Playing at a new level, Anchorage's Alissa Pili finds her footing and connects with fans

May 16—SEATTLE — Alissa Pili could feel the difference.

Pili, who grew up in Alaska and graduated from Dimond High, stepped on the floor Tuesday at Climate Pledge Arena as a newly minted member of the WNBA.

Playing for the Minnesota Lynx against the Seattle Storm in her pro debut, Pili immediately noticed the difference on the floor with ubiquitous athleticism and a faster style of play than she'd ever experienced.

And while her stat line may not have awed the 8,500 in attendance, Pili, who is Alaska Native and Samoan, was arguably the game's most resonant player. She posed for pictures with fans before warmups and after the Lynx win, a throng of young admirers were waiting for her, eager to connect with a player that provided them representation at the highest level of the game.

"It's just such a big stage and you can feel that when you're out there on the court," she said. "I definitely felt it tonight. You're playing against the best players in the world. Every night is going to be challenging but I'm just taking it day by day. The biggest difference for me is getting used to it being such a big stage and it's cool to see how much (women's basketball) has grown and to be a part of that."

Pili didn't score in 10 minutes of action, but did grab a rebound and was 0-for-1 from the floor. Taking the court less than a month after being drafted by the Lynx as the No. 8 pick, Pili said she was very much still in instructional mode.

"I'm still in a position where I'm learning a lot so I'm just kind of taking advantage of the minutes I do get and going out there and doing what I can to help the team," she said.

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said Pili performed admirably against a Seattle frontcourt that includes 8-time WNBA all-star Nneka Ogwumike and Ezi Magbegor, who was an all-star in 2023.

"It's been an adjustment but one she's really embraced," Reeve said. "She's embraced the difficulty and has had some ups and downs as every rookie does as she gets her feet under her. ... It was a hard-fought game that Alissa was thrown into. She made some really good basketball plays. Some of them didn't get completed but she's doing the right things."

A contingent of Pili family members made the trip to Seattle for the game including Alissa's mother Heather and her three sisters Felila, Kayla and Alyna. Heather shot video with her phone from an upper-level suite while 3-year-old Felila — despite the din echoing through the arena — settled in for a short nap.

"It's pretty amazing to see," Heather Pili said. "We're super excited. She deserves it. She's where she's meant to be and where she's dreamed to be. It's all about her dream and we're just so happy for her."

Pili, who graduated from Dimond in 2019, initially opted to go to USC. But after a few relatively lackluster years, she transferred to the University of Utah. There her playing career took off and a 37-point game last season against eventual national champion South Carolina bolstered her draft stock.

In a crowd packed with the green and yellow colors of the Storm, there were a handful of red Utah shirts popping through. That included Carma Garcia, who became a Pili fan at Utah and flew from Salt Lake City with her wife Tuesday morning to watch the debut.

[From Lynx to Lynx: Alissa Pili's basketball journey comes full circle in a place that 'was meant to be']

She paged through photos on her phone taken with family members who met Pili at a game against Southern Utah. Garcia, who is Piaute Native, said Pili's Native heritage was an initial point of connection. As soon as Pili was drafted by the Lynx, Garcia got online, checked the team schedule and bought tickets that night.

"I was on it like Blue Bonnet," Garcia said. "She's a very nice young lady. ... We're proud to come and see her. I don't know if she's going to be a star player or whatever. It doesn't matter. She made it."

A dozen rows down at courtside, Renee Pablo and her daughter Lucila were able to coax Pili into a pregame photo. They'd watched Pili play at Climate Pledge Arena during the 2023 NCAA Tournament and continued to follow her career.

"I was really excited when my dad told me he got us tickets for the game," she said. "I like her because we both have the same ethnicity. She's really powerful and has really inspired me."

Lucila, 11, is a basketball player in the Seattle area and Renee said Pili provides an important example of Samoan representation to her daughter.

"We just want her to be around this environment where she can see people that look like her and for her to aspire to," said Renee Pablo.

Pili worked with Lynx assistant Rebekkah Lamar Brunson in the pregame, shooting shots and working on drills. It's been a common occurrence since she was drafted on April 15, Pili said. Acclimating a new system with new teammates in a new city has been intense but rewarding.

"It is a toll, just not having a break but at the same time it's such a great and unique opportunity," Pili said.

[Alissa Pili's homecoming at the Great Alaska Shootout draws a warm welcome, and a record crowd]

Pili entered with 4:56 remaining in the first quarter after a timeout and played another stretch in the third quarter before checking in for the final minute of the 83-70 Lynx win.

While Olympian Alanna Smith and WNBA all-star Napheesa Collier combined for 42 points to lead Minnesota, Pili proved to be the people's champion.

After the game, a group of around 50 fans gathered behind one of the baskets, waiting for the Lynx rookie. Pili emerged from the locker room and spent time signing autographs and taking pictures with fans while talking with friends and family.

Among the group was Kenzie Raye McCow and Amaya Nikolao, who both had signs they'd made in support of Pili. Despite both wearing Seattle Storm earrings, the duo said Pili was a favorite and McCow said she'd been watching Pili and fellow WNBA rookie Caitlin Clark longer than any other players.

"I'm American Samoan," said Nikolao. "It's pretty amazing to see that people from the same tribe, same culture playing on a basketball court. It's really inspiring."

The duo of 11-year-olds are also basketball players and their coach Jordan Pritchard, who joined them at the arena, said they made the trip specifically to watch Pili.

"We wanted to be here to watch Alissa because there is something powerful about watching somebody that looks like you and moves like you and that maybe has been told her whole life that like basketball won't be her sport, because of build or body or whatever," Pritchard said. "And (Alissa) has just proven that wrong. She's just proven that we can do it too. And so it's fun to get to see her."

Taking on the mantle of being a role model is something that started to develop while Pili was at Utah, which has the largest per capita Polynesian population in the Lower 48.

"It's a blessing to see people come out and especially young girls who are Samoan or Native," she said. "It's good to know it carried on to this higher level. It's something I started in college but I think now that I'm in the league, it'll grow much more and make more of an impact."

On the court, Pili said she's continuing to focus on improvement and feels like once she starts to adjust to the pace of the play, her game will really be able to thrive.

"I'm definitely just trying to soak it all in but at the same time just working hard and not really shying away from anything," she said. "Just kind of staying true to who I am as a person, as a player."

Photojournalist Loren Holmes contributed to this story.