Milton-Jones and Ross Reunited by Basketball

By Aaron Fischman - @aaronhartf

On a hot Sunday afternoon in July, Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones relished in shooting around with her teammates. The one they call �Sunshine� was about to make her 400th career WNBA start, but it was business as usual for the 37-year-old forward who smiled before every one of her previous 399 starts.

Since Milton-Jones played her first professional game more than 15 years ago, she�s built an impressive resume: Two WNBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, three WNBA All-Star selections, two FIBA gold medals and the list goes on.

But long before any of these accolades, current Sparks Head Coach Carol Ross recognized something special in young Delisha Milton (before she got married and added �Jones� to her name) more than 20 years ago.

Ross, who was then the head women�s coach at the University of Florida, had already developed a relationship with the lanky 17-year-old over the phone, but the two had never met.

�I was being recruited by her to come to Florida and she came on a visit to my hometown and watched me play softball,� said Milton-Jones.

�She was playing, I think, center field and a ball got hit and it should�ve gone over her head, but she came running, threw that long arm out and snagged that sure base-hit and turned it into an out," Ross recounts. "She would always lead the cheers for the softball team. She was like she is now: a lot of fun and a lot of enthusiasm.�

On subsequent visits, the Florida coach would watch the talented youngster play her primary sport and leave extremely impressed. �She was very active and used those long arms, but what I really loved most about DeLisha was she was always cheering for her team.�

�Whether she was in foul trouble and on the bench (or) whether they were killing somebody and she had already come out of the game to sit out, she was always the best cheerleader on her team. Her enthusiasm was one of the things I enjoyed most about her.�

Milton-Jones would ultimately commit to Florida and letter four times, while leading Ross� teams to four NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight in her final season. As a senior, she earned the Wade Trophy, which is presented annually to the best women�s basketball player in NCAA Division 1 competition.

Even players with immense natural talent like Milton-Jones, often need guidance from their coach. At Florida, Ross played a critical role in her pupil�s development, both as a player and person.

�A situation arose where I felt I was being disrespected, and I didn�t really know how to confront it,� said Milton-Jones. �You�re full of emotions, and so I went about it the wrong away.

�She sat me down, explained it to me and then made me run at 5 a.m. the next morning.�

Ross thoroughly enjoyed her role as mentor.

�I felt very maternal to her even though she had her own great mother in Beverly and her grandmother, Ms. Ruth, that were tremendous and strong women in her life,� said Ross. �I just count myself as one of the lucky ones that could also play a role in her growth.�

�One lesson she taught me early on is it�s ok to stand up for yourself, but it�s how you go about it,� said the 16-year pro.

Her time with coach Ross in college had been an overwhelming success, but it was likely the end of the road for the duo. At the age of 22, Milton-Jones began her professional career in the now-defunct ABL.

Nearly 15 years later, the Sparks presented Ross with her first opportunity to serve as a head coach at the WNBA level. When the decision was made, both women instantly knew that they would be reunited.

�It made me smile. I was very happy, because I know her spirit and I know her desire to not only be an excellent individual player, but also she loves (her) team and the sorority of the locker room,� said the Sparks head coach.

�So it brought me comfort to know that she would be sharing that locker room with me.�

The feeling was mutual.

�I smiled,� said Milton-Jones. �I was like, �Wow. This is weird, but good weird.� It�s definitely someone I�m familiar with, but how familiar would I be was the question I had in my mind, because I didn�t know how much she had changed as a coach and her philosophy."

�I was very excited about it, and I knew that a lot of the girls would instantly fall in love with her just because (of) her personality and her approach to life and the game.�

Fifteen years later, surprisingly not much has changed, with a few exceptions.

�Now she�s a grown woman and I still have a maternal feel toward her, but she doesn�t need me in that role anymore,� said Ross. Ross also acknowledged that she is a wiser coach with an improved ability to communicate with her players.

Milton-Jones recognized more similarities than differences in their relationship 20 years after it began: �Something that hasn�t really changed is our approach to the game. We�re still two fiery individuals that predicate everything based on effort: what you give to the game, not what you expect the game to give to you.�

Considering all of the professional success that Milton-Jones has achieved over the past 15 years, one might assume coach Ross would be less vocal with her player. Not a chance, according to the coach.

�She deserves to be coached just like the rookies do.�

�And so I respect her knowledge and wisdom because she�s played more basketball than I ever played, but I would be doing her a disservice if I didn�t continue to help her be the best she can be.�

While Ross helped Milton-Jones develop into the woman she is today, this story is far from over.

On August 18, Milton-Jones and Ross will get back to work in the interest of settling some unfinished business. The ambitious duo look to win their first championship together.

Regardless of what happens in the 2012 postseason, there�s no denying that the two will share a special bond for life. Basketball brought them together. Basketball has kept them together.