DeLisha Milton-Jones Looks Back on Her Olympic Experiences
By Mirin Fader
It’s the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia. Three years after the WNBA’s inaugural season, and three years after DeLisha Milton-Jones led Florida to the Elite Eight her senior year, averaging 20 points a contest as a Wade Trophy recipient.
An energetic Milton-Jones springs onto the podium alongside the 11 best women’s basketball players in the country, some of which she’d idolized for years. She looks to her left, and then to her right, as each woman begins to bow her head to have a gold medal draped over them.
It’s her turn. Her first medal, her first time on the U.S. Senior National Team as the third youngest on the squad. With the new weight dangling from her neck, Milton-Jones rises back up, beaming as she feels an array of emotions dissolve into the sound of the national anthem.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to cry, laugh, scream, or just stand there,” Milton-Jones said. “I had this tremendous ball of emotion rumbling inside of me. We put in four years of work for that one moment.”
“I always dreamed of being an Olympian,” she said. “There wasn’t a professional league for women when I was growing up, so the Olympics was all I had. Not even just basketball—I would be inspired by watching Flo-Jo run on T.V. and I said to myself: I have to be there one day.”
The 6’1’’ forward wasn’t a rookie or a veteran by 2000; she thrived somewhere in-between, contributing five points a game as Team USA posted a perfect 8-0 record to win their second consecutive gold after the historic 1996 team did before them.
Dubbed the female equivalent of the 1992 men’s USA “Dream Team,” the 1996 team played for more than a gold medal for the States; they fought to prove the dominant potential of women’s basketball on a global stage, prompting the establishment of the WNBA a year later.
As a beneficiary of her predecessors, Milton-Jones fought to maintain the league amid pressures of declining T.V. contracts and empty arena seats once she joined the Olympic team.
“In 2000, the WNBA was still fresh and new and we had a lot to prove,” she said. “People said to us, ‘A women’s league? It’ll fold—it won’t last,’ and we took that responsibility on our backs to show those people that we may not play above the rim, but we can play this game with passion.”
After winning back-to-back championships with the Sparks in 2001 and 2002, and averaging a then career-high 14 points and 7 rebounds a game in 2003, Milton-Jones was devastated when she tore her ACL and was unable to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
She was determined to come back for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she earned her second gold medal, and Team USA’s fourth consecutive. Team USA again matched their perfect 8-0 record. Although Milton-Jones suffered from a sore achilles, she contributed in any way she could, and most of all, she enjoyed the lasting friendships she made.
“Everyone would hang out in one player’s room in the hotel and invent games like ‘Make me laugh,’ ” she said. “But here was the catch: they made me go in the center of the room and be the one to make everyone crack up. There was no twitter or facebook back then, just people having a good time, laughing, dancing, making up skits. We still talk about those times to this day.”
The Olympics also gave Milton-Jones a platform to transform from a newcomer into a seasoned vet in the span of eight years.
“In 2000, I was wide-eyed and busy soaking up everything from the legends around me,” she said. “Teresa Edwards, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley—I had never seen players play with the intensity that they did, and I tried to do everything that they did.”
“When they got mad on the court, I got mad. When they got serious, I got serious,” Milton-Jones laughs. “I knew I needed to learn from them. I’m so grateful to those women for taking me under their wing and showing me all they possibly could, and for all they have done for the sport.”
Now in her 14th WNBA season, Milton-Jones feels content to pass on the torch to a younger generation of USA women’s basketball players, including teammate Candace Parker who is currently representing Team USA in the 2012 Olympics in London.
“I think USA basketball is in good hands,” Milton-Jones said. “There will always be talent, but what separates these players is that they have learned from enough veterans how to conduct themselves in the Olympic environment. We have a winning tradition, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”