Mangakahia joins Mercury training camp just two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer
By Cody Cunningham
The clock began ticking.
Tiana Mangakahia anxiously waited inside her Syracuse apartment as commissioner Cathy Engelbert took the podium on April 15 for the WNBA Draft. Mangakahia hoped to hear her name called to continue her inspirational comeback and fulfill her goal of playing professional basketball.
As each pick went by, the nerves rose. Syracuse SID Olivia Coiro, who was watching the draft with Mangakahia after they had grown close during their four years together, did not know how she would comfort Mangakahia if she was not selected.
Mangakahia’s phone began lighting up with potential training camp offers from different teams. Then, a familiar name flashed across her screen.
“Sandy asked,” Mangakahia told Coiro.
“I’m not even worried about the rest of this draft,” Coiro responded.
An Australia native, Mangakahia had previously participated in an the “Opals’” national-team training camp under Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. Mangakahia thought about the possibility of a coach-player reunion, along with the opportunity to learn from All-Star guards in Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
The connection was easy, and the decision was quick. She chose Phoenix in about 20 minutes, then wanted to continue acting swiftly.
“Let’s sign the contract tonight. I don’t want to wait,” Mangakahia said.
Mangakahia and Coiro immediately drove to Coiro’s office at Syracuse to print out the agreement to join the 2021 Mercury for training camp. Four days later, she was on a plane to Phoenix.
After two years during which she battled through stage two breast cancer, faced immense uncertainty about her future and astonishingly returned to the hardwood, Mangakahia has officially begun her professional journey in Phoenix, looking to once again overcome the odds and achieve her lifelong WNBA dreams.
Coiro started at Syracuse a few months after Mangakahia began her college career and was instantly impressed with the young point guard.
“I remember specifically watching Tiana play and saying, ‘She is something special,’ Coiro said. “When I got here and I first met her, she was just this outgoing, loving person who is extremely welcoming.”
Coiro’s first instinct was correct. Incredible character off of the court combined with extraordinary playmaking ability on it made Mangakahia a star at Syracuse.
Her junior season, she was an AP All-America Honorable Mention selection and a Nancy Lieberman Point Guard Award top-5 finalist. She was named to the All-ACC First Team and All-ACC Tournament Team. She was also awarded Syracuse Female Athlete of the Year after becoming the school’s all-time leader in career assists while leading the Orange in points per game (16.9), assists per game (8.4) and free throw percentage (88.2 percent).
Her highly decorated career placed her in the discussion to become a first-round selection in the 2019 WNBA draft.
Mangakahia faced a tough decision. Should she forgo her senior season to live out her dream in the WNBA, or should she return to Syracuse for one final season, fulfilling her commitment to the school that gave her this opportunity?
“She must have called me, I can’t even tell you how many times, saying, ‘I’m going to the draft. I’m not going to the draft.’ Back and forth, back and forth,” Coiro said.
Two hours before the midnight deadline, Mangakahia called Coiro once again and said, “I’ve made my decision. I’m going to stay.”
“Everything and everyone is telling her to go to the draft, but something in her heart was telling her to come back to Syracuse,” Coiro said.
However, just two months later, Mangakahia’s basketball career came to an abrupt halt.
Mangakahia discovered a lump on her chest, just south of her neckline.
Rather than return home to Australia during the summer like many college athletes, Mangakahia had stayed in Syracuse to continue to work on her game at the school’s facility. She underwent precautionary tests and a biopsy to make sure she’d be ready for her senior season.
“You don’t think cancer. She’s only 24,” Coiro said.
Yet at 8 a.m. on that June day, Mangakahia received that dreaded phone call from her doctor. Her test results were back. She had been diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage two breast cancer.
“Our conversation literally went for like 30 seconds,” Mangakahia recently recalled. “He gave me a nurse’s number that I could call for all the information. After that call, I was just, like, in shock and I was scared.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to feel, because I don’t know anyone with cancer and I didn’t have anybody in my family with cancer.”
After passing on the opportunity to play professional basketball just a couple months prior, the doubt began to set in that she may not have another chance.
But Mangakahia didn’t stay down for long.
She met with her oncologist who laid out a precise plan on how they were going to attack the cancer. He broke down when she’d begin chemotherapy, and how long it would last. He told her when she’d need her first surgery, then when she’d need reconstruction surgery.
Mangakahia’s biggest question: When would she be able to suit up for the Orange again?
“After sitting down with him and going through the plan, I believed in that plan 100 percent,” Mangakahia said. “He told me that I’ll be able to play for Syracuse (again). I’ll have to sit out a year, though.”
Mangakahia’s diagnosis kept her from practicing with her teammates, but couldn’t seem to keep her off of the hardwood. Despite battling through the effects of chemo, she toughened up the strength to continue to play pick-up ball. Her desire to play outmatched the consistent fatigue her body faced.
While she couldn’t make her typical impact on the court, she continued to do so on the sideline through her positive spirit and consistent presence at practice.
