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Even across the country in the ‘Wubble’, the Phoenix Mercury are continuing their efforts to speak out for causes that are close to them and use their platform to represent their fans back home.
The Rock the Pink annual initiative has become a staple within the Mercury organization as the team rallies together to spread awareness and provide resources to those fighting the horrific battle against cancer.
“The WNBA’s breast health awareness initiative and the Mercury’s Rock the Pink is an example of us showing up for our community,” Chief Operating Officer of the Phoenix Mercury Vince Kozar said. “The women in our fan base and on our teams have been impacted by this. This is our way of showing support and raising money.”
Not only are the three-time WNBA Champions winners on the court, but off it as well thanks to their constant philanthropic efforts. The Rock the Pink Night is one of many community assists the Mercury focus on throughout the year as the night is designed to spread awareness and collect donations toward causes that will help with cancer research and care.
“Since 2014, we’ve partnered with the American Cancer Society and all the proceeds of our jersey auctions have gone to ACS,” Kozar said. “In that time, we’ve raised over $150,000 from the generosity of our fans. Our players donate not only their jerseys, but shoes and their time. It really is a neat and worthwhile activation.”
Throughout the years, the Mercury have sported a third-alternative pink jersey on this special night, which then become the premiere auction items following the game. The surrounding atmosphere may be different due to COVID-19 precautions, but the importance of Rock the Pink made it a priority for the organization to recreate it as best they can.
“That hasn’t stopped just because the world has been turned upside down,” Kozar said. “We still try and show up for these causes. One of them is Rock the Pink. We were still going to wear the jerseys. This year, we’re wearing it for two games. Auctioning them off and making sure those proceeds still go to the American Cancer Society was something that was important to our entire organization. That’s because the need hasn’t gone away just because of the circumstances of our season.”
The Rock the Pink Night has created a powerful impact on the fans of the Mercury, forming a community that is accepting of all while developing a much-needed support system for those who are going through such a traumatizing circumstance.
“I think the best part of Rock the Pink is the people it touches and how those folks go out of their way just to say, ‘Hey, this was really important to me,’” Kozar said. “We’ve had fans – one in particular comes to mind – who was touched by the disease, who has said that she gained strength from being a part of these activations and seeing them happen and seeing the generosity of other fans. She’s actually become an X-Factor member. She has come back every single year and donated money out of her pocket as well. That whole spirit of community and paying it forward and being there for the people who were there for you, is really something that’s touching.”
Not only does this cause hit home for so many X-Factor members, but it’s also close and personal with those inside the Mercury locker room as well. Jessica Breland was acquired by the Mercury in a three-team trade this offseason. Rewind even further than that, while gearing up for her senior season at North Carolina and prepping for the upcoming draft, Breland received life-changing news when fatigue began to take over her body.
“In 2009, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” Breland said. “I underwent six months of chemotherapy. Every two weeks, I would go into the hospital and receive chemo for about six-to-eight hours at a time. While I was there, I was able to really connect with everyone that was there from babies to senior citizens. Just hearing everyone’s story and seeing everyone battle the same thing that I was battling at the time. It’s really close to my heart, especially now being a cancer survivor 10 years out.”
Diagnosed at just 21 years old, Breland has now been able to provide fans across the WNBA – and the sports world as a whole – a face of a survivor and an inspiration for all who have been impacted by the disease.
“I’m approached by fans or just anyone that had cancer or maybe know of someone who is going through that,” Breland said. “One of the things that they tell me is just how strong I am. Then they also say how strong they had to be or how strong they have to be for someone else. We just bond off the strength that it takes to really battle cancer. It brings us together as a family, no matter who that person is.”
As part of the 2020 Phoenix Mercury My Kicks My Cause initiative, Breland has dedicated her custom shoes towards cancer awareness and to continue to tell her story for anyone who needs to hear it.
“The inspiration behind the design of my shoes is basically my journey with cancer,” Breland said. “A lot of the graphics on it are stuff that I have so close to my heart. For instance, the Tar Heel foot with the cancer ribbon in it means a lot to me because when I was in school, when I was just 21 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. As well as, ‘Walk by faith and not by sight,’ a phrase that really stuck with me.”
The process of designing the shoes allowed her to reflect on when she was diagnosed, her battle throughout and the overall process to recovery. She deciphered what meant the most to her throughout that journey and the shoes provided her a platform to share those feelings.
“When I first saw the shoes I was like, ‘Wow.’ The creation is just awesome,” Breland said. “The designer did a really great job. I sent out some graphics and I didn’t think it was going to come out as great as it came out. It’s a beautiful shoe.”
Due to concerns and risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mercury and WNBA announced that Breland was medically excused from participating in this season.
“As a cancer survivor, you fear a relapse, but you never think about the long-term effects chemotherapy reeked on your body,” Breland said. “The threat of COVID-19 has forced me to acknowledge a harsh reality – although I am one of the top 144 WNBA players, my battle with cancer years ago left me vulnerable to coronavirus… I am blessed to have the Phoenix family behind me and their full support. I wish everyone the best in Florida and I’ll be thinking of you and cheering from afar.”
Despite being away from the team during this season, Breland is honored to still be able to participate in Rock the Pink and design a shoe for the My Kicks My Cause campaign.
“Just being able to be there without being there, it makes me feel like a part of the family,” Breland. “It makes me feel great that I can still get my word out to people. I can still be an inspiration to those who are battling cancer or know someone who is.”
This was set to be Breland’s first season on the Mercury, but the organization’s respect for her has always been present.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jessica,” Kozar said. “She’s out there being that for other people who are going through it and trying to raise awareness. It’s on her shoes. She shows up for that cause and it also ties perfectly to what we do with Rock the Pink.”
Whether it’s in support of the LGBTQ community, people of color or equality for women, the Mercury have always stood at the forefront of equality within sports. Throughout the years, the players and people that make up the organization have spoken out for the causes that hit home while providing a voice for the voiceless. The message that Breland is able to spread through her shoes is just one of the countless examples of the impact the Mercury are able to have beyond the hardwood.
“I’m incredibly proud to be in this fight every day with our players,” Kozar said. “I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this organization that has always had players who take a stand for things that they believe in. The media and a lot of folks these days have really taken notice of the players standing up for issues around racial justice, but our league was also the first one that had players who stood up for causes around Pride. Our league has always stood up for women and opportunity and to be representatives to create visibility for young girls. They’ve always been on the front lines of all women’s health issues including Rock the Pink. So, this is just another extension of that and it’s one of those things that makes me incredibly proud to get up and come to work every day with them.”
The Mercury will be auctioning off their exclusive Nike gray and pink jerseys autographed by the 2020 roster with all proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society. The auction will be running until noon pacific time on August 29, 2020. Click here for more information about this great non-profit and help your Phoenix Mercury support their amazing work through Rock the Pink.
For a more in-depth look at Breland’s journey as well as the Mercury’s efforts in providing resources to those in need, tune-in this Sunday to FOX Sports Arizona as well as the Suns’ YouTube Channel at 7 p.m. PT as we take you behind-the-scenes in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.