Storm's Willingham is a Fighter

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Kevin Pelton, | May 20, 2010

When the Seattle Storm travels to Phoenix to play the Mercury on Saturday (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, LiveAccess), it will be a homecoming of sorts for Storm forward Le'coe Willingham. It was in Phoenix over the last two seasons where Willingham had a chance to become a WNBA starter and prove her ability to contribute in the league after playing a smaller role during her first four years in Connecticut.

"They'll always have a special place for me," Willingham said after the Storm practiced Thursday. "I'll always appreciate (Mercury GM) Annie Meyers Drysdale and Coach (Corey) Gaines because they did give me that opportunity to show what I could do on the court and I got a chance to be part of something special [the 2009 WNBA championship]. That won't be forgotten. We had fun and made great memories there."

"I just hate that word and for someone else to tell me what I'm not able to do or capable of. All of that is motivation."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images

For Willingham, breaking out with the Mercury was the culmination of a career's worth of having to disprove doubters. In large part because of her height - she is listed at 6'0", which is small for a post player, but even that is probably a little generous - Willingham has been questioned at each step of her career.

"That's definitely something that I've always had to fight against," said Willingham. "In college, there were misconceptions because I'm a shorter post player, but that's something I fought through and had a pretty successful college career.

"I was one of the top college post players, led the nation in field-goal percentage my senior year and I went undrafted. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was able to go to Connecticut and make that roster and stuck around there for four years learning as much as I could. That's another quality organization that I'm thankful to because they gave me an opportunity to be part of this league.

"It's something I've always been fighting against, but I learn from it and I have other advantages. My height may be a weakness, but I try to make up for it in other areas."

In basketball terms, Willingham relies on her quickness for her size and her ability to finish around the basket. She ranks sixth in WNBA history in career field-goal percentage, and trails only Atlanta's Erika de Souza among active players with at least 500 career attempts. Her toughness in the paint and offensive rebounding are also strengths.

From a more general standpoint, though, Willingham has thrived because she has used the question marks about her as fuel for her work ethic.

"I'm a fighter," she explained. "I take stuff like that and I do use it as motivation. That's how I've always been. There are always people saying what another person can't do. I just hate that word and for someone else to tell me what I'm not able to do or capable of. All of that is motivation."

It wasn't just Willingham's height that she had to battle. Doubters also wondered whether she could return after taking a year off while at Auburn to give birth to her son, Derrick. Willingham, who was coming off a promising freshman year, came back to finish her career and make the All-SEC First team as a senior, averaging 16.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

"The most difficult part of that was probably being back in my hometown and going through people looking at me and thinking that I made the biggest mistake of my life," recalled Willingham. "Losing the weight and getting back in shape, that was hard, but once I dropped the first 10 pounds and I started seeing results, that motivated me even more. I got back to where I needed to be."

Willingham gets a little emotional talking about her son, who is finishing the school year before joining her in Seattle. She calls Derrick "probably the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"He's a mini-me, and he's been everywhere with me," said Willingham. "I raised him in school, and so he's been a part of basketball and sports since he was three months old. He loves it. He'll be here soon, so he's got to get to know everybody and learn to cheer for his new team. It is tough (to be apart), but we have our agreement. We talk every day. I was going to bring him early, but he wanted to go to field day and play his last flag football game."

All of Willingham's hard work and dedication has paid off, and she'll get one tangible symbol of her success at Saturday's game when she is presented with her championship ring. The returning Phoenix players received theirs from WNBA President Donna Orender last Saturday before the Mercury's opening win over the Los Angeles Sparks, which Willingham watched on ESPN2.

Storm Head Coach Brian Agler, who is only a couple of years removed from going back to San Antonio for the first time after a successful stint as an assistant coach with the Silver Stars, has seen that kind of situation become difficult for players.

"I'm sure they'll do that right before the game so they can try to distract her," Agler joked. "I know it's always difficult to go back and play your first game at a place where you've just played. I've not seen many people go in that environment and play real well. I have seen one - Becky Hammon went back to New York and played real well. In most cases, it's a tough deal. It's a distraction and there's more than going in and focusing on the game. You've got former friends, fans that know you, a variety of things."

For her part, Willingham understands the importance of the task at hand.

"It will be fun to see old faces," she said, "but at the end of the day I'm there to do a job and we're there to play a game that is very important, another Western Conference game for us and it's a road game."