Looking Back: Le'Coe Willingham in 2012

Looking Back: Le'Coe Willingham in 2012

Willingham arrived to Chicago in a January 2012 trade that also brought All-Star and Olympian Swin Cash from Seattle. Willingham and Cash were members of the WNBA champion Storm in 2010, while Willingham earned another ring as a full-time starter for the 2009 champions, Phoenix Mercury. So it’s no secret that the Sky, in trading for two-time gold medalist Cash, were equally excited to land a key ingredient in Willingham in their quest to bring the WNBA title to Chicago.

In 2012, Willingham appeared in all but one game, averaging 3.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and one assist per game. Her minutes often fluctuated depending on matchups and the flow of the game, but her average of 18.5 minutes was sixth highest on the team – a fitting figure considering her sixth man-like status in providing a much needed spark off the bench. The fact that the nine-year veteran quickly earned a rotation spot was a testament to Sky coach Pokey Chatman’s confidence in Willingham’s role as part of the second line of defense. Her willingness to hustle, hit a timely 3-pointer, play post-up defense, and do all the little, unheralded things are the trademarks that make Willingham indispensable. “I’ll do whatever those little things could be – that screen that gives someone a wide-open jump shot, hustling to get that rebound, just being a vocal leader,” she said.

Willingham’s style of play has often been compared to fellow Auburn University alum – Charles Barkley. Barkley was an undersized post player with a relentless nose for the ball, a type of player Willingham says is a “dying breed” in today’s WNBA. After going undrafted in 2004, Willingham latched on with the Connecticut Sun when head coach Mike Thibault saw that she had a certain fire in her eye. “Back then I might’ve had a chip on my shoulder trying to prove everyone wrong as a 6-foot post player,” Willingham said. “It hurt (not getting drafted), but I got to sit down and look at these teams and decide where I wanted to go.” In her heyday, Willingham averaged 10 points and six boards a game – numbers Sir Charles would be proud of – but perhaps even more impressive has been her transformation over the years as the game has evolved.

Centers such as Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, Candace Parker and, soon, Baylor’s Brittney Griner – who all soar well over six feet – dominate the paint in today’s landscape. Willingham adapted, in part, by becoming a perimeter threat and one of the Sky’s premier 3-point shooters. Willingham’s finest performance came on July 1 against Atlanta, when she nailed a career-high 3-of-5 treys to help the Sky overcome a 14-point deficit to win, 71-69. She finished with 11 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. Willingham also proved unselfish with the ball as she recorded 31 assists this year, the third-highest mark in her career. And when the WNBA season reconvened after a month-long Olympics break, Willingham showed she had kept her game sharp over the summer. In the Sky’s first game back on August 17 versus Atlanta, she put up 11 points, four assists and two rebounds. The next game at Washington, she contributed 11 points, five boards and two assists.

Willingham is certainly talented on the court, but that talent might be superseded by her hard work and passion for the game. Willingham rarely takes a break away from hoops. Throughout the off-seasons, she has played in Israel, Turkey and Spain, where she led Halcon Avenida to the 2009 Euroleague Final Four before bowing to Spartak Moscow. In the U.S., Willingham says she and her 11-year-old son, Derrick, have been warmly welcomed in Connecticut, Phoenix, Seattle and now Chicago. “I’ve had a good relationship with every coach and every organization I’ve ever played for,” she said. “I love basketball. I love to think it, play it, live it.”