At a place called Fisticuffs, fighters come to work. Go the speed limit on Fourth Plain Boulevard, and you’ll drive right past the small gym that’s hidden on the side of a thrift store and obstructed by a paint company. It’s isolated, humble and early in the day, so uncomfortably cold that it feels like someone forgot to pay the heating bill.
Ashley Corral knows that it’s even chillier here at six in the morning, so that’s why she’ll stay covered in droopy sweats. She’s a basketball player on the precipice of a career-defining opportunity, but every morning she comes to this gym dedicated to mixed-martial arts and boxing.
Corral, the Prairie High product and one of the most decorated hoopers from Clark County, has the tryout of her life coming up with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
Corral, 23, has earned a training camp contract. So, if she can last through two weeks in May, then Corral will achieve a goal that she has held since she was a small girl with a Sue Bird jersey hanging inside her bedroom closet.
Last year, Corral had another chance to make the WNBA, but for the first time in her life she was cut from a team. So this is why she bursts out of her parents’ Vancouver home after only downing two hard-boiled eggs and half a cup of oatmeal.
On this day, Corral arrives at the gym so early that she even beats her trainer through the door. She leaves her long-sleeved shirt on to endure the cold and begins stretching over a foam roller.
This workout will last for over an hour. She will sweat, cringe and try her best to muffle those groans of pain. And later, she will walk into two more gyms for more exhausting workouts — because, she’s fighting for something.
“There’s nothing else that I do want,” Corral says. “This is the only thing on my plate right now. I don’t have really anything else to say, ‘Oh, if I don’t get it, it’s OK because I have (something else).’ No, this is my career. This is what I’m going for.”
“Yeah,” she says, then pauses. “There’s really no other option. I have to make this team.”
First shot in Seattle
Because he shows up a little late, sports performance coach Jason Pabillano walks in and gets right into bending Corral like she’s a plastic action figure.
Corral spreads out on a blue mat, her hands behind her head as Pabillano stretches her limbs — well, more like jerks, twists and squashes her limbs.
Pabillano plays semi-pro football, so those are the very large hands of a hard-hitting safety pushing down on the small of Corral’s back as he lifts her left leg, then her right. She winces, but keeps smiling at his jokes to keep from giving into the pain.
Then, Pabillano notices the garment under her basketball shorts. The black spandex with the logo on it.
“Oh, I see what it is,” Pabillano teases, joking that Corral is showing off her official WNBA clothing.
Corral volleys back a laugh and responds that she hasn’t worn them in a year. If that’s true then it means that Corral last wore the shorts while she was trying to make it with the Seattle Storm.
Last April, Corral watched the WNBA draft from inside the University of Southern California women’s basketball locker room. She had just completed her senior season, the fourth consecutive year without earning a trip to the NCAA tournament but had built a résumé as the USC women’s program all-time leading 3-point shooter, that she expected to hear her name called during the draft. Her admirers did as well.
It was love at first recruitment when former USC assistant coach Jody Wynn discovered Corral as a freshman Prairie High guard.
Then, Wynn found out that she also played soccer — besides becoming a McDonald’s All-American in basketball, Corral also made the all-state team several times for her play on the pitch.
Wynn valued soccer players, “because those kids are tough,” and brought Corral in as a top recruit in the 2008 class. Undersized as a 5-foot-9 guard after she wraps up the tape and laces up her shoes, but a gritty competitor and a shooter who could teach clinics.
Even after leaving the program, Wynn stayed in touch with her former prized recruit. So, last year on draft day, Wynn watched to see where Corral might land.
“We were all hoping,” Wynn says.
However, the broadcast ended, and Corral was not drafted.
“I was pissed,” Corral recalls, then flashes back to the thoughts as she left the USC locker room for the final time. “Oh, my God! I can’t believe this happened! I’m not going to do anything! This is stupid! What have I been doing my whole life?”
But a phone call interrupted that long walk back to her apartment. It was her agent asking if she wanted to go to Seattle.
Corral prepared the best she could in the four weeks before reporting to the Storm’s training camp. But suddenly, she was in the same space with four other players who wanted the same job. She was no longer the top guard. That title belonged to veteran Sue Bird and Corral knew better than to tell her idol that she had once owned her jersey.
As the days passed, the Storm locker room got smaller and smaller as nameplates disappeared from the top of the stalls. With each player being cut, Corral moved closer to the front lockers and even closer to her dream.
Then on the morning of the final day of camp, Bird’s backup decided to play overseas. The player’s departure was like a door swinging open for Corral. Her dream was coming true, until the head coach invited her into his office and released Corral 30 minutes before the final roster was made.
