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The year was 1993 and a 23-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin had all but given up on the game of basketball.
What’s transpired over the next two decades is something that not even an English writing and rhetoric major like McWilliams-Franklin -- one who was planning for a life without basketball in her early-20s -- could have conceived.
The short version: Less than two months shy of her 42nd birthday, McWilliams-Franklin is still playing professional basketball.
In 1993, however, McWilliams-Franklin, who was playing in Europe after starring at St. Edward’s, wasn’t even sure she’d make it to 1994.
“After my first year overseas I didn’t think I’d make it past 25,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “I tore all the ligaments in both my ankles and I had a meniscus tear in my knee so I had to have three surgeries in three months… This was my first year overseas in Germany and I said I’m done with this basketball. I want to finish my degree.”
About a year later, she got a call from an agent of a friend saying that he needed a replacement for an injured player on a team in Luxembourg. Relatively healthy -- at least by her standards -- McWilliams decided to “give it a shot”.
What has resulted from that fateful decision is a career that has spanned 17 years of professional basketball in the United States, almost as many winters playing overseas, more than 13,000 minutes of WNBA play and, amidst all that, the birth of three children.
And now, a player who came dangerously close to giving up the game 19 years ago ranks as one of the greatest rebounders -- and leaders -- the league’s ever had. For McWilliams-Franklin, that all comes down to one word: preparation.
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve called McWilliams-Franklin a “consummate pro” and “one of the smartest players to ever play in the WNBA.” She also praised her player’s willingness to watch game tape on her own time – something that’s not always common among other players.
“We’re going to play San Antonio next so I’ve already watched their last game and tonight I’ll go home and watch their last game against us and then I’ll watch their last game against L.A. because they’re trying to catch us and they play similar to us,” said McWilliams-Franklin the day before her record-setting performance against San Antonio, a game in which she also scored a season-high 19 points.
The offensive rebounding record McWilliams now holds has as much to do with longevity as it does pure rebounding prowess, and McWilliams-Franklin takes pride in the fact that she’s been able to keep her body in shape and play for so long. Years ago, she started paying attention to everything she eats. And as her career went on, she learned how to pace herself to make sure she doesn’t overwork her battle-tested body.
“The thing is that she takes care of her body,” Reeve said. “She pays attention to what she eats and takes care of herself on the physical side of things. And she’s so smart. She knows when to play. She doesn’t waste any energy. If there’s not a purpose, she’s not gonna do it.”
“My superstition is to not ever do anything remotely resembling a routine. It’s actually a superstition of no superstition,” she joked. “I could wake up one morning and we could do shootaround and I could go to the mall for four hours. I’ll wake up another morning and get on the couch and sleep for five hours before the game. I might go to the movies and watch a movie before the game and eat popcorn. I am so all over the place and I think that helps you from becoming complacent and sometimes becoming burned out. I’m always switching it up to make sure I stay fresh, and happy and competitive.”
But if the game-day routine’s varied, the results on the court have largely remained the same. A model of consistency and production, McWilliams-Franklin is only 57 points away from becoming the tenth player in league history to reach the 5,000-point plateau and now sits just 28 total rebounds shy of joining Lisa Leslie (3,307) as the only WNBA players to record 3,000 boards.
When it comes to attacking the glass, McWilliams-Franklin is a student of the game. The 6-foot-2 forward/center makes up for her admitted lack of leaping ability with intelligence.
“She’s a player that understands angles, timing, those types of things,” Reeve said. “One of the things about Taj is that she’s very athletic and she saves it for the right moment. She doesn’t waste any energy. If she’s around the basket she’s going to find an angle, have a burst and go get the ball.”
“It’s huge,” Whalen said of her McWilliams-Franklin’s penchant for securing offensive rebounds. “She can really make the extra possession for us and get that rebound. She’s like having another point guard out on the floor, too. She makes a lot happen. She knows every play. She knows every position and where every player should be every possession. That makes it a lot easier for me being the point guard.”
A cerebral player on the court, McWilliams-Franklin has as many intellectual pursuits off it. She continues to write poetry and short stories. She’s always wanted to be in the FBI, but fears her age will sideline that dream. And she’s still seriously considering law school -- she even took the LSAT a few years ago.
“I still have a lot of my dreams left,” she said. “Basketball has been a great opportunity for me to realize a lot of dreams and I continue to dream big. It’s not the end of my life when I stop playing, it’s just the beginning of a new chapter for me.”
Armed with that ability to refocus and create a life post-basketball, something she thought would’ve started 20 years ago, it’s almost as if that when her career is over, her life -- just as she’s facilitated on the basketball court so many times -- is just starting an extra possession.