‘It gives us hope’: Minnesota Samoans cheer on Alissa Pili at her first Lynx home game

Two young girls cheer
Lupe Fruean 16, (right) and Lelia Fruean, 14 (left) cheer for Alissa Pili of the Minnesota Lynx during Friday's game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Seattle Storm at Target Center.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Faamati Winey wanted to make Alissa Pili feel welcome.

So for Pili’s first regular season home game as a member of the Minnesota Lynx, Winey wore a home-made Alissa Pili shirt, a lei and a frangipani flower in her hair and never took her eyes off the game.

“This is a huge deal for us,” Winey said. “It is the first time a professional women’s basketball player has been Samoan. Opening day is a perfect time for our community to support her.”

Added Winey, “She’s going to feel right at home here in Minnesota.”

a WNBA basketball game between Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm
“It motivates me to be a good role model for everyone and be an inspiration,” Pili said about the support of her communities.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Winey believes there are about 500 people of Samoan descent living in Minnesota. More than 100 of them watched the Lynx top the Seattle Storm, 102-93 on Friday. Pili played nine minutes in the game, scoring five points and grabbing two rebounds.

She wrote on Facebook and got to work contacting friends and family to pack section 138. For many Samoans, it was their first WNBA game.

With the eighth pick in the WNBA draft, the Lynx picked Pili, who played college basketball in Utah and at the University of Southern California. She is from Alaska, her family is Samoan and Iñupiaq, Native Alaskan.

“I am so proud of Alissa, and I am so happy the Lynx chose her,” Winey said. “I think it just gives us hope, especially for Polynesian girls. She is going to pave the way forward for young Polynesian girls to look up to. We’re going to be her cheerleaders.”

A woman cheers
Faamati Winey cheers for Alissa Pili of the Minnesota Lynx.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Winey says for her, watching someone that looks like her play for the WNBA is a game changer. It’s her first year following the WNBA, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. 

Before the game started, Winey and 30 others gathered in the tunnel before the Lynx players ran out for their high-five welcome. Winey’s cousin and former Vikings player Esera Tuaolo sang the national anthem. 

Kayla Leo and her two-year-old daughter Tala watched Pili when she was in college, when she got drafted and attended her welcoming ceremony. 

Leo played basketball when she was growing up, but she says she never saw anyone that looked like her on the court. It was hard to imagine a future in the sport for herself, but she feels like that’s changing. 

A young girl falls asleep on her mother
Kayla Leo and her daughter Tala Hubbard watch (and sleep) at the Minnesota Lynx game. Leo says she played basketball growing up, but it was hard for her to continue when no players looked like her.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“My cousin plays basketball, and for my little nieces and nephews, they can see someone that looks like them and just know that they can be in the WNBA and or NBA, they can do whatever they want,” she said.

After the game, Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said Pili brings something special to the team and she is growing into her new role. 

“She’s finding her way, just the way she’s competing, we saw her playing with a little more movement to her game,” Reeve said. 

a WNBA basketball game between Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm
Alissa Pili was the eighth pick in the WNBA Draft.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

And as for Pili, she says she appreciates the support from Minnesota in general, but especially from the Samoan and Native community. 

“It motivates me to be a good role model for everyone and be an inspiration,” Pili said. “And honestly, it just helps me live my life better and find my purpose. I’m very proud to just be representing y’all and you know, I’m just going to keep doing a good job with it.” 

At the end of the game, Winey’s group went down to the court and cut the net. Everyone got to take home a piece to help them remember the big night. 

A group of people pose for a photo
The Minnesota Lynx play the Connecticut Sun on May 23 at 6 p.m.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News
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