Braxton surprised by first All-Star berth

All-Star Picks Not Shocking

After losing three of her last four games and having just endured a rigorous practice on Independence Day morning, it’s understandable why Cheryl Ford didn’t sound very enthusiastic about her selection as an All-Star starter for the Eastern Conference in the WNBA All-Star Game July 15.

There was another reason, too.

“I’ve been there four times,” said the Shock forward. “It’s a great experience for all of us. The fans voted us in, the starters. We’re just going to try to go in and play our game and give them a good show.”

Though the Detroit Shock appear to be the All-Star darlings, receiving three starting nods for Ford, guard Deanna Nolan and center Kara Braxton with head coach Bill Laimbeer’s staff on the East sideline, there was hardly any buzz about it at Wednesday’s practice.

Laimbeer said the selections, which were announced Tuesday, simply affirmed his team’s high public visibility after last season’s championship run. “We’ve had multiple All-Stars before. Having three starters means that we were in the Finals, won a championship and the general public can associate with those names,” said Laimbeer, himself a four-time NBA All-Star center with the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s. “We’re a good team, we have good players, and we’re on TV a lot.”

Laimbeer cited that extra exposure as a plausible explanation for the stunning development of Braxton’s first career All-Star berth. “Name recognition, team recognition I think is what really propelled her to this opportunity,” said Laimbeer, who promoted Braxton to the starting lineup in the off-season after trading Ruth Riley.

Whatever the case may be, Braxton happily accepted it. She seemed genuinely touched by the news. “I was (surprised), that just shows how much support I have,” Braxton said, with a laugh. “I’m glad that it is fan-based, because if it wasn’t, I don’t think I’d be going.”

The third-year center from Georgia is averaging 6.3 points (actually lower than her 6.9 ppg in 2005) and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting only 38.3 percent from the field. Yet not only was Braxton the top voters’ choice at center, she had been the leading vote getter overall heading into the final days of balloting.

“For me being the first-time All-Star, it’s great because I’ll feel so much more comfortable,” Braxton said of having her teammates and coaches with her. There is an additional possibility that the other Shock starters, Katie Smith and Swin Cash, and forward Plenette Pierson will receive All-Star consideration as reserves. Those selections will be announced July 9. “I’ll be there with Cheryl and Tweety and then Bill and Rick and Cheryl, so I’ll feel like I’m right at home.”

Laimbeer and assistant coaches Rick Mahorn and Cheryl Reeve earned their All-Star nods by virtue of being the reigning Eastern Conference champions. Laimbeer was denied the privilege after the 2003 title because the 2004 Summer Olympics wiped out the event.

Ford and Nolan – who both represented the Shock in 2003, 2005 and 2006 – are 1-2 in the midseason event. The East lost in 2003 and 2005 but won last year, 98-82. “We want to win again, of course, because we won last year so we want to continue to keep our little winning streak going,” Ford said. “But we’re just going to go out and have fun. It’s a game where you have fun and try to stay injury-free and go out and just show the fans the players that they voted in as All-Stars.”

“Injury-free” is the priority for Ford, who has missed six of the Shock’s 15 games thus far due to a sprained left knee. When healthy, Ford has been putting up near her career bests at 13.0 points and10.2 rebounds per game. She’s also shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.

Nolan, who scored a game-high 20 points in the 2005 contest, will be making her first All-Star Game start in four trips. The seventh-year guard is averaging 16.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds this season.

Braxton, whose casual on-court demeanor has frustrated Laimbeer in even his coolest moments, said the All-Star distinction has neither saddled her with expectations nor elevated her confidence. “I think the All-Star Game is just more about an accomplishment, to relax and have fun and really soak in being around all the great players and stuff. I don’t look at it like a real serious, competitive game,” Braxton said. “I’m sure we’ll take it seriously, but I’m just happy that I made the team.”