Minnesota Lynx Off-Day Report: Oct. 3, 2011

Oct 3 2011 8:35PM
Take it from Mama Taj

They know how to do it in Texas. Low and slow. Lots of smoke. Brisket cut against the grain.

The barbecue’s so good in the Lone Star State that somebody was caught trying to smuggle it out the Dallas/Fort Worth airport a few years ago.

But Texas native Taj McWilliams-Franklin doesn’t want anything to do with it.

“I tell everybody that when I gave up eating red meat, it put 10 years on my game, and that was eight years ago,” she said.

“So maybe I have two more left? Wait, that doesn’t sound right,” she added with a laugh.

Maybe it’s worth listening to her. At 40, and 41 in a little over two weeks, the oldest player in the WNBA isn’t just playing in the WNBA Finals – she’s a central part of a Lynx team out for its first-ever crown. And not only did she pull down 10 rebounds to go along with eight points on Sunday, she did so with a stomach bug that nearly required a halftime IV to treat.

“I probably won’t be on Taj’s level [when I’m her age],” said 26-year-old Dream star Angel McCoughtry. “That’s like a freak of nature, how she can go that long and still contribute the way she has.”

Things she learned how to do long ago – like how to stretch every morning and obey your trainers and completely avoid red meat – have kept her going at an age when most athletes, male or female, have taken up fantasy sports.

“Nutrition, for me, is the most important thing,” she said.

“It really helps knowing what you can eat, when not to eat,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “Eating after a certain point at night never happens. I eat ice late at night so I won’t have to eat real food. It’s about just being aware of what you put into your body and the portions. … [But in Minnesota] you gotta eat to put on a layer of fat in the winter here, so that’s a different story. But I live in Texas, so it’s never cold.”

There’s really never been another way for Mama Taj, as her teammates call her.

She had her first child, Michele, at 17. The second came when she was a freshman at Georgia State College. [For a more detailed story about McWilliams-Franklin’s ability to balance her often-overseas career and family life, read this story in the New York Times from last summer.]

I always had to get back in shape to play after I had my babies. -- Taj McWilliams-Franklin
After she transferred to St. Edward’s, in Austin, Tx., she committed herself to getting into – and staying in – the kind of shape that could provide her with a long career in the game.

“I had kids young, so I always had to get myself back into shape and focus on what I was eating,” she said. “So for me it was easier, because I always had to get back in shape to play after I had my babies.”

That meant, of course, watching her diet. But it also meant getting crafty as she got older, using more and more techniques to stave off the aging process in a way that even former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura raved about.

“Every morning, I get up to stretch. Yoga. Pilates – all that stuff keeps me flexible, so after a long game, you don’t wake up the next day and it’s hard to get out of bed,” she said.

“I do extra stretching, therapy, keeping up at home [with treatment] like you’re supposed to – those are the things you have to do to keep your body running like a well-oiled machine,” she said. “Or else it’s gonna give out on you. It’s gonna start conking out.”

Adair Answers the Wake-Up Call

But even McWilliams-Franklin raves about what’s happened to Jessica Adair.

Or, rather, what’s left of Jessica Adair.

Somewhere in the past two years, 70 pounds have come off the Lynx’s backup center and first player off the bench. Their last known whereabouts were Adair’s basement, where, since 2009, she’s done things that she absolutely abhors.

P90X. Insanity. And that’s just the brand-name stuff. She’s also done good old generic, awful sprints – a whole lot of them.


Adair goes up for two of her six points on Sunday.
NBAE via Getty Images
This is all because, two years ago, Jess Adair wasn’t good enough for the WNBA. At least according to the team that drafted her, the Phoenix Mercury, who cut her after the ’09 camp because she couldn’t keep up with the pace of play and was, by her own admission, far from the shape she had to be in.

“It was a huge wake-up call,” Adair said. “Once I had gotten drafted, I thought I was in – that it was a foot in the door and that’s all I had to do, and then I’d get better once I was here.”

So, she figured, that was the end of that. She’d had a great, but far from illustrious, career at George Washington University, where she finished 11th all-time in scoring. So she did what basically every mid-major grad does: leave the game and get a job.

