Commentary

Teasley makes most of time away

After missing last season on maternity leave, Teasley returns to WNBA

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Nikki Teasley's daughter, Yasherae, will turn 1 year old on Saturday. Mom won't be in Atlanta that day; she'll be headed to Connecticut, where the Dream play Sunday. Monday, though, Teasley will be home for a birthday celebration.

Ya-Ya -- a natural nickname for Yasherae, don't you think? -- won't remember this. Just like she won't recall spending this past winter in Europe.

[+] EnlargeNikki Teasley
Darrell Walker/Icon SMINikki Teasley helped L.A. win the WNBA title as a rookie in 2002. Now, can she help turn around the Dream?

"I've played in Korea, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Israel and Spain," Teasley said. "Spain has been my favorite. I enjoyed that very much, because I had my daughter with me. That made it a lot of fun -- for her to be able to see that part of the world."

Then Teasley laughed and added, "Not that she even knows now that she was there."

But Teasley will tell her about it, certainly, and there will be pictures for Yasherae to look at and "create" memories of this good time in her mom's basketball career.

"I think this was a blessing for me and my daughter to land here in Atlanta," Teasley said. "I look forward to doing great things here."

It's nice to see Teasley, a point guard for the Dream, back in the WNBA. The 6-foot graduate of North Carolina sat out last season on maternity leave. She signed on with Atlanta last August and did community service, but she still had to get back in shape and make the team for this season.

Teasley, who turned 30 in March, has done that. Was it a bit difficult?

"That would be an understatement," she said, chuckling. "It was extremely tough at first to get my body to respond. For example, I think it was seven days after I had my daughter, and I went out on the track with my brother, Michael.

"He was helping me, encouraging me to get moving again. I tried to take a step to run, and in my mind, I was ready. But my body wouldn't let me."

A year later, though, she has gone through the winter season in Spain, is in great shape and is part of a revamped Dream franchise that in its second season hopes to bear no resemblance to its inaugural 4-30 version.

"I just think the organization, what they've done in the offseason, has closed the gaps," Teasley said. "To have the team we have now -- all the credit goes to the organization. We're all excited. We have a lot of veteran players, and it's definitely a different team from last year."

Teasley hopes, in fact, to at some point win another WNBA championship. She did that in 2002 as a rookie with the Los Angeles Sparks. By that point in her life, as those who've followed her career know, she'd already been through many difficult times.

At North Carolina, Teasley battled depression and anxiety, sitting out the 2000-01 season. During that year, she went back to Frederick, Md., where she'd attended high school, and held two jobs. She did construction/paving work and sold children's clothes at a department store. She also saw a therapist, and when she returned to Chapel Hill, N.C., in the fall of 2001, she felt she could now appreciate playing basketball and not let it cause her such painful stress.

There were, though, still some questions about her when it came time for the 2002 WNBA draft. The first four players to be picked then were UConn's Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones, and Oklahoma's Stacey Dales.

Dales went third and Jones fourth, both to Washington, which bypassed D.C. native Teasley. She went fifth to now-defunct Portland, which traded her to L.A.

Teasley spent four years with the Sparks, but missed part of her last season there -- 2005 -- with a foot injury. The following March, she was traded to Washington, which seemed like a perfect move for her, as she would be back near family and friends.

Great, right?

"It was easy going home," she said. "But … also you have a lot of distractions at home. I think that kind of took over in the second year of my stay there in Washington. It didn't allow me to have the season I wanted to. Which is another reason I was so eager to get back and do well this year, after my baby was born. Because I didn't have a good year my last year in Washington. That bothered me."

The Mystics waived Teasley in March 2008, and she then focused on having her child. At some point, she heard the name "Yasherae" mentioned on television. It sounded pretty, and she knew then it would be her daughter's name.

Teasley also spent last summer studying basketball … and finding out that she loved it more than she realized.

"It's made me more knowledgeable about the game because I couldn't play," she said. "All I could do was watch all the time, and I don't think I missed a game that was on. I watched every team, different players and their tendencies, what plays they liked to run.

"That way, I knew that this year I wouldn't be so far behind. And it's also helped me gain the fun and passion back about basketball. You do this for so long, since you were a kid, and it can become just a job. But the time away put me back in the mold where I was as a young player, just wanting to play every day because I love to do it, not because I had to."

Teasley also said Yasherae has helped a lot. Teasley spoke to her former Sparks teammate, Lisa Leslie, about how to balance basketball and motherhood.

"She's been one of the biggest role models in my life," Teasley said of Leslie. "When I first had my daughter, I went to a game in Connecticut to talk to Lisa, and we had a discussion about some of the things she had to go through in maintaining being a mom and staying at a high level in her career.

"The main thing she told me was to be patient. When you have a baby, it can be discouraging when they're crying and you just don't know what's wrong. You have to be strong enough to be patient and be that comfort that they need. And that's helped me as a person -- not just as a mom, but to be a better daughter to my mom, a better sister, and a better friend."

And also a better teammate. The Dream will need that. Teasley's backcourt mates in Atlanta are a quiet veteran, Coco Miller, and a buoyant rookie, Shalee Lehning.

"Coco works extremely hard -- she's the first here and the last to leave," Teasley said. "I just think she's an example of what a professional should be like in our game. With Shalee, she's so eager to learn how to be a great point guard in this league that she's going to do well."

Teasley was disappointed that fellow Tar Heels guard Ivory Latta ended up being cut from the team, but said it's just another example of how brutal the 11-player roster size is for every organization.

Still, she has other UNC support in Atlanta -- former Tar Heels teammates Coretta Brown, Juana Brown and Nikita Bell all live in the city, providing Teasley a welcoming nucleus of old friends.

"They're all attached to my daughter and love to play with her," she said. "We feel like we're family and we support each other."

Teasley also feels support from the influx of Tennessee fans who've gravitated to the Dream, both because of the proximity to Atlanta and because former Tennessee players Chamique Holdsclaw and Michelle Snow are now with the Dream. They are among the many options -- which also include top draft pick Angel McCoughtry -- that Teasley has to look for on court, and she is enjoying that the way a true point guard does.

"My first thought is to pass the basketball, but all the more so with this team," she said. "We have great young players and veterans, and my role is to distribute. And when I'm called on to score, I'll do that.

"The roster size does put more pressure on the veterans to do well and play more minutes, and I think we have to embrace that. Just go out and do our job. That's what I plan to do."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com or follow her at http://www.twitter.com/MechelleV.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.