She Survived Cancer to Thrive in the WNBA. Now She Runs a Spa
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Jessica Breland’s fight for life inspired a career in wellness.
In 2009, Hodgkin’s lymphoma stole a season of college basketball from Jessica Breland. The University of North Carolina product recovered and played her way into the WNBA, but was out of the league within a year, questioning whether she had a future in pro basketball because of how the lingering effects of the disease sapped her performance.
Nonetheless, Breland worked her way back again, becoming a WNBA All-Star. And it turns out the ups and downs, the energy-draining struggles, were the perfect preparation for owning a small business. “Experiencing a life-threatening disease like cancer helped me with my strength that I have here to push through,” says Breland, 31, who now plays for the Atlanta Dream. “The days that I’m beat up, mentally, physically exhausted, not knowing if I can handle all this.”
Opened in 2018, BR3 spa in Durham, North Carolina, has grown to five employees. Breland says it’s hitting her targets for year one and she’s recruiting more employees. The spa has gotten enough buzz to draw Duke basketball superstars Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett during the season. They played for the archrival of Breland’s alma mater, the Tar Heels, but, hey, business is business.
Because of their meager salaries, most WNBA players play overseas in the offseason, and many more have side hustles to make ends meet and fulfill a passion. For the native of Bertie County, North Carolina — about two hours east of Durham — the business is fueled by a focus on wellness that comes from fighting cancer, as well as a hustle that comes from her rural upbringing.
Bertie County, which has a 27 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data, doesn’t produce many like Breland, whose family moved there from Brooklyn when she was a kid. “I wasn’t supposed to be here doing this,” Breland says.
Atlanta Hawks guard Kent Bazemore, who went to Bertie High School at the same time as Breland, remembers her scoring 101 points across two nights in a tournament back then, passing over double- and triple-teams to make big shots for her team. And she would be the last to brag about it. “She doesn’t really blow things out of proportion,” Bazemore says. “She takes it a day at a time and keeps her head down.”
Breland went to Chapel Hill to play for UNC and earned a trip to the Final Four during her freshman season. In 2009, she got the shocking diagnosis: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system, which threatened her professional dreams. Breland went through six months of chemotherapy leading up to her junior season, and it would be years before she felt comfortable on a basketball court again. Picked in the second round of the 2011 draft, she played sparingly and was out of the WNBA after a season. The chemo treatments ruined her conditioning and made it difficult for her to get back to playing shape.
I’m really grateful I have people who understand what I’m trying to do and the sacrifice I’m making.
Afraid the future might not include a career in the WNBA, Breland bought a home in North Carolina and started to contemplate her options. But a fruitful season in Israel and several WNBA training camp contracts later, she caught on with the Indiana Fever, making the All-Star team in 2014, her best season with 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Today, nearly 10 years after the disease went into remission, Breland is cancer-free.
Launching BR3 became essentially her third full-time job, on top of her WNBA career and playing in China each winter, though Breland did skip playing overseas to get the business off the ground after it opened last fall. “Sometimes I don’t really have time for my personal life with friends or relationships, and I’m really grateful I have people who understand what I’m trying to do and the sacrifice I’m making,” she says.
Her small circle includes her agent, Orlando Castano Jr., who helped create an LLC for the spa and assists with some of the more complicated business procedures. Another major helping hand comes from BR3 director Arylone Anderson, who worked in finance for more than a decade before connecting with Breland over a shared love of art. Anderson now runs the spa’s day-to-day operations.
Breland, who is the sole owner of the spa, took on a lot on her own as well: She created BR3’s logo, designed the layout of the building, found suppliers, ordered equipment and hired contractors.
Finding financing was a massive hurdle, Breland says, because many of the treatments BR3 provides are not as widely accepted on the East Coast as they are out west. Breland wanted her home state to experience freezing-cold cryotherapy for the treatment of inflammation and soreness, infrared saunas for a more dialed-in detoxification and meditative float therapy, but it meant investing a “significant portion” of her life savings for the startup costs. While BR3 has local competitors, it has found a niche in providing a personalized experience with a better ambiance than a gym or chiropractor’s office, Breland says.
While Anderson handles the “emotional side” of the business, she says that Breland “is a perfectionist … [who] wants BR3 to look pristine.” The clientele ranges from star basketball players to everyday folks wanting relief from daily pains and stress. Among the latter group is MJ Poole, who loved her treatments so much that she joined the staff, and stands in awe of the “Renaissance woman” owner. “Her work ethic is incredible,” she says.
But Breland can struggle to find the right words to lead her employees. So, just like on the court, she puts her head down and goes to work. “I never really had that leadership quality to me, but I’ve always been a person to lead by example,” she says.
With the WNBA season tipping off this month, Breland hopes to help lead the Atlanta Dream further than their bitter five-game defeat to the Washington Mystics in the league semifinals last summer. She’s also eyeing a second BR3 location in Atlanta and is planning to open a foundation for at-risk children back home in impoverished Bertie County. “She definitely opened a lot of doors as far as the notoriety of our area, letting people know that there are various talents around there,” says Bazemore, the NBA player and fellow Bertie High standout.
And Breland has proved she’s not shy about taking on another job.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Jessica Breland
- What’s the last book you read? The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale.
- What do you worry about? Falling short of my dreams.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Southern-style home cooking, especially turkey wings and collard greens!
- Who’s your hero? Alice Lyons, my middle and high school basketball coach, who changed my life in so many ways. She saw who I could be today before I even dreamed of it. She not only led me in the right direction but also made sure that direction was highlighted with everything I needed to succeed.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To see all Seven Wonders of the World.
Read more: Double Duty: A WNBA star turns to broadcasting.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the gender of BR3 spa employee MJ Poole. She is female.