3 Gustafson's game needed to become more perimeter-oriented.

While it seems odd to drastically change the style of one of the most efficient post players to play the college game, Gustafson responded as you would expect … by working on her outside shot. And, she said, it improved significantly.

But then on May 16, Dallas made two trades to bring in two experienced post players. In a 12-team league with only 12 roster spots each, good players can get squeezed out quickly.

“Once the trade came in,” Gustafson said, “my heart just about dropped.”

A week after that trade, she was sent away on a flight to Duluth, Minnesota — about a 70-minute drive to Port Wing.

As she boarded the plane wondering what was next, she came to another realization.

Oh, no. What about the blog?

Gustafson had been planning to launch a blog that merged her Christianity and first WNBA season titled, "She's Got Faith."

Now, with her first post edited and ready to publish, she headed back to the drawing board. Or, more specifically, her father's work desk near the shores of Lake Superior.

By Saturday, she had published her first entry. It detailed the devastation she felt from being cut and a realization that her journey has changed. 

Perhaps now it can be even more inspirational to others.

Because she's gone from queen of the basketball world to picking up the pieces.

And she’s got a comeback to make.

"It’s definitely helpful to know that God has a plan for me, and I’ve just got to trust it," she said. "In the past, it’s been really easy to trust that because I’ve had things all figured out for me, in terms of, ‘I’m going to go to college, I’m going to play, I’m going to do everything well, then I’m going to the WNBA, and that’ll be awesome.’

"But there’s a bump in the road."

Her new path is already under way.

By Tuesday, Gustafason announced she would participate in “The Basketball Tournament," a $2 million winner-take-all, ESPN-televised event largely comprised of men's players. In a smart marketing move on both sides, she would become the first active women's pro player to participate in TBT.

She got a text from one of the men’s players on the Iowa United, former Hawkeye Nicholas Baer. The two were on the school’s student leadership council together. The team wanted her. She accepted.

TBT happens in late July. Maybe by then, the Wings or another WNBA team will give her a call to snap her up.

For now, the plan is to head to Iowa City and train with Hawkeye coaches and players. Her apartment lease runs through late July, anyway.

WNBA or not, a lucrative professional career awaits overseas. The money is far better for women’s players internationally than it is here. It’s also a better fit for her style. She and her agent are in the process of finalizing those plans, which will begin in late September.

"WNBA’s a little bit different, in that it’s a little bit more guard-oriented," Gustafson said. "That doesn’t really fit me as much. I’m ... really excited for overseas, because I’ll be able to be who I am, dominating the post down low.”

Dallas didn't work out.

But it certainly didn't mark Gustafson's basketball end.

"I thought it was going to be a good place for me," she said. "But obviously, it was just a stopping point."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.