When Natasha Cloud reached the WNBA finals with the Washington Mystics in October 2019 — the pinnacle of her basketball career — the most important person in the point guard’s life was on the other side of the world.
Cloud’s fiancée, Aleshia Ocasio, was pursuing her own profession by playing softball in Japan. The two had not seen each other in more than a month when, on a whim, Ocasio jumped on a 15-hour flight from Tokyo to Washington, D.C., to catch Game 1 of the finals.
“I just wanted to watch Natasha play in the championship,” Ocasio said.
Ocasio saw Cloud score 13 points as the Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun 95-86. The next day, Ocasio flew back to Japan and missed the rest of the series, which the Mystics won in five games after Cloud made good on a guarantee.
“I wasn’t actually there when they won the title,” Ocasio said. “But I wanted to be a part of it however I could. So I made that long flight just to see her for about 24 hours.”
The power couple’s relationship has been largely long distance since their courtship began — like many modern romances, with an Instagram DM — in 2018. Two years later, they were married in October of 2020. Yet, because their seasons run concurrently, and their games are often hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart, they have only been able to cheer one another on from the stands a handful of times.
“We’ve watched each other a ton on TV,” Ocasio said. “But I don’t think we’ve seen each other play in person more than 10 or 12 times.”
Fortunately for the couple, that’s all about to change. Cloud is a founding member of Athletes Unlimited Basketball, a new professional league that tips off on Jan. 26. The league — which features 44 players, including 16 of Cloud’s WNBA colleagues — will compete in a five-week, 30-game season played entirely in Las Vegas. Commentators include three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes, and the game will air on FOX Sports, CBS Sports Network, and Bally Sports in addition to streaming on Athletes Unlimited’s digital YouTube channel.
The league provides women’s basketball players another chance to play professionally in the U.S. rather than overseas. But the opportunity to stay Stateside isn’t the only thing innovative about Athletes Unlimited. It offers a new model for professional sports leagues, taking a page from fantasy sports and appealing to fans — particularly younger ones — who are drawn more to individual athletes than teams. The league has no team owners, coaches, or even set rosters.
Each week, the top four point scorers will be crowned team captains and draft their squad for the following week with fan input. Athletes Unlimited will crown an individual winner at the end of the season based on points accrued from team wins and individual stats on both sides of the ball.
Cloud, who opted out of the 2020 WNBA season to focus on social justice reform and signed a new contract with the Mystics last March, was the first player to join AU’s basketball league. Cloud then spent the next several months recruiting players to join her.
“Some people still need convincing,” Cloud said. “They were like, ‘Hmm, I might need to see you play a year first.’ I totally understand that. But we also ran into a lot of people who were like, ‘We’ve been waiting for this moment. We’ve been waiting for someone to believe in us, to invest in us, to keep us home during the offseason.’”
Cloud didn’t need much convincing herself — she had seen the league operate firsthand through her wife. Ocasio had a successful amateur softball career, pitching Florida to an NCAA championship in 2015 and helping Puerto Rico’s national softball team win a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games that same year. But Ocasio found fewer opportunities at the professional level.
When Athletes Unlimited launched a softball league in August 2020, Ocasio was part of the inaugural 56-player pool that competed within a bubble outside Chicago. In 2021, Ocasio returned for a second season and won the league championship as the top individual points leader. Not only did Ocasio throw four complete games and compile a 2.32 ERA, she also led the league with a 6–5 record, 55 strikeouts in 66 innings pitched, and tied for the lead with 13 appearances.
“There wasn’t much of a professional softball presence before,” Ocasio said. “Growing up, we were playing for a scholarship, to be able to go to school for free. That was it. Now that there’s an established league, it has created a huge shift within our sport. It gives softball players hope that they might be able to go professional, and it gives our sport more visibility.”
In 2020, Ocasio’s and Cloud’s schedules finally aligned, and Cloud was able to attend one of Ocasio’s final games in Chicago. It was there that Cloud met Athletes Unlimited co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros.
“I thanked them for bringing the league to softball, a women’s sport that so desperately needed people to invest in it and to see the players’ value and their worth,” Cloud said. “I said, ‘I love what you’re doing for softball, but when are y’all gonna bring it for basketball?’”
