A Mighty Heart

After two NCAA division titles, two Olympic gold medals and eight seasons as the Sacramento Monarchs’ original franchise player, Ruthie Bolton, aka “Mighty Ruthie,” faces down the biggest challenge of her life. And it isn’t on a basketball court.

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After a long day of coaching, Ruthie walks into Hot Italian in midtown, 7-year-old daughter Hope in tow, for some pizza and gelato. She’s greeted by one of her oldest friends in Sacramento, the restaurant’s owner Andrea Lepore, who in 1997 was the communications director for the Kings and the newly formed WNBA team, the Sacramento Monarchs, to which Ruthie was allocated in the league’s inaugural season.

Lepore remembers well the beginnings of Ruthie fever among the fanbase. “She was always willing to do community work,” she says. “She had the most fan mail out of anyone.”

One incident in particular stands out in Lepore’s memory, when Ruthie was so moved by a little girl’s letter that she picked up the phone and called the fan’s house. “The girl literally screamed and dropped the phone,” Lepore says, laughing. “Her dad had to pick up the phone, and [Ruthie] was like”—here Lepore drops her voice down a couple of octaves to imitate the WNBA star’s husky contralto—“ ‘This is Ruthie Bolton.’ ”

Lepore jokes about how bad that first-season team was, and how good Ruthie was nonetheless: “She was leading in points and rebounds and assists. We didn’t have Yolanda until the third year.” She’s referring to seven-time WNBA All-Star Yolanda Griffith, who joined the Monarchs and also joined Ruthie on the U.S. women’s basketball team that took gold again at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And Ruthie wasn’t done beating the boys, like she and MaeOla used to do back in Mississippi. “One of the funniest memories is when you beat Mitch Richmond in HORSE,” Lepore says to Ruthie.

“Mighty Ruthie” at her jersey retirement ceremony at Arco Arena in August 2005 (Photo by Max Whittaker/AP Photo)Richmond, the Kings’ star player at the time, had been the NBA All-Star Game MVP two years before. “He said, ‘Why don’t we all just play for real?’ ” Ruthie responds with a shrug. He never stood a chance.

It wasn’t until she moved to Sacramento in 1997 as the founding franchise player for the Monarchs that Ruthie began to have an inkling that life could be lived on different terms. The evolution didn’t start with her looking after herself, but with her looking after others. She started working with disadvantaged kids.

Derrell Roberts, co-founder of the Roberts Family Development Center, which runs an after-school program and parenting classes for disadvantaged families in North Sacramento, says Ruthie has been a part of the organization, helping guide the center’s youth, from the time it opened in 2001. “The fact that she’s a female who has been doing some extraordinary things, resonates immediately with our girls,” he says. “And the fact that she’s a black person who has done some outstanding things has given them that particular role model as well.”

From 2004 to 2007 she was the head coach of the women’s basketball team at William Jessup University in Rocklin, and recently coached at Vacaville Christian High School for four seasons. She has traveled the world through the U.S. State Department’s Sports Envoy Program, visiting places like Papua New Guinea and Saudi Arabia to conduct basketball clinics aimed at fostering women’s empowerment. And she’s founded an after-school program for kids called Aim High, with a current enrollment of around 100 students who meet at various schools in the Sacramento region for coaching in confidence and life skills as well as basketball.

“It gives me wings to fly,” Ruthie says of her work with children. “It means a lot to see that just by my presence kids’ lives are changed.”

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After the end of her marriage and the end of her pro ball career, Ruthie forged a new life for herself. Slowly but surely. After she was divorced, and after her career as a Monarch ended in 2004, she met her second husband Cesar Lara, a civil engineer. Hope was born in 2009, son Christofer two years later.

MaeOla thinks Ruthie’s children are the real reason her sister came forward to speak out, finally, and take the next step toward healing. Her daughter in particular. “I think that’s why she named her Hope, because she feels like she can have hope for life, and hope for a better future,” she says.

After Hope has devoured a Hot Italian cheese pizza (no green things on it, please), her mother helping her with a slice or two while consuming a healthy salad, Ruthie reflects on her personal journey, particularly the end of her 12-year first marriage, with the frankness that comes from watching it recede in the rearview mirror.

“When you’re in it, you can’t see,” she says. “Most women in that situation get to the point where they think they deserve it. ‘I don’t deserve to get out. I don’t deserve more.’ You get so used to it. [It’s only after you] put someone there you love—your niece, your daughter, your sister—that you’re like, ‘Wow, I could never see my sister go through this. I could never see my daughter go through this.’ Now it makes more sense. You have to put a frame around it.”

Ruthie first spoke out about her personal history with domestic violence at the 2014 ESPNW Women + Sports Summit in Dana Point. Video of NFL player Ray Rice knocking his fiancée, Janay Palmer, unconscious in an elevator had been in the news earlier that year. Perhaps even more troubling was the further news that Palmer had gone ahead and married her abuser. Ruthie saw this unfold, experiencing it, as very few people could, both as a famous athlete and as a victim, and she decided that if her story might help others, she had an obligation to tell it. She got a warm reception from the summit audience. Gloria Allred hugged her. Afterward, ESPN approached her about making the documentary, which is part of the network’s “SEC Storied” series on the NCAA Southeastern Conference.

