Cayla George has earned many accolades throughout her basketball career.
Before joining the Las Vegas Aces this past WNBA offseason, she was a mainstay in the WNBL and Australian basketball. She was a part of the esteemed Australian Institute of Sport, earned WNBL Bettie Watson Rookie of the Year in 2007 while with the AIS, is a four-time WNBL champion with the Townsville Fire and Melbourne Boomers, and was the 2022-2023 WNBL MVP.
George is arguably one of the greatest basketball players to represent Australia in recent years. She's been a part of the Opals squad since 2008 and helped lead her squad to two Olympics and several World Cups. But George's greatest achievement in life has been becoming a mother to her daughter Pearl.
The Story of Pearl
Note: Thank you, Cayla for being so open and vulnerable with me about her experience with how Pearl came to be. Now back to the story.
Cayla and her husband Kailou always wanted to start growing a family but there was a barrier. As a professional athlete, she experiences issues with her menstrual cycle which makes it hard to conceive. Every person's body is different and you never know what can happen in terms of conception even if you're not a professional athlete.
"Without going into too much detail I've struggled mightily with my period for a long time because of training at such a high level for a long time," George told Edge of the Crowd.
"Sometimes things aren't super fluid and it can be challenging to find consistency with our periods."
There are many ways to start a family that does not require the mother to carry the child. In Kailou's culture as an Indigenous Torres Strait Islander, there is a type of adoption known as Island adoption among family members which is known as the highest form of respecting culture. In the George's case, the option of Island adoption was a no-brainer.
In 2016 after the Rio Olympics, Kailou's sister and Cayla spoke quietly about gifting her a baby. It was just a matter of timing and when it was right for all parties to start the process of conceiving a baby. In August 2022, George announced her sister-in-law was pregnant with Pearl who was due in October.
When Cayla and Kailou found out her sister-in-law was pregnant, it came at an amazing time for the family. Cayla had just won the WNBL Championship with the Boomers when her sister-in-law told her she was nine weeks pregnant.
"She told me she was nine weeks pregnant and I was like 'Oh my gosh!'," George said.
"It was very interesting to prepare for a pregnancy when you're not pregnant yourself; 'Wow, you look great! You're a basketball player, right?'
"Nine days after Pearl was born, I was back playing basketball and people were like, 'Oh my God you bounced back already?'. I tell the story to most people because they are gobsmacked because it's quite a cool scenario".
As any expecting parent does, she and Kailou bought so much stuff that they didn't need and some are still in boxes. But there's never not enough stuff for a baby to grow up and use, right?
The semantics of Island adoption can be complicated legally. Because it's not through a traditional Australian adoption agency and is as good as verbal between all the parties involved, there could be complications with acquiring a birth certificate and passport when the child grows up.
Thankfully for the George family, the state of Queensland legalised Island adoption in 2020 which enabled her and Kailou to be listed as Pearl's birth parents on her birth certificate just like any other babies who are adopted. George does hope to carry and bring Pearl some siblings into the world in the future.
To honour the Torres Strait Islanders culture and tradition, she named Pearl after the Treasure Island Waters. People came all over the world to dive for pearls as it was deemed the wealthiest at one point decades ago. She wanted to pay homage to the culture and what a great way to do it.
Motherhood in the WNBA
In recent years, there's been a rise in active WNBA players who are mothers. Dewanna Bonner gave birth to twins in 2017 and returned to the court in 2018. Skylar Diggins-Smith gave birth to two sons while with the Dallas Wings and Phoenix Mercury despite not playing this past season with the latter. George's Aces teammate Candace Parker's wife gave birth to their son Airr but before, Parker gave birth to daughter Lailaa in 2009 and returned to on-court action in July 2009. Many more players are mums in the league currently which helped make this process a lot easier for George in deciding to come back to the league.
"Pearl has so many aunties on this team who absolutely adore her," she said.
"Candace's [Parker] daughter Lailaa absolutely adores Pearlie and Airr is her little buddy. We've hung out a fair bit because we are both mums and bring our kids together."
George's played with many mums in her career including Bonner. Back in Australia she and Mia Murray represented the mums of the 2022-2023 Melbourne Boomers and George also played with another mum, Sami Whitcomb, while together on the Opals.
On February 1 in the US, the Las Vegas Aces announced the signing of George to a one-year fully protected contract. George had previous WNBA experience in the past playing for the Mercury in 2015, 2017, and most recently the Wings in 2018.
Moving overseas with a family can be a tough decision, especially as a professional athlete. There were a lot of factors going into this decision.
"It was a really big decision for us because it's not just about me anymore," she said.
"It's about Pearl and 'will she be alright, will my family all want to move over with me, is my husband okay to leave his job and come do this whole thing as a family?'. It's a pretty big deal to pack up everything and our house and life back [in Australia] with the process of doing house renovations and having four dogs."
In the end, Cayla and Kailou decided this was a great opportunity for her to come into a program that's really setting the bar high in the WNBA. The recruiting process and the state-of-the-art facilities and support from the organisation are what ultimately led her to make her WNBA comeback.
"In the recruitment process Becky [Hammon], really enticed me to come back and be a part of something great. And although my role is quite small, I still really love being a part of [the team] and I think I play my role very well," said George.
When you're part of the 144, it's special no matter what role you play. Cayla is known for her goofiness and energy in her everyday life. She's a mainstay of the bench culture that enhances team morale and energy, something so important when fighting for a WNBA championship. Every single person on the team is valuable in what makes the family great.
Inspiration and Perspective
Although Pearl is almost one, seeing her mum in action in nearly every one of her WNBA games, including the Game 3 playoff win against the Wings on September 29, is a special moment. Even though Pearl can't comprehend what is going on, seeing her mum having fun and continuing to play at a high level in photos and videos will inspire her in whatever dreams she may have.
At 34 years of age, Cayla knows she's not in for the long run of having a full-on career in the WNBA. But having a child put her whole life and career into perspective.
In Melbourne, she would go feed Pearl and take care of her. George fully embraces that it's not just her anymore that she has to look after. Pearl entering her and Kailou's life put a lot into perspective.
"We're constantly overthinking, constantly trying to better ourselves, and probably not giving ourselves enough credit," she says.
"There's a lot of negative talk that we deflect and with social media, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves."
"When Pearl came along, a lot of that fell on the wayside because I couldn't worry about that [negativity]. I had to worry about Pearl's needs, if she needed her diaper change, feeding her bottle, putting her to sleep. I stopped worrying about what other people thought which enabled me to just play basketball and enjoy the process."
George credits her MVP award to Pearl. Although she doesn't strive for individual awards and is all about the team and winning Championships, earning the MVP with Pearl by her side throughout the 2022-2023 campaign made everything worthwhile.
Cayla George is down for the ride of balancing motherhood and being a pro basketball player. She will be joining the Sydney Flames this upcoming offseason but first, her next challenge is winning a WNBA championship with the Las Vegas Aces as they face the New York Liberty for a series that is bound to shatter records and no matter the result, will make Pearl a proud daughter no matter her age.