Biba one of bright spots for Silver Stars this season
SAN ANTONIO -- It tells you something about San Antonio's fortunes this season when what passes for "a lucky break" is that one of its players wasn't injured when she took a cheap-shot hit last week.
The Silver Stars and coach Dan Hughes have dealt with any number of curveballs this season. One was for a happy reason -- guard Marie Ferdinand has been out after giving birth -- but that still doesn't make her absence any easier for San Antonio to deal with on the court.
Then there's what has happened to the Silver Stars' inside game. LaToya Thomas reinjured her shoulder and is dealing with two deaths in her family. Shyra Ely broke a bone in her left foot at the start of the season and has only recently returned. Chantelle Anderson, seeming to find herself as a WNBA player, suffered a fractured left kneecap during a close loss July 21 to Washington and is out for the season.
Last year, the Silver Stars lost their top draft pick, Kendra Wecker, to a knee injury in the first half of their season opener. She has returned this year, in what's essentially her rookie season, and had some of the expected ups and downs rookies have.
An unexpected "down" was when she was deliberately hit from behind in the head by Los Angeles' Mwadi Mabika, an inexcusable act that should have earned Mabika more than a one-game suspension by the league.
Hughes no doubt sighed relief when Wecker quickly got up after that. The last thing he needed was another injury.
In spite of everything, the Silver Stars technically are still in playoff contention, though their chances dropped considerably with a loss Thursday that plummeted San Antonio to 3½ games behind fourth-place Seattle.
The Storm and the Comets, both of whom also have been plagued by injuries, appear to be the favorites for the West's final two playoff spots. Phoenix, though, is also in the mix as less than 10 days remain in the regular season.
While what has gone wrong for San Antonio stands out, it's also worth detailing something that has really gone right. The return of Agnieszka Bibrzycka.
If you didn't know, she goes by "Biba" (BEE-ba) and it's readily obvious why she requires a nickname. With first and last names that both include those Polish consonant pileups that have "z" in them well, show that to most native English-speaking people and you scare them into silence.
On a recent visit to San Antonio, Biba was able to help me sound my way through her first name (ag-nee-ESH-ka) and then after a couple attempts at the surname, we just let it go. The way she says it, it sounded like there was a second "r" sound in there or something that I guess I identified as "r" for lack of anything else in my pronunciation repertoire to call it.
Biba it is. "Oh, I'm used to it," she said, laughing.
Bibrzycka (which also is not very easy to write) is the "other" player from Poland in the WNBA, the one who isn't 7 feet, 2 inches. Biba, who is 6-2, leads the Silver Stars in scoring (11.7 ppg) and is their top 3-point shooter with 50.
She first came to the league in 2004, when she played with countrywoman Margo Dydek for San Antonio. Dydek, who is 8½ years older, was traded to Connecticut in 2005.
Bibrzycka decided not to play in the WNBA last season because she didn't really enjoy her first go-round here. She was unimpressed with the team's direction. Plus, there was (and still is) plenty of pressure from her national team to stay in Europe. She also wanted to rest an injured knee, and thus there seemed very little incentive to come back to Texas in 2005.
So why did she change her mind for 2006? In large part because Hughes, who became coach and GM for 2005, convinced her that San Antonio really, really needed her -- and that things would be different.
"Playing in the WNBA was my dream, it really is what I wanted to do," she said. "So I said, 'I can try it one more time.' I had a chance to play with my national team all this summer, but I needed a higher level and to learn more. I wanted better competition.
"And I checked with a lot of players about [Hughes]. I talked to Dalma Ivanyi, Chasity Melvin and Deanna Nolan. Everybody was so positive about him. I knew they needed a shooter, and that was me. And, also, there was my family. They said, 'You should try again, don't give up.' "
Hughes said he pursued Bibrzycka so hard because he was impressed with what he'd seen of her on tapes of the Silver Stars games he viewed when he took the job.
"I looked at how we were going to address our immediate needs," Hughes said. "I saw a person I thought had offensive ability in multiple ways. We had to go through the expansion draft, and I didn't put any emphasis on trying to get her back until after that was done. I didn't want to expose how much I wanted her back.
"Then, I talked to everybody I could to get the message to her. The Spurs helped me a lot; I asked them if they knew people in Poland. I said, 'Would you tell them if they see Biba, please tell them about what we're trying to do here and let her know where we are now.'
"It was just a persistent effort in hoping some of these 'messages in a bottle' would get to her. We wanted her to know we had a plan. Then it really helped a lot when she hired an agent who had players in the WNBA."
Bibrzycka has found this season to be a much better experience all around. During a recent Friday game at the AT&T Center, a group of fans sporting the red and white of Poland cheered and chanted for her.
"I was surprised because I originally didn't know there was a Polish community here, but there is," Bibrzycka said. "They have a Polish church, and they invited me for a lunch. I got to have Polish food, and it was so good."
Bibrzycka's mother, Danuta, played for many years on Poland's national team and now coaches in that country. Her younger sister, Magda, is 17 and also a basketball player, attending the same sports-intense high school in Warsaw that Agnieszka did.
"I always say it's like a family business," Bibrzycka said. "My mother was my first coach. I was just born with a basketball, probably."
Her parents are divorced but her father is also a coach; his sport is soccer. Her mother and father grew up in a different Poland, one that was a Soviet satellite from after World War II until around 1989. The Solidarity movement in Poland, which began in the shipyard at Gdansk in 1980, was one of the big keys in the challenge to communism that eventually led to the Soviet Union's collapse.
Bibrzycka said her mother, now 50, played until she was 35 and her success helped the family enjoy some small comforts that many people didn't have then in Poland.
"Now the best players get more money and have agents," she said. "I remember when my mom signed a contract with a team and they gave us a phone. We were so happy that Mom played at a high level, so we could live a little easier."
Bibrzycka said when she was developing as a player, she and her mother would quarrel at times because "she just wanted me to be better. I didn't understand that when I was young. I always listen to her now, and I respect her."
When Bibrzycka finished high school, she turned pro and played for a team in Gdynia, where Dydek also competed. Bibrzycka was named the European women's player of the year in 2004.
Poland didn't qualify for the upcoming World Championships, but there is a qualifying tournament in September for the European Championships. Bibrzycka said the national team is eager for her to return. She's still not sure what her WNBA future will be after this season.
Clearly, Hughes wants her back.
"She's done even more things defensively than I thought she would do," Hughes said. "And I've had to play her out of position in some games. Her message to me is always that she'll do that. I feel like she's giving us every bit of energy she's got."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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