Still, going public with the details of her first marriage was harder than she thought. “I didn’t realize how painful it would be,” she says now, adding that the documentary premiered while she was on a speaking tour, increasing her sense of public exposure. She likens the film’s release to prepping for a big game: “I was anxious and nervous, and just like, ‘Wow, what have I done?’ ”

She was afraid she would be judged. She was also afraid she would come to be defined by that single issue, reduced from the role of hero to that of victim. “But I got a lot of response that was positive,” she says. “People saying they were inspired by, empowered by it. A lot of people would say, ‘I could never imagine, I wouldn’t have believed it.’ ”

Ruthie’s answer to that is that domestic violence “doesn’t have a profile. It can get anybody.” What did surprise her was finding out that she wasn’t all the way there yet. “I didn’t realize I still had to heal,” she says.

As open as she is about her experiences, talking about it takes a toll. On the drive home she chats with the writer she’s hired to collaborate with her on a new book that will be inspirational and speak directly to women who have survived abusive situations (the book doesn’t yet have a publication date) then briefly falls asleep in the passenger seat, tired from a long day. She’ll need the rest, as the next day she’s headed to Oakland to be the guest star at a Warriors camp for youth. (She is no stranger to Kings camps as well.)

Pulling up in front of her house on a quiet, leafy street in Natomas, Ruthie is greeted by Christofer, 5, who is beaming with pride, having just moments ago learned how to ride his bike. Cesar is cleaning out the family’s Toyota Sequoia. Hope and Christofer are eager to show off the rooster in their backyard.

Bolton embraces her daughter, Hope, during a basketball camp session at Grant High. The 7-year-old is her mom’s frequent sidekick and travel companion. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

As idyllic as suburban life looks for Ruthie, there’s a sense that new leaves are waiting to be turned. She is busy—one of the reasons the family relocated in 2014 from Elk Grove to Natomas was to be closer to the airport, since she travels so frequently to coach, often with Hope as her sidekick (at 7, Hope has been to Italy four times already).

Liberated from silence after all these years, Ruthie has found a new sense of purpose. What started as an exercise in honesty is fast evolving into a vocation. The interest in Mighty Ruthie has led to an upcoming national speaking tour of colleges, beginning in October, which also happens to be National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. She’ll be talking about domestic violence to an audience of college-age women who, like her, may think themselves immune from such a fate.

“It was overwhelming at first,” she says of the outpouring of response she got after the documentary debuted in May. “But when the dust settled I was very happy I had decided to do it and was willing to be transparent and sacrifice my vulnerability, if you will, for women out there who maybe thought, ‘Who is going to listen to me?’ ”

After the tour, Ruthie plans to continue to find ways to help women facing abusive situations. She knows firsthand that physical fitness can be a precursor to emotional strength. Even though she found ways to rationalize staying in her marriage for a long time, she credits her physical prowess with helping her get through the ordeal and come out the other side—eventually. Exercise helped sustain her during the worst of her experiences, she says. “I could work out, go for a four- or five-mile run, and it just sort of elevated me.”

So she is in the early phases of designing a fitness camp program to help empower women, which she calls “Flex Your Muscles.” She knows better than anyone that there’s no magic “fix” for domestic violence, so her goals with the program are modest, informed by her own experience: “Teaching women how to take charge of some little part that they can control—their health.” She knows that first steps are often small steps.

Does Ruthie miss playing the game that gave her so much of that sense of control in her own life? “I miss it every day,” she says. But that doesn’t mean she’s not up for what comes next. What’s different about Ruthie today is that she’s learned to reach out and take chances, rather than keep her head down and power through. In doing so she’s found reserves of strength—and flexibility—that the old iron-willed “Mighty Ruthie” might not have known she possessed. She is facing a future she has yet to fully figure out, but to which she’s ready to bring her A game. She even has a new mantra: “Claim your power. Your power becomes your purpose, and your purpose becomes your peace.”

One young woman is already standing tall on Ruthie’s mighty shoulders. At a recent Aim High coaching session, 16-year-old McKenzie Forbes of Folsom towers over her mentor—looking a little like a young MaeOla Bolton. Ruthie holds up a picture of Forbes at 6, riding on Ruthie’s shoulders and beaming. Kidding around, they resume the same pose. After Forbes graduates from high school, she fully intends to play college basketball. “And then I plan to play professionally,” she says coolly, not a shadow of a doubt in her voice. “I’m sure she will,” Ruthie says, as confident in her mentee’s ability to succeed as she ever was in her young self. And she knows that while Forbes may have to work hard to achieve her dreams, there are things this enlightened young woman will probably never have to bear, thanks in part to the influence of her coach. Looking at Forbes, Ruthie sees both her past—and her future.

“Basketball was just a temporary thing, to be honest,” she says, her deep voice sounding both content and eager. “All of that was setting the stage for something bigger.” S