Family is the Name of the Game for Mitchell

Leialni Mitchell loves playing with Cappie Pondexter. To be fair, who wouldn't?

There is no denying Pondexter's star power...but over the last three years, Mitchell has shown star qualities of her own. It's not everyday you get a fan "accessory" worn to the arena in one's honor.

Ahh, yes. The now famous, Lei-lani "lei". When asked what she thought of about the fans wearing them to games, Mitchell admits she didn't at first get it...and then saw some messages on Facebook that explained the nod. She talks about the attention with a pretty, unassuming smile.

Her style is West-coast and admittedly, when she was traded to NY from Phoenix back in 2008, she was apprehensive about how far from her home of Kinnetucket, Washington she would be.

Three years later, Liberty fans, adorned in floral applique necklaces (an ode to Mitchell's Pacific roots), can't imagine the team without their 5-foot-5 "Lil-Lani" as one sign adores. And neither can her team.

Pondexter loves being on the floor with Mitchell. There is a mutual respect between these two players, whose chemistry is easy as it is dynamic. Pondexter loves Mitchell's toughness, and can appreciate the adversity her point guard has been able to rise above -- including not letting her size define or defy her (something Pondexter knows a little something about.)

Mitchell, a self-titled tomboy, grew up in a house of athletes watching the NFL and college football regularly. Her dad, Dennis, played football. Her mom, Eleanor Majid, who passed away in 2009, played netball in her native Australia. And her five brothers: Travis, Reggie, Tyler, Troy, and Robbie, all played football and basketball. As the only girl in the family, you can bet that toughness wasn't just a personality trait, it was a form of survival. Mitchell developed thick-skin early on in order to surf the brotherly tide.

Mitchell laughs and shakes her head when she talks about her oldest brother, Travis, who she says never wanted her date when she was in high school, telling boys on the phone that she wasn't home. Mitchell, now 26, says things have changed much since then. Travis, now married, still questions his little sis, telling her she doesn't need them....boys, that is.

But as passionate as he is about her dating life, Mitchell admits, Travis is equally earnest about basketball and is a Liberty fanatic.

The Liberty's trip out to Seattle is a big one for the former Utah point guard, when dozens of friends and family make the three-hour drive to come and cheer on their superstar. "They have already bought their tickets," Mitchell says with a chuckle, reflecting "they are just proud...proud of me...and it's great motivation for me...to give them something to be excited about."

Last year's best three-point shooter credits her family for their support, which has pushed and motivated her throughout her career, and says, "I don't want a sister. I wouldn't have changed anything about it. I love my brothers."

Perhaps the reason she doesn't want a sister is because she's got ten of them with the Liberty.

It's all about relationships for the WNBA 2010 Most Improved Player of the Year, who's game has developed along with her confidence. Mitchell credits Pondexter, who she calls the best one-on-one player in the league if not the world, with making her job "easy", knowing that at any point in a game, she can "run a play for Cappie."

Over the last several years, this team has become Mitchell's family, including the fans, who she calls their sixth man.

After battling back from a pre-season back injury and then returning to a new system under a new coaching staff, Mitchell knows first-hand the many challenges the WNBA presents - different from that overseas or in the college game. She admits, "It's hard," but then focuses on the positive, saying, " we feed off each other for energy...support, and I just that love that about it."