“It’s a reality check, for sure. There’s nothing more eye opening or humbling than to be cut or released, (to be told) ‘We don’t need you.’ ” Corral says. “But, I mean, I guess it almost puts more fire to it. I know that I can play at that level.”
“I just have to break through and actually get there. The hardest part is to just get there.”
Playing in China
During this training session, Corral does not handle the basketball nor shoots one of her velvety smooth jumpers. Still, she does broad jumps, one-armed pushups and weight lifting all in Nike basketball low tops. Always low tops. The high tops hurt her surgically repaired ankles. On this day, she chooses the gold-strapped Nike Zoom KD IV that she picked up while playing in China.
As a certified sneakerhead, those two months last October and November with the Guangdong Dolphins helped Corral add to her burgeoning shoe closet. But more importantly, it allowed her to play professional basketball. Corral was invited to fulfill Tamika Catching’s contract with the Dolphins as the WNBA star rested after her MVP season.
She was the only foreigner on a team surrounded by a talented but raw core of Chinese players. Though the American head coach Bo Overton called 6-foot-8 Wei Wei as the Dolphins’ best domestic player, the team looked to Corral for scoring.
With the Dolphins, Corral was their Sue Bird. She learned how to say words like “zone defense” in Mandarin. When she signaled with her hands and yelled San!, her center knew that it was time to set a screen so that the American could pop a 3-pointer.
For less pressing communication over team dinners, Corral depended on Google Translate. Thankfully, Overton had already spent years in China and knew where to find the KFCs whenever Corral couldn’t stomach pig brain or duck tongue. Many days, Colonel Sanders provided lunch and dinner.
Although Corral never quite grew comfortable with the cuisine, she became a standout in the league.
“In her last two games, she had really figured it out (and) had 25 and 26 and also led the team in rebounds from the guard spot,” Overton replied through an email. “It was really hard for the team and coaches to say goodbye. She had really taught the players a lot in her short stay. We all miss her very much. Players still ask about ‘ASS LEE.’ “
Corral returned home before Christmas and allowed herself a brief break. She then picked up sessions with a trainer who she has known since high school and mulled over more overseas options.
Then on Feb. 1, the Mystics invited her to their 2013 preseason training camp. This time, Corral feels ready for the WNBA.
“I know I have to go in there with the mindset that nothing’s given to you. You have to earn it,” Corral says. “Every second that you get to go on the court is earned, so I think in that sense I have kind of an advantage to earning my spot this year as opposed to last year.”
Working for second shot
After surviving the session with Pabillano, Corral drives to her favorite nutritional shop. She downs a shot of aloe and orders a peanut butter and oatmeal shake, a drink packed with protein and healthy supplements. No more KFC. Corral scripts every detail of her day, down to her meals.
She drinks the shakes after morning workouts as a meal replacement, then fits in another workout with longtime trainer Ryan Paul before she has a special Farm to Fit lunch delivered to her home. In the evening, Corral finally gets on the hardwood for a basketball-specific training session with Vancouver Volcanoes point guard Josh Tarver.
She does this nearly every day. Corral claims that she takes time off, but even when she recently visited the Los Angeles area, she spent her vacation on the court.
Wynn, now the head coach at Long Beach State, knew that by the time Corral showed up for their one-on-one workouts, she already had a full day of rehab and weight training.
“She’s a tremendous worker,” Wynn says. “When she comes down to SoCal, it’s just not to lay in the sun. She comes to work.”
Now, Corral’s just counting the days until May 4. After nearly three months of workouts, she’s about ready to fly herself to the nation’s capital for training camp.
Corral closely watched the WNBA draft again this year. She noticed the players that the Mystics drafted and counted the guards piling up on the roster. Just like in Seattle, Corral will have to beat out several guards to win a full-season contract.
“My job got a lot harder,” Corral remembers thinking.
However, she’s still undeterred. Corral knows her skill set. Admirers like Wynn have seen it for years. Now, through two weeks in May, Wynn hopes the Mystics will recognize it, too.
“She’s not the quickest (and) she doesn’t pass the eye test,” Wynn says about Corral, “but the kid can flat out play.”
Soon, Corral will no longer have to rise early and train alongside a boxing ring. Still, her fight will continue across the country.
“Last time, it was almost just like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m going to Seattle! This is awesome!’ I was almost awestruck by the whole situation,” Corral says. “This time, it’s like I have to make this team.”
She balls her hand into a fist and strikes the table three times for emphasis as she speaks.
“There are no other options,” Corral continues. “I want to be on the team. I want to be there for a full season. There’s just been more fire that’s building. So I’m just ready to go and do it.”