Taj turns road less travelled into WNBA stardom
It only takes a couple of hours to drive from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., to New York City, but nobody heading to Wednesday's WNBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden has undertaken a longer journey than Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
Wednesday's game (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) and the surrounding festivities promise to be a mix of the present (highlighted by the Western Conference's three rookies) and the past (the league is celebrating its 10th anniversary). But in McWilliams-Franklin, a late addition to the Eastern Conference roster after Sun teammate Nykesha Sales withdrew with an injury, the event includes a player who represents both past and present.
Still very much a living, breathing, rebounding All-Star whose first-half performance merited better than a second-chance invite, her story is also a history lesson of where women's professional basketball has been and where it might be going.
History never exists in a vacuum, no matter how much we try to wrap it up neatly between a preface and a bibliography. Philosophers, and Cheech and Chong aficionados, can debate the state, or lack thereof, of nothingness that preceded the Big Bang, but every subsequent event or era is merely a creation of our own devices.
Just as artists painted before the Renaissance and rock 'n' roll was played long before Elvis, women carved out careers in professional basketball before the WNBA opened its doors for business in 1997. Now in her eighth season in the WNBA and 14th year playing professionally, McWilliams-Franklin is one of a dwindling number of players who keep the pre-WNBA era alive as living history.
But playing at St. Edwards, an NAIA school in Texas, McWilliams-Franklin didn't seriously contemplate playing basketball beyond graduation until her senior season in 1993.
"I got a call from somebody saying that I could go overseas and make like $800 a month," McWilliams-Franklin recalled of her introduction to the often murky world of international basketball. "I was like, 'Why would I do that? I could make $800 a month here.' "
But Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil, a star at the University of Texas, was a friend of a friend and alerted McWilliams-Franklin to better opportunities available in places like Japan, where six-figure contracts weren't uncommon for American stars. So just months after graduation, McWilliams-Franklin headed to Germany to begin her climb up the international ladder.
"It wasn't fun," McWilliams-Franklin said. "It was kind of scary."
Tossed into a foreign environment and separated from her young daughter for the first time, McWilliams-Franklin experienced a difficult transition. The only saving grace was an American coach easing the shock of new surroundings.
"He knew I was homesick, and he would invite me over to dinner with his wife -- his wife was on the team as the other foreigner," McWilliams-Franklin said. "So that made it much easier, but you still have to go home to an empty house and try and figure out how to shop in German stores and speak German."
Captured well in the movie "Love and Basketball," professional basketball in Europe could be a lonely and mercenary existence for players with limited contact with those at home in the pre-Internet days.
"Overseas, most people are motivated because they get paid, basically, and that's all," McWilliams-Franklin said. "You know five people in the stands: all your family and a few of the locals. But it's really because they pay you to play and they bring you over there to play at the top level."
Not that the experience was entirely without benefits beyond the checkbook. Only briefly deterred by her initial foray to Germany -- "I didn't go overseas until that next January; it took me a year to get up the courage to go back," McWilliams-Franklin said -- she signed on for a three-month stint in Luxembourg and settled into an international career that continues to this day (she played in Italy prior to the start of the current WNBA season).
"I like going to different countries and seeing the culture," she said. "There is so much that is interesting, the buildings are older and there is a history there that we don't have in the States because of our development. We've got to build these big buildings, so we lose some of the history and the heritage that's involved in the architecture and the ground. Overseas they don't allow you to do that. If you build stuff, it still has the old outside; the insides are just new.
"I was in Spain -- in Salamanca -- and I was living in a building that was from the 1600s and it was just beautiful. Even though the insides were modern, thank God, the outside was still the same building. I love that my family can travel and my little girl can see those things."
McWilliams-Franklin has played everywhere from Spain to South Korea. She modestly claims to be fluent "only" in Spanish and Italian these days, although she still understands some German and was once conversant in Hebrew. Her oldest daughter recently graduated from an American high school in Italy. Like many before her, she made the most out of her international experience.
And in a different generation, even a few years earlier, the story might have ended there.
But the landscape of women's basketball changed following the gold-medal winning performance by the United States in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as both the WNBA and rival American Basketball League prepared to take another stab at fielding a successful women's professional league on American soil.
