The Rise of Seimone Augustus

Oct 2 2011 1:19AM

MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. -- A few months before the most successful season in Seimone Augustus’s professional career, she got a letter from a fan.

In it, the fan told her that if Augustus were to play as hard as she could on both sides of the floor, the Minnesota Lynx’ star guard would be “truly unstoppable.”

Augustus took it to heart, much more than the average fan letter. Largely because it was sent by Tamika Catchings.

“I stopped right there,” Augustus said. “I’m thinking, like, the player that Catch is, all the accolades she’s won – numerous Defensive Player of the Year awards – for her to use the word ‘unstoppable,’ she must be seeing something that I don’t see in myself.”

Then a teammate of Catchings’ on Galatasaray, a powerhouse in the Turkish Basketball League, Augustus spent the rest of the summer getting beat up by the 2011 WNBA MVP in practice. When Augustus had the ball, there was Catchings. When Catchings had the ball, the implication was clear: Augustus better be there, too.

“If you know Catchings, you know what kind of player she is,” Augustus said. “I got pushed every day in practice, so I had no choice but to come back here better than what I was before.”

Augustus’ trip to the summit of the WNBA – she’s the leading scorer for the team with the best record in the WNBA, playing for her (and the franchise’s) first-ever title – has taken a little longer than she would have liked. It’s taken a little longer than many of her fans would have liked, too, as she suffered through five straight losing seasons (and a combined 63-107 record) in Minnesota after becoming the No. 1 overall pick in 2006.

But in 2011, everything – at last – came together, for essentially the first time since high school, when she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids under the headline “Is This the Next Michael Jordan?” In college, the two-time National Player of the Year brought L.S.U. to the Final Four three times, but never reached the championship game. Then the losing started. And through it all, Augustus did virtually everything right, as so much around her went wrong.

“It’s just great to see her enjoying the season and playing so well,” said Lynx teammate and Rookie of the Year Maya Moore. “Having to overcome so many things that I don’t think a lot of people even realized were going on, it’s just one of those feel-good stories that you see.”

Which is why it seems like so long ago that Augustus came into the 2010 season 20 pounds overweight and then spent the whole year trying to catch up and trusting-trusting-trusting that she’d return to her No. 1 Pick/Future of the Franchise form, even though she wasn’t quite sure she’d ever be able get there again.

“Honestly, Seimone Augustus is one of the most underrated players out there,” said Atlanta Dream star Angel McCoughtry. “They have to give her more love and praise. She’s just awesome. People don’t really understand – Seimone came back from an ACL injury. It’s not easy coming back from an ACL injury, and I’ve never seen somebody come back and destroy the game like she has. People have to give her more props for that.”

The hits came in succession.

Players moved in and out of Minnesota. Coaches, too. The ownership maintained faith in the team, but no amount of faith put enough wins on the board to even send the Lynx to a single Playoff appearance in Augustus’ first five years in Minnesota.

“My dad used to always say ‘You need to learn how to be a good loser before you can be a good winner,’” Augustus said. “I never understood what he meant by that until I got here. It was a very trying time. When you’re losing, nobody’s happy about the situation. You needed to be assured that the team was going in the right direction, that we were gonna try to get the right players here and get the right coaches to get some stability.”

Then her ACL snapped, tearing like a broken contract in a game against the Phoenix Mercury in June of 2009. That took a year to recover from, and even that timetable was a little ambitious.

Knee injuries happen far more often to female athletes than their male counterparts. Especially the ACL, which tears at a rate five times more for women than it does for men, according to a story in the New York Times in 2009.

But for WNBA players, especially ones that play at a level as high as Augustus does, they’re – in some sense – a fact of life. Love of the game equates, far too often, to the inability to play it.

“It’s strenuous on the female’s body to play basketball in general, but with the season we have, where international flows into WNBA and we never really get a break or time to recover from nick-nacking injuries, it ends up being a more significant injury,” Augustus said. “It causes a whole lot of problems, so that’s why we continue to fight to make it so that we can have the option to go overseas and let our bodies recover.”

But she came back. She knew that she wouldn’t have the burst that’d left so many defenders with warped ankles of the years, but she’d work until she got it back.

Then her body let her down again.

She’d had uterine fibroids for a long time, she said, but they never bothered her. Not until she was ready to get back on the court, when they flared up and forced her to have emergency abdominal surgery just before the 2010 season.

“They never gave me any trouble, and it seemed like as soon as I was ready to get back on the court it happened,” Augustus said. “But I just took it and pushed forward.”

“There were a lot of reasons to go hang her head,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It made her more determined. We’re the beneficiary of those things, and it’s been a great summer for her.”

But she still had to lug herself through a 2010 year, and managed to score 16.9 points per game while she was at it (albeit at a career-low 42.9 percent from the field) in 25 games. That gave her 31 games, total, in two years, after she’d missed just three games (and averaged 21.26 points per game) during her pro career.

Then she went overseas and became the property of Tamika Catchings.

“And from that point forward every day [Catchings] came in and she made sure she guarded me on defense,” Augustus said. “She made sure on the offensive end she was coming at me and making me play defense. I kind of took it in and respected the fact that she took me under her wing and tried to make me better.”

And when she got back, committed to a team that had given her a new contract before that tumultuous 2010 season and finally rewarded her with Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, coach Cheryl Reeve and a nice little bit of luck named Maya Moore, the burst was back, too.

“She’s stepped up her game defensively, which has been so key to our team,” Moore said. “It’s amazing how she can come in and just get the job done on defense, and go down and kill people on offense.

“Even if other people don’t recognize it, we see what she does for our team every day in the games,” Moore continued. “She’s always matched up against the other team’s best guard and she’s still leading our team in scoring. It’s really amazing, and I don’t know if she can really appreciate how hard that is from the outside. … It’s just so hard to be that player, and I’m privileged to play with somebody -- like a Tamika Catchings [does] -- who makes it look like it’s easy, but it’s so hard.”

So Augustus isn’t at the peak yet. But, for the first time in years, she’s well on her way.

Said Moore: “I think she’s gonna get even better. That’s the scary part. I don’t think she’s even maxed out. I don’t think she’s even reached the top of what she can do.”

Western Conference

Conference Finals

Conference Semi Finals

Eastern Conference

Conference Finals

Conference Semi Finals