Patricof assured her that it was on his agenda – and that he wanted her input. About 11 months later, Cloud’s phone rang.
“Natasha was the first person we called when we decided to move forward with a basketball league,” Patricof said. “She played a big role as a leader of our player executive committee. She helped identify other players whom she thought would make up a great core leadership group. She’s involved in all the big decisions.”
Basketball will be the fourth league in Athletes Unlimited’s network, following softball, women’s indoor volleyball (launched in February 2021), and women’s lacrosse (July 2021). Patricof believes that the opportunity is ripe for women’s hoops, coming on the heels of the most-watched WNBA regular season since 2008. TV viewership was up 51 percent in 2021 over the 2020 bubble season.
“We’re seeing strong TV ratings at both the WNBA and the college level,” Patricof said. “So we think there is demand out there from fans for more professional, top-tier basketball.”
Patricof also saw a demand from elite players for additional playing opportunities.
“A lot of good players come out of college and don’t get drafted in the WNBA because there are only 144 spots,” Patricof said. “For players, even those that are in the W, the offseason alternative has historically been to go far from home, and to play a long and sometimes grueling season. When we started talking to women’s basketball players, the general reaction was: There are not enough playing opportunities for us, whether it’s in the United States or around the world.”
Patricof, who served as president of New York City F.C. before founding Athletes Unlimited in March 2020 with Soros, was struck by how little collaboration he saw between sports leagues — both men’s and women’s. To mend the situation, Patricof and the league created cross-sport collaborations, including a Racial Equity Working Group, which Ocasio helps lead. Athletes Unlimited also matches athletes with mentors in other sports.
That experience includes training sessions and networking opportunities for athletes from across all four sports that focus on everything from personal branding to financial literacy to mental health. Abby Wambach and Jessica Mendoza are among those athletes that serve on the advisory board. The league even holds cross-sport holiday parties.
“This is a group of strong women who all have a stake in this league, which is unlike anything that has ever happened in women’s sports,” Ocasio said. “We have a say in everything, even our uniforms. It’s a unique networking space. I actually met up with one of the women I got to know through the Racial Equity Working Group when I was in D.C. Now we talk regularly. I think AU opens a lot of doors across sports.”
The open doors have helped women athletes support women athletes in other sports — something that comes naturally to Cloud and Ocasio.
“If we don’t bet on each other, if we don’t support each other, if we don’t amplify each other’s voice, who’s going to?” Cloud said. “AU does an amazing job of making sure that we have our say in our own respective sport, but also creating that community. There are things that we’ll decide in our own respective sports but there are also things that we decide together as an AU family.”
This season, Ocasio won’t have to rely on unreliable streams or social media updates to follow her wife’s games. Ocasio will be there in person.
“I booked my flight to Las Vegas to watch the opening game on January 26,” Ocasio said. “And then next week I’ll be there for all three of her games.”
While Ocasio’s presence will bring added pressure for Cloud, who does feel an urgency to equal her wife’s achievements, she also sees it as added motivation.
“She won the whole league last season. I’m just trying to match her greatness,” Cloud said. “But I don’t mind a little pressure. It’s gonna add fuel to my fire. And there’s definitely going to be a wager.”
For all of their collaborative spirit and support, Cloud admits that the two are still competitive, even with each other. Ocasio frequently shows off her shooting skills in Instagram reels, but admits that Cloud, a multi-sport star who was a quarterback for her youth football team and an outfielder in softball, might have a better arm.
“I’m like: Why can she throw that far?” Ocasio said. “But I think if she was put in a real softball game, she would have some trouble.”
Regardless of how the Athletes Unlimited basketball season plays out for her personally, Cloud already considers the venture a success because of the opportunities it will create for the next generation of women athletes.
“The league has done a tremendous job of investing in women and believing in women and giving women the resources that weren’t provided to us elsewhere to allow us to be successful and live out those dreams,” Cloud said. “From the time boys are young, they can dream about going to the NFL, NBA, and MLB and MLS. But for little girls, it has always been different. AU gives every single little girl out there in these four sports – and they’re going to continue to grow – a true dream that is attainable.”
Photo credits: Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited, Natasha Cloud