“It would just be like a total mood change around the entire program,” Coiro said of the days Mangakahia attended practice. “People in the building, they would just be so excited to see her. Just always a smile on her face.”
On the eve of Syracuse’s home opener, Mangakahia underwent a double mastectomy to remove the cancerous tissue. The recovery timeline for the intimidating procedure typically lasts between four to six weeks.
Yet as the Orange tipped off against Oregon the very next day, Mangakahia was in attendance to support her teammates.
“She couldn’t lift her arms. She can’t move,” Coiro said. “She wore this big red poncho over her because she had drains in her and everything. And she came to the game. She was like, ‘I’m not missing that game. I will be there.’’
Despite going through eight rounds of chemotherapy during that timespan, Mangakahia did not miss a home game all season. She travelled with the team to many road games, as well. She persevered through the pain, inspiring her teammates along the way. She even found her way into the broadcast booth, talking about her journey, breaking down the action and remaining close to basketball any way she could.
“I think it was cool for her to still be connected to the game in a lot of different ways,” Coiro said. “Her teammate would sub out, and she’d sit down next to them and go over what they did wrong or what they could do to get better on a specific play that happened. She was very present.”
Mangakahia’s parents woke her up following a five-hour surgery in November to remove the remainder of the tumor. Still coming off of the anesthesia, Mangakahia was a little out of it. But she clearly grasped the message doctors had relayed to her parents moments earlier.
“You’re cancer free,” her parents shared.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Mangakahia said. “I was just really excited that it all went as planned. It doesn’t always happen like that. I just felt so relieved and just really happy.”
Diagnosed in June 2019, Mangakahia officially returned to practice the following April with a greater appreciation for the sport — and a newly lit fuse ready for action.
Though it would still take Mangakahia time to return to 100 percent, few were better suited for the challenge. She was also prepared to handle the overall uncertainty, with the COVID-19 pandemic constantly serving as an underlying threat to cancel games or the entire season.
Yet Mangakahia did have her concerns. She feared she wasn’t as good as she once was. Some days she woke up feeling like she was 50 years old and others like she was 25, unaware of how body would react day-by-day.
But being back on the court, once again chasing that dream, kept her mentally strong.
Mangakahia rekindled her on-court leadership, using her recent struggles as motivation for her and the rest of the Orange roster. She regularly asked her teammates one question: “Has basketball ever been taken from you?”
“So, now that we have this opportunity, we need to give it 100 percent, because sometimes things are taken from us and it’s out of our control,” Mangakahia told her teammates. “You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.”
Because she was still on medication, those close to Mangakahia knew that, during her final college season, she likely would not reach the level she once achieved. But Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman believed in that process and, more importantly, believed in Mangakahia.
Mangakahia returned in odd-defying fashion. In the season opener against Stony Brook, 615 days since her last competitive game, Mangakahia notched 16 points, seven rebounds, four steals and three assists. She went on to lead the nation is assists per game at 7.2, becoming the ACC’s all-time assists-per-game leader.
“That was one of the most rewarding things of my career was seeing her come back,” Coiro said. “It wasn’t an easy season. It wasn’t going to be an easy season. … She just pushed this group through it.”
With the dotted line signed, Mangakahia is now a member of the Phoenix Mercury through at least training camp. It might not be exactly how she envisioned her career unfolding two years ago. But after all she endured, she is grateful that the Mercury are giving her the chance to prove herself.
“It’s great to have her in camp,” Brondello said. “Just seeing [her passing ability] up close and how many easy baskets that she created for her teammates was really good… What a great story. She’s still working her way back, but that hasn’t changed. Her court vision is one of the best I’ve seen, to be quite honest.”
“It means so much to me,” Mangakahia said. “Being surrounded by great players, great coaches, and just having the opportunity to really compete and learn. I think that’s a huge thing for me. Just learning from Skylar and Diana, who both have been in the league for a long time. I trust them. Ever since I’ve been here, they’ve been so amazing to me, really helping me on the court, guiding me.
“And they believe in me and trust me, too. I just feel so blessed and thankful.”
These days, her journey shines through the jersey No. 44 she chose to wear with the Mercury. It’s a legendary Syracuse number worn by Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Floyd Little, the latter who passed away due to cancer in January of this year. Forty-four is also Mangakahia’s career high for points in a game at Syracuse, a feat she notched on multiple occasions.
“Syracuse has been such a huge part of my life and I’m going to wear that number with pride,” Mangakahia said.
Mangakahia also feels pride in accomplishing her lifelong goal of becoming a WNBA player. Along the way, she overcame a much more daunting obstacle. Cancer put a pause on her career, a splinter in her dream and a refocus on her life.
But it all led her to the opportunity to choose the Mercury in 20 minutes — and sign her contract that same night.
“Patience and positivity is something that definitely helped me throughout my battle and something that will help me for the rest of my life,” Mangakahia said.