“It was tough [getting cut] – I took it pretty hard for a month or two,” Adair said. “But then I got a job … and I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

So, in order to get to the point where she could do what she did want to do…she then spent the next year doing exactly the opposite.

She stopped eating red meat. And pork. And said goodbye to sugar.

“I’m a big sweets eater,” she said.

And then the sprints. And workout tapes. In a basement.

“It was tough, but in the end I knew it would pay off, so it was worth it,” she said.

Finally, after playing overseas, Adair got the invite to come out to Lynx training camp in 2010, largely because Minnesota Cheryl Reeve was “looking for bodies” and had a connection at GW, where she’d once coached under longtime head coach Joe McKeown.

McKeown told Reeve to take a look at Adair, and Reeve agreed to give it a shot.

“Without that connection to GW and Joe McKeown, I don’t know that Jess would’ve landed here,” Reeve said.

So Adair, who by the spring of 2010 had lost around 40-50 pounds already, showed up at Lynx camp that May. She was still a half-step behind the game, and probably couldn’t be counted on for anything close to extended minutes, but she still left a mark on Reeve.

“Great instincts for the game,” Reeve said. “Even though she was kind of wet behind the ears, [it was because] she was coming to training camp and just wasn’t used to the WNBA.”

Reeve told Adair that she didn’t have a spot for her on the team after camp, but that she should “be ready” for a phone call.

Adair was skeptical, she said. “Be ready” can mean a whole lot of different things. But it was a chance to play – a chance to get out of the basement.

“I wanted to be ready, just in case,” Adair said. “And I was.”

[Adair's] elbows were lethal. I think in one day of practice she hit me, Hornbuckle, Lindsay and somebody on her team in the same practice. She was knocking people out. -- Taj McWilliams-Franklin
With two games left in Minnesota’s 2010 season, Adair got the call. Reeve needed someone to fill in on the low post, and Adair fit the bill. She got time in the final game of the 2010 season – 14 minutes exactly, which were, remember, the first 14 minutes of her WNBA career – and pulled down eight rebounds to go with five points.

She got an invite to 2011 camp, with most of those 70 pounds gone.

The rest, you can record in welts.

“We practice men, and she beats them up,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “I think we went at it the first day, and she was hurting everybody the first few days. She wasn’t really used to her body – she had to get used to the new balance and everything, so the first few days of practice were treacherous with Jess.

“Her elbows were lethal,” she continued. “I think in one day of practice she hit me, [Alexis] Hornbuckle, Lindsay [Whalen] and somebody on her team in the same practice. She was knocking people out.”

In other words, she made the team.

But it didn’t stop there, and Adair knew it wouldn’t. She started as the last person on the Lynx bench. The designated clapper.

“In the beginning of the season she was just happy to be here,” Reeve said. “She made the team and it was a celebration – ‘I made the team!’ Then as time went along she emerged as a player that played with energy, and teammates trusted her and all of sudden she’s our first player off the bench.”

On Sunday night, she helped out an ailing McWilliams-Franklin, who was feeling sick from the beginning of the game. In 10 minutes, she picked up six points and five boards to fortify an inside game that effectively won the game for Minnesota.

She played with energy and poise and the kind of experience that comes when you’ve gotten knocked around by both life and European post players, McWilliams-Franklin said.

“She means a lot to us, especially to me, since she’s a center - a true center - and I’m just playing one on TV,” McWilliams-Franklin said.

Right now, they’re all playing on TV. The ESPN Family of Networks, to be exact, and so much of that is because of how deep the Lynx bench goes. And that rotation starts with Adair, and the 70 pounds she left in the basement. “If I hadn’t gotten cut I wouldn’t be here today,” Adair said. “I wouldn’t be in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life. I attribute this all to being cut.” “It’s very encouraging, because a lot of young kids today want things given to them and they don’t want to work hard for it,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “To have Jess Adair not only want something, but work to achieve it, and set a goal and say this is what I want to get to at this point, it says a bunch about the kind of character she has.”

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