McWilliams-Franklin paid her own way to a tryout camp for the ABL and was a late-round pick of the Richmond (later Philadelphia) Rage. After years of traveling the globe to keep her career alive, she savored the opportunity to play close to home.
"I was happy in the situation I was in, because I was at home for eight months and had my house," McWilliams-Franklin said. "And it was something that at that time was needed, because my oldest daughter had started needing to be home, and I needed to be there around my family. So it was a good time; for two and a half years I didn't worry about anything else."
Unfortunately for McWilliams-Franklin and the rest of the ABL, the good times wouldn't last. Lacking the financial backing of the NBA and its corporate partners, the league announced on Dec. 22, 1998, that it was suspending operations midway through its third season.
Although McWilliams-Franklin had an international career to fall back on, and was subsequently picked by the Orlando Miracle in the WNBA dispersal draft, the league's demise was a harsh blow to many who assumed the league was destined to succeed.
"The reason the ABL folding affected so many people adversely was because they never thought it would happen, the ones who didn't know about the financial issues," McWilliams-Franklin said.
And it's here that McWilliams-Franklin's story intersects again with the pending festivities in New York City, as the league prepares to celebrate a milestone.
The ABL is just a faded memory at this point; only 10 of the 30 leading scorers at the time the league folded -- including McWilliams-Franklin -- remain active in the WNBA. This year's rookies were freshmen in high school when the ABL folded. Increasingly, the WNBA is a league of young players who grew up with the constant background noise of a single domestic professional league waiting to extend their careers.
And while many players still go overseas to play and pick up some extra money (often more than their WNBA salary), just as many are able to pursue other academic and professional endeavors. It's a comfort level that can be taken for granted by young players who have never known a different reality.
"The WNBA is great, it's awesome, but you also have to be aware that this is a for-profit organization," McWilliams-Franklin said. "It's not nonprofit, so if the revenues are not coming in, it can be pulled at any time. And I don't know if young players really understand that. They think it's great -- and it is great to play here; you're at home, and you do other things in the winter like finish your degree as some of these rookies are doing. But you have to also know that it's fleeting."
Where shady phone calls offering paltry pay in distant lands once marked the end of a college season, the landscape now includes a nationally televised draft and road trips to Phoenix instead of Prague. Year by year, despite a low rumble of dissent about the league's long-term financial viability, it gets easier to assume it will always be this way.
"Whether it stops tomorrow or in 20 more years, you need to know that it's all fleeting and you should take advantage of it," McWilliams-Franklin continued. "And you do find -- I think me and KT [teammate Katie Douglas] were talking about this last night on the bench -- maybe not a lack of caring, but it just seems like a lack of that motivation.
"Like you see it in Cappie [Pondexter] -- she's really motivated, you know, 'I'm here for a reason.' And it's impressive, but you just want it to always be like that. I want to always see that there is some fire, that they have something to prove and it's not just taken for granted."
Expressed in another way, that same big-picture perspective might be responsible for keeping McWilliams-Franklin among the league's best players as she approaches her 36th birthday. An intense and vocal presence on the court, she tries not to waste energy and sanity in carrying the game with her when the clock runs out. Perhaps it's a perspective born of silent nights in an unfamiliar apartment far from home.
"I'm a mom, a wife, a sister, a daughter, and I want to make sure those things encompass more than basketball ever would, because it's still a game," McWilliams-Franklin said. "When I go home, I leave it. And a lot of people can't do that; it consumes them. Winning and losing consumes them. And when I go home, french fries and macaroni and cheese with ketchup consumes me."
McWilliams-Franklin deserves to be in the All-Star Game, deserved to be there long before Sales bowed out with an injury. She's second in the league in rebounding and one of only two players, along with Detroit's Cheryl Ford, averaging at least three offensive rebounds a game. And on a team that doesn't always need her to score 20 points, she does things that don't always show up in the box score, starting on the defensive end.
"She makes defensive plays near the end of games that most people never get," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. "She'll let a player play against her the same way for a couple of possessions and all of a sudden change up. Guards get comfortable they can throw it to somebody a certain way, and all of a sudden, late in the game, Taj changes the angle and makes the deflection or gets a steal."
McWilliams-Franklin's contributions this season were almost overlooked by fans and coaches in choosing up sides for the All-Star Game. Here's hoping the rest of us never overlook the history she represents.
Basketball may be fleeting, but legacies are not.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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