When I logged into my first WNBA press conference several weeks ago, I did a double take at the gallery view display: is there a child in this zoom meeting?
The answer, I quickly learned, was yes.
Her name is Camilla “Pepper” Persley, and at age nine, she has become a fixture in WNBA press conferences. While Persley is sometimes referred to as a “future journalist,” given her well-researched questions and solid analysis, I’m not convinced that the word ‘future’ is entirely necessary.
Ahead of the WNBA Finals, which begin tonight, I sat down with Persley to learn more about her start in journalism, her passion for the WNBA, and her goals for the future.
The ups and downs of being a 9-year-old journalist
There are a few challenges that accompany being a 9-year-old journalist, like when a playoff game starts at 7pm on a school night. Persley – whose bedtime is “eightish” on school nights – is typically only able to watch until halftime. “It’s tough because I’d rather watch the end of games, but it’s ok. I get to watch all the weekend games,” she says.
When Persley started reporting on the WNBA, she knew being the only kid in a room full of adults wouldn’t always be easy. “I was aware that people weren’t always going to take me seriously because of my age, or even because of the sound of my voice,” Persley explains. “I just try to focus on the fact that WNBA players [take me seriously] and their PR people do too… I’ve never been looked at badly from a player. All their faces do when they hear my voice is light up.”
Persley also knows her age gives her the opportunity to provide a unique perspective. “Often my questions are about how [things] affect children,” she explains.
She points to a question she asked in a Las Vegas Aces press conference following the news that no officers would be directly charged with Breonna Taylor’s death: “The news of no arrests of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor is really hard for little Black girls like me. What message would you give to kids like me who are confused and sad and angry?”
The first player to answer, A’ja Wilson, paused for a moment before saying, “Oh Pepper, you have me tearing up.”
The 2020 WNBA MVP went on to say, “My message is to keep fighting. We cannot stop fighting… I hate that you even have to think about going through it. It’s people like me – in my generation – that are going to help fight this fight alongside you… I’m going to make sure that you don’t ever have to live through this as hard as we’ve lived through it right now.”
How it all began
Pepper Persley’s journey to WNBA reporter was sparked more than a decade-and-a-half before her birth. When the WNBA launched in 1997, her father, Christopher, immediately bought season tickets to New York Liberty Games. “I was right there from the get-go,” he recalls.
Pepper started attending games as a toddler. When she was in kindergarten, Christopher – who had collaborated on projects with the Liberty in the past – helped set up an interview between his daughter and Sugar Rodgers, who was then a member of the Liberty.
“It was meant to just be a question, but then it became this whole big interview,” Pepper explains.
Over the last few seasons, Pepper has had the chance to do sit-down interviews with players from different WNBA teams. While her reporting has been entirely virtually this year, the remote setup has actually provided increased access to a variety of teams and players.
There’s some cheering in this press box
These days, Persley has made a name for herself on a variety of platforms. She has her own interview show, “Dish with Pepper,” which is available as a podcast and through her Instagram channel. She also hosts “She Got Next with Pepper Persley through The Next, an online women’s basketball newsroom.
Persley says she prepares for each interview by doing research, preparing notes, and brainstorming questions. “Usually, if there’s something big, like they made it the Finals, or they’re in the playoffs, there are obvious questions,” she explains. “If I’m having trouble [deciding on questions], my dad usually asks me, ‘Well, what do you want to know?’”
While many sports journalists are told to leave their favorite team jersey at the door, Persley has found a way to integrate her role as a fan into her reporting. “Honestly, I’m a fan of all 144 players in the WNBA,” she says. “I love the WNBA as a whole. I just [try] to be grounded in that when I’m writing articles.”
For Persley, her admiration of the league – and its players – is also personal. “Just to see these women who love basketball – and are so active in equality – it’s basically just me,” she explains. “I feel like I see myself in a lot of them. The activism and the unity they continually portray is very inspiring.”
Like other kids, Persley – who lives is New York – is adjusting to the new norms brought about by COVID-19. She recently started fourth grade at a new school, which she is currently attending virtually. She also plays a variety of sports (basketball, taekwondo, and soccer) as well as the violin.
Looking forward, Persley wants to continue working as a journalist, for the WNBA, but also for other sports and leagues. She also hopes to create an event featuring inspirational Black women – athletes, activists, and journalists – with the goal to “encourage other Black women like me.”
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