This article is part of an ongoing series celebrating Stanford women in sports in honor of Women’s History Month, which is commemorated throughout March. This weekly series will feature profiles of Stanford alumnae in sports — including current and former professional athletes, sports journalists and executives.
I remember the first time I met Erica McCall ’17, who will forever be “Bird” to me. I was just 16, and I was on my unofficial visit to Stanford as a women’s basketball recruit. She showed me her dorm and pitched Stanford to me with this enthusiasm and charisma that has yet to be matched in the six years since then. There was something incredibly intoxicating about a person who holds energy naturally, whether that be within themselves or in a space for someone else. Bird does both exceptionally well, and it has propelled her career.
The Stanford community knows her as a successful athlete, having represented her country, school and professional teams with class and grace. Before even enrolling at Stanford, McCall shone at the national level. She won gold medals with Team USA at the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U16 Americas Championship in 2011, at the FIBA U17 World Championships and at the FIBA 3×3 U18 World Championships in 2012.
In her four years as a Stanford Cardinal, the Bakersfield, California, native led her team in all aspects. While a Cardinal in 2015, McCall continued her success on the national level, bringing home a gold medal at the FISU World University Games. Back on campus in her breakout junior season, she tied Chiney Ogwumike ’14 and Joslyn Tinkle ’13 for third in single-season blocks in Stanford history (a statistic where she also ranked 13th nationally), was second in the Pac-12 in double-doubles and was 12th in Stanford single-season history for rebounding average. This impressive season earned her a spot on the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team.
McCall followed suit in her senior season, finishing 11th in the country in rebound total, sixth in school history in blocks (with 63) and 23rd in the nation (fourth in the Pac-12) in double-doubles (with 15). She was voted onto the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team again as a senior. Both years she was a team captain.
As a senior, McCall was an Associated Press All-America Honorable Mention, CoSIDA Second Team Academic All-American and a Senior CLASS Award Second Team All-American, among many other awards.
As a freshman just kicking off my collegiate career, I was in awe of McCall’s success, but I was even more taken by her work ethic and enthusiastic leadership. I am lucky to know the emphatic human behind her successes. I had to look up all of the stats listed above because I didn’t remember them, but I remembered how Erica McCall is driven in a unique way from playing one season with her. I want to tell this story. Let’s talk about Bird, the person on the other side of the stat sheet.
McCall inspires greatness by the way she plays, and has carried this from her Stanford career to the WNBA and Hungary, where she currently plays for the Indiana Fever and Atomeromu KSC Szekszard, respectively. Yes, she still grabs plenty of boards and blocks many shots, but she is consistently the loudest, the most supportive and the most hyped in the gym.
Since I’ve known her, she always has been. In her senior season at Stanford, when I was a freshman, she captained our team to a Final Four. However, her positive outlook and enthusiastic leadership is something she grew into through her experience as a student-athlete at Stanford.
Four years prior, before she became a household name, she sat where I did, at a Final Four, looking to then-senior Ogwumike’s impeccable leadership.
“Chiney took me in my freshman year,” McCall said. “I use a lot of the things that she taught me throughout my whole four years and especially my senior year, just seeing how she led the team. I really wanted to replicate that my senior year in my own way, of course, but just giving some of the advice that she gave me.”
McCall was one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with, and she attributes it to a sense of togetherness – time spent with her teammates. We discussed the things we remember most: countless hours spent in the women’s basketball locker room.
“I never wanted to leave the locker room because it was just so much fun,” she said. “We were playing music, we were dancing or watching TV. Those are the moments that I miss the most.”
And that time is consequently what meant the most to her.
“I can’t take myself too seriously because if I do, I’ll never enjoy what I’m doing and why I’m supposed to be here … I’ve learned a lot from you guys,” McCall said. “You guys made it a lot easier for me, made it a lot more fun … [I’m] super grateful for all [the Stanford players].”
In all of her success post-Stanford, McCall said that one lesson holds especially true: Don’t take anything too seriously.
“I learned [that] even though basketball was my passion, and something that I absolutely love, I had to learn to not take it as [seriously] because it’s ultimately a game that’s supposed to be fun,” she said. “Some days, you know, it wasn’t fun for me because I was putting so much pressure on myself. And when I learned [to] just relax and play, if I have a bad day, I have a bad day, man. It just made ball so much more fun [and] college so much more fun.”
McCall said that Stanford’s storytelling classes were especially impactful on her and her future goals, providing her with an outlet to share a piece of her basketball journey.
“[My teammates] all came to see me, and I was so proud to do it in front of [them],” she said. “That was one of my favorite classes. Just to be able to tell my story and learn how to tell stories in an entertaining way. It’s actually become useful in my life because I want to get into entertainment.”
And that she has. Since then she has continued her basketball career in conjunction with thinking about the entertainment industry — which comes as no surprise, being the natural entertainer she is. McCall started her own podcast, “Bird’s the Word” and rapped “The Champion” alongside Carrie Underwood at the latter’s concert in Indianapolis.
“I love to make people smile, so I want to get into [maybe] sports broadcasting or radio or TV — something along those lines,” she said. “My ultimate dream is to have my own show, my own talk show and [to] host.”
McCall’s enthusiastic leadership has also shined in fostering change. As one of the 144 voices who voted for the changes in the WNBA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), she has helped shift the trajectory of what being a woman in sports means.
“It’s really big that people are starting to respect what [women] do more, and we’re starting to get more equal compensation for it. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re definitely taking the step in the right direction — just little things like getting better seating for airplanes because [you have] a 6’6” center like Teaira McCowan, [who] was sitting in the regular seats crammed.”
McCall also shared how important to her the recent salary increases in the WNBA are.
“Players like my sister, [Dewanna Bonner] who are here making the max [salary], [are] finally going to get the money that [they] deserve and that she’s [deserved] for 10 years plus,” McCall said. “It’s really big, really special, and I’m really proud of the league and how they handled it. And I’m happy that everyone is starting to see who we are and what we deserve.”
Of course there is still a long way to go in closing the gender gap. McCall noted that many WNBA players currently play overseas in the WNBA offseason to earn a livable wage. In her ideal world, players should not have to move, she said, and should be able to stay in the U.S. and play in front of family without having to worry about thousands of miles of travel and income.
Now as a senior myself, pursuing another Final Four since Bird led our team three years ago, I look to her leadership and teachings about teamwork, passion and a genuine love for the game and my teammates.
Bird got her nickname because there were two Ericas on the team at one point, and her last name sounded like “macaw.” I didn’t realize until now just how fitting it was. Birds fly high above everyone else. Erica McCall takes what it means to be a woman in sports soaring to new heights.