Marie Gulich received a phone call from her agent late one night back in early February with the news she had been traded by the Atlanta Dream to the Los Angeles Sparks.
That meant Gulich, who was a member of the Oregon State women's basketball program from 2014 to 2018, would be playing for her third WNBA team in three seasons.
Gulich was drafted 12th overall by the Phoenix Mercury after a sensational senior season with the Beavers in 2018. She was traded to the Dream after the season and never found solid footing with either organization.
“That’s just a tough message to hear at first,” Gulich said earlier this week on a Zoom call from Bradenton, Florida. “Once I woke up in the morning and I was able to process it a little more and think of the pros of the trade, I was like, Syd!”
Syd is Sydney Wiese, Gulich’s teammate for three seasons in Corvallis and a close friend who has played three seasons with the Sparks.
While there was an obvious moment of excitement for both, there was also the realization that even though they were “teammates” in February, plenty could change by the time training camp was supposed to open in April.
“At first we both were pretty skeptical because this is a business and so you never know,” Wiese said. “I could get traded, she could get traded to another team. It could have been a pit stop for her to go somewhere else.
“So we didn't want to get too excited and you sort of train your mind to think like worst case scenario sometimes because you don't want to get your hopes up.”
While that easily could have been the case, it soon became apparent after talks with the coaches and general manager that the Sparks indeed wanted to have Gulich — a 6-foot-5 center who showed her ability on both ends of the floor in college — as part of their plan going forward.
“Through those conversations she was able to realize, okay this is not just a pit stop, they see purpose with me within the organization,” Wiese said. “And so once she established that, we both could celebrate a little bit more and embrace it.”
The two weathered that storm as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that has thrown the entire world out of whack. Now they are in Florida and getting ready to — finally — open the WNBA season Saturday when the Sparks take on Gulich's former team, the Mercury, at noon in a game televised on ABC.
It’s been a whirlwind of sorts for Gulich, who capped her career at Oregon State by averaging 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds a game in helping lead the Beavers to the Elite Eight as a senior.
“What I’ve learned through all of this moving around is at the end of the day you can live in the nicest place but if you don’t have the people around you — like that’s why I went to Oregon State — to have people around me that I’m comfortable with and that I love and I know they love me or care about me and want me to succeed,” Gulich said. “It doesn’t matter what place you’re in. L.A is a nice place and you have the beach and everything else but it’s nice to go to work and have fun with the people there. That’s always a bigger pro for me than the location itself.”
As for the reunion with Gulich, Wiese was her typical self in saying it was “terrible” and adding: “I can't say enough about how I cannot stand Marie.”
All jokes aside, though, Wiese said it still hasn’t sunk in even though they are roommates in the WNBA’s bubble. But it's as if they have been teammates forever.
“All that's taking place, like in its entirety, in our lives around the world and in the country, to go through this together, I don't take it for granted,” Wiese said. “I’m thankful we get to live in the same home and we're in Florida and we’re preparing for a season. It's cool to be on the same team and go through this journey."
While Gulich is looking to find a home, Wiese has found one in Los Angeles and is coming off her best season a year ago.
With Derek Fisher taking over for Brian Angler as head coach, Wiese had more opportunities to make a name for herself. She appeared in 32 games with 16 starts and averaged 4.8 points, 1.8 assists and 1.3 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per contest.
She averaged just 7.9 minutes a game her rookie season in 2017 and appeared in only 11 games in 2018 as she dealt with a knee injury.
While last season was a bit of a breakout, Wiese would not have traded the experience gained in those first two seasons.
“I think my first two seasons taught me a lot,” Wiese said. “It was about laying a foundation for me personally on and off the court. So I look back at those years as intentional growth that I needed to go through in order to hopefully have a long career as a basketball player as a professional.”
What changed last season? An opportunity under Fisher and, as her college coach Scott Rueck would likely say, the natural progression she had to go through to compete at the WNBA level.
“The third year was when things started to click, the game started to slow down and coach Fisher and the new staff, they taught all of us so much,” Wiese said. “I think going into a new situation and learning all together we just wanted to play basketball, make right plays and fit into different roles. And what I appreciate about him is he gives everybody opportunity.
“He gives everybody a shot, and he just wants you to play hard, play smart, obviously, but he understands that mistakes are going to happen. And so he held everyone to the same standard across the board. So it was fun being back out there for more extended minutes, but the first two years taught me that I love the game.”
Gulich is in much better spirits as the season is about to begin after going through quarantine while in Florida as well as recovering from a twisted ankle she suffered a while back.
She said she had worked hard in Germany to be prepared for the season, even when it was still very much in doubt, but that her injury threw her for a bit of a mental loop. She was frustrated that she couldn’t get on the court and show what she could contribute to the team. She even questioned if she should play this season because of the injury.
“It’s been definitely a roller coaster ride for me,” she said.
She’s still in process of getting up to full speed with the team but she’s remaining positive. And she’s ready to contribute any way she can.
“At the end of the day, the players will make the plays and you've got to be ready to make a basket,” she said. “And that's going to be my job and I'm excited about that.
“And whenever you do get to be on the court you don't take it for granted. Everyone is good at this level. You want to contribute any way that you can, when you're on a court or on the bench. You want to be present and it’s about the team.”
Just the fact that the WNBA is about to have a season is a bit of a shock, Wiese said. If you had asked her back in June, her answer would have been a definitive no.
“A lot of negotiations took place to make this happen," she said. "So I have respect for the union and our league and the conversations to even get us to this point. They worked their butts off to make this a reality.”
It will definitely be a unique season, one the players will need to adapt to as it progresses with an accelerated schedule.
“When things start it’s going to be quick turnaround so you want to make sure that you're taking care of yourself in whatever way that looks like,” Wiese said.
Throw in the social platform the players have endorsed in actively speaking out and learning more about racial and social injustice, and there is so much more than just a simple game of basketball.
“You add basketball into that and people are trying to win a championship, too,” Wiese said. “I think more than anything it's the social component of learning and so I’m really focused on that for the next couple months being here.”
The Sparks have been to the playoffs the last eight seasons and won the title in 2016 before falling in the championship series in Wiese’s rookie campaign in 2017.
They have a team that could challenge for a fourth title.
The work toward that goal began back in April. Instead of competing for a job on the court, Wiese said the players had a chance to get to know each other on a personal level, and that could make a big difference in this unique season.
"So I think when we finally got together it was like it’s so cool to see you in person,” she said. “And then with basketball there's so many great personalities within our team. People are constantly dancing, singing, cracking jokes and stuff. And I also love the balance of we know when to turn it on. All of us made a choice to be here with the intentions of using our platform but also winning a championship. …
“I'm excited to see how we come together basketball-wise, and what we can make of this season.”
As a newcomer to the organization, Gulich can see the potential not just with the physical talent on the court but the mental approach of the seasoned-veterans like Nneke Ogwumike and Candace Parker.
“The way they play the game and see the game, it’s not just their physical abilities but also their mental IQ itself, the way they carry themselves on the court, it's inspiring,” Gulich said. “So even if I can't practice, I watch them and I'm inspired, pumped up and just want to be out there.”
It could be a season to remember, even more so that it already has been.
“Everyone's excited to play and to be here and you just feel the energy," Gulich said. "So I think we can really do great things as a team, not just because we have a talent but we have the minds and the basketball IQ. If we are able to put that all together in a short period of time I think we can do great things.”