Ruth Riley may be a retired WNBA player, but she is working full-time to make a difference. Motivated by her modest upbringing and her unique experiences off the court, she has chosen a life dedicated to giving back.
In December of 2007, while many were preparing for the holiday season, Riley was on a plane to the Nkomazi region of rural South Africa, where she had been asked to run a basketball clinic for young people. Her experience there was the start of her non-profit Inspire Transformation.
“When we go, we try to bring as much gear and resources as possible,” Riley explained. “Our model is to teach the teachers, because they are there day-to-day, and empower them to be the catalyst of changes in their communities.”
Using the sports of basketball and soccer, her organization forms relationships with the community, instills leadership behaviors, and shares life skills. To symbolize Inspire Transformation’s commitment, Riley is working to build a basketball court in Nkomazi for the people. She partnered with Hoopla, an online gaming site where users can cash in their credits to directly benefit a charity of their choice.
Miles away, Riley has also immersed herself in communities in Nigeria, Angola and Mali, delivering mosquito nets to families stricken by malaria. She also partnered with Nothing But Nets, a global grassroots campaign which has been working to eradicate the disease since 2006. The initiative works by encouraging $10 donations, resulting in the purchase of one net, and Riley has been right there from the start.
“For me it was just powerful to go and deliver nets to Nigeria and Angola,” she said. “Something that costs so little was actually saving lives and so it’s been incredible to be a part of that campaign.”
Stephen Curry, her counterpart champion with Nothing But Nets is gearing up with his teammates to host Nothing But Nets Day on March 8. Last summer, Riley donated her birthday to the cause, encouraging fans to donate as well.
“My service comes from my faith and just being grateful for what God has given me,” Riley said. “Honestly, growing up we didn’t have a lot of money and resources.”
Raised in rural Macy, Indiana, Riley’s mom Sharon was both mom and dad to Ruth and her two siblings. To support her children, she took on a variety of jobs from waitressing to working in factories. Riley credits her mom for instilling in her values of faith and hard work, and she transitioned her diligent upbringing into her performance as a student-athlete.
In elementary and junior high school Riley played a range of sports, although her recognizably tall stature made her a prospect for basketball. As a child, however, her height seemed to be both a drawback and an asset; she was often made fun of, yet drew encouragement from her mother who told her to be proud of her height.
Expected to be naturally good at basketball, Riley admits that she was not an immediate standout on her elementary through high school teams. She had to put in a lot of time and work to improve her skills on the court.
“People assumed that I would be good because I was tall,” Riley explained. “There was that super humbling period when I was terrible and definitely not meeting expectations, but I loved playing.”
Riley attended the University of Notre Dame beginning in 1997, majoring in psychology with an overall intent to pursue a career that would allow her to work with people. Her practice in the classroom ultimately placed her on the dean’s list and her effort on the court earned Riley her first career start in her seventh game as a freshman.
“I was just always driven to be the best that I could be,” said Riley. “It was easy for me to make sacrifices for my social life and things that weren’t as important to me and focus on my academics and my sport.”
At 6’ 5”, Riley became a well-regarded athlete over her four years at Notre Dame. She solidified her legacy during her senior year, attaining numerous awards, yet her most memorable accomplishment may have come in her final game of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, when she made two free throws with just seconds left in the game to beat Perdue and bring Notre Dame their its first NCAA national championship. In total, Riley had 46 points and 20 rebounds in the game.
“It wasn’t just by chance that I was able to make those free-throws,” she said. “It was an incredible amount of work and preparation before that.”
The harder she worked, the better she became and the more her confidence grew. In 2001, Riley was drafted to play for the Miami Sol of the WNBA, a league which was still developing at the time. For the next several years, she would play for various WNBA teams, during the off-season she would work overseas and on her 25th birthday she would receive a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games.
“As we stood there listening to our national anthem, watching our flag being raised, and feeling the weight of the gold medal as it hung around my neck–it was a dream come true,” she reflected in a blog post.
Riley does not take her accomplishments lightly and is vocal in expressing her gratitude and thanking God for her success. Her faith has continued to be a huge factor in her life, and it is what she credits as being the force that has kept her grounded when she’s had the potential to lose focus, as well as a force that fuels her dedication to service.
“A lot of people invested in my life whether it was through mentorship, financially or just with support,” she said, “and so grateful for those people. How I live that out [is by passing] that forward to people that I come in contact with.”
Her memories growing up allowed her to feel personally connected when she was asked to support Share Our Strength Illinois’ No Kid Hungry campaign. While working with the campaign, which aims to increase participation in school breakfast, summer meals and after-school programs for at-risk students, Riley learned about the issue of hunger in America. She also connected with the realization that for much of her childhood she had unknowingly benefited from free and reduced school lunch programs, and in the summer of 2012 Riley joined with other NBA/WNBA players to hand out free meals youth in American communities.
“It’s one of things that people don’t like to talk about – hunger in the US, they think that it only exists in the developing world,” she explained. “To admit that kids in the US go hungry, we’d actually have to do something about it.”
In 2014, Riley retired from her basketball career. She is satisfied by what she was able to accomplish during her career and has found purpose in using the sport as a “platform,” as she refers to it, to live out her desire to help others. In a little over a year she will receive her executive MBA from her Alma Mater, and she will then then decide whether to continue serving others in a similar capacity or to invest her knowledge in a non-profit and serve from within.
Riley’s humility is reflected through her dedication to the causes that drive her. Most recently, as an NBA Cares Ambassador, she participated in several NBA All-Star week events in New York City. In the next few weeks, she will travel to Saudi Arabia to impact the lives of young girls and reflect on those who paved a way for her success.
“To be honest, I am twice as busy in retirement as I was as a player,” she joked. “But, I think it’s the service that allows me continue to have meaning in my life.”
For more information about Ruth Riley and the organizations that she supports visit: www.ruthriley.com