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Keeper Of The Flame PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 27 September 2012 04:37

Los Angeles Sparks’ forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, the lone connection to the team’s championship past, continues to play at a high level at age 38


Big Ups - The Sparks' DeLisha Milton-Jones takes a moment to celebrate with teammate Alana Beard during a recent game. Milton-Jones is the last remaining player from the Sparks' 2001 and 2002 WNBA championship teams.

Will the last be first? Will DeLisha Milton-Jones, the sole remaining player from the Los Angeles Sparks' two WNBA championship teams, be getting a third ring?

She and the Sparks will find out starting tonight, Sept. 27, as they begin the league's Western Conference semifinal playoffs against the San Antonio Stars. Game One of the best-of-three series begins at 7 p.m. in USC's Galen Center. It will also be televised by ESPN2.

A third ring would cap a career for Milton-Jones that is noteworthy in its accomplishments and longevity.

At 38, Milton-Jones is completing her 16th professional season, 14 of them in the WNBA. According to league officials, only seven active players – Tully Bevilaqua, Becky Hammon and Tangela Smith of San Antonio, Ticha Penicheiro of Chicago, Taj McWilliams- Franklin of Minnesota, and Katie Smith and Tina Thompson of Seattle – have played as long or longer in the WNBA. Thompson is the only remaining active player in the WNBA since its inception in 1997.

Remarkably, Milton-Jones shows little wear and tear from the years of nearly year-round play both here and abroad. The 6-feet-1, 175-pound physique is taut; her face remains free of lines. Her hair shows no touch of grey.

"Oh they're in there," Milton- Jones said of her hair. "They're just covered up right now." Even if her hair were white, her heart and energy remain at youthful levels when it comes to basketball.

"I just love this game, I love winning, and having the opportunity to win," she said. "That's something I cherish every day I come to practice; it's an opportunity to get better, a chance to get closer to a chance at winning.

That's what motivates me." She said she is enjoying this collection of Sparks, which includes former league MVP Candace Parker; seasoned veterans Alana Beard and Ebony Hoffman; Kristi Toliver, who's having a breakout season in her third year, and exciting rookie Nneka Ogumike.

As a team, the Sparks finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak. Their 24-10 record is third best overall in the league behind defending champion Minnesota (27-7) and Connecticut (25-9). Los Angeles was second in the Western Conference behind Minnesota, and has the home court advantage against San Antonio.

When asked if the team is capable of winning a title, Milton-Jones said yes, adding that dethroning Minnesota as league champion is not a lock. "I think we have pieces," she said in assessing the Sparks. "We're not a connective 'group' yet, but we have pieces. We do have a slew of talent, athleticism and versatility. And when we add effort and aggressiveness defensively, then any game is ours.

"Now when it comes to how the team is built, I feel we're missing that [true] point guard. Kristi is an unconventional [point], really a [shooting] guard. We need to be setting screens for her, let her catch and shoot. That's her real strength. I don't want to take anything away from the tremendous season she's had. But in my heart of hearts, I know what championship teams look like, and you really need a [point guard] and a center. We have Candace at center. We need someone who can direct traffic, who is vocal.

Kristi is very reserved; she's a silent assassin. Her focus needs to be like a sniper at the basket and not have to take care of the others.

"And I tell her that."

Still, when she looks around the Sparks locker room these days, Milton-Jones can't help at times mentally drifting back to when the Sparks went to three consecutive finals and won two WNBA championships from 2001-2003.

"It feels just like yesterday," she said. "Where's Lisa (Leslie)? Where's Tamecka (Dixon)? Mwadi (Mabika)? They're supposed to be here, too.

"Sometimes I feel a little out of place, because the people I came in with are not here. Like, where is everybody? But then again, it's appealing to me, because I'm seeing other generations' come and go. And it makes me feel good about myself that I'm still relevant, even in this day and age, with the new crop of players coming into the league. I feel I was born at the right time."

A Starter Milton-Jones is not gravytraining her way to the postseason with fill-in minutes here and there off the bench. She is a starter, averaging 10 points and 4.4 rebounds, and she's the only Spark to start every game this season.

She's playing a new position, going from power forward to small forward. To better understand the switch, Milton-Jones has moved from under the basket to defend out on the perimeter. The players she guards are often smaller, and can also be quicker and younger.

She can physically frustrate them with an 84-inch wingspan, giving her the reach of a sevenfooter; add relentless pursuit and a fiery competitive nature, and Milton-Jones can make it an aggravating night for most opponents.

Hoffman and Beard know those sides of Milton-Jones firsthand. Beard, who signed with the Sparks as a free agent after missing the 2011 season with a foot injury, came into the league in 2004 with Washington. Milton- Jones would join her on the Mystics a year later after being traded by Los Angeles.

"She's extremely competitive and hates to lose," Beard said. "If anybody came at her with any kind of competition, whether it's a teammate or opponent, she goes right back at you.

"I feel now that she's calmed down a lot. I remember in D.C., I'd see her going towards the refs and my immediate reaction would be 'Nooooooooo!!' And soon enough, she'd get a technical – because she's extremely competitive. She's going to fight until the end."

Like Beard, Hoffman came into the league in 2004 but with Indiana. She clearly remembers what it was like battling Milton- Jones for points and rebounds.

The scouting report was always the same," said Hoffman, who joined the Sparks last year. "She's feisty, a battler, there are no friends on the court with her. Off the court she's the nicest, most humble human being. But on the court – D-Nasty."

Hoffman, a power forward, is impressed with how Milton- Jones made the position switch for the Sparks.

"For her to still be in this league and change positions at the latter part of her career is remarkable," Hoffman said. "People don't usually go 'up.' It's a totally different position for her. You'd almost expect her to go to (center) where you don't have to move as much or run that far. But she's now playing the (small forward). To me, that's a feat in itself."

Great Resume To go through and digest Milton-Jones' basketball resume would take as long as reading "War And Peace" one page a night. But the highlights are fabulous. At the University of Florida, where she helped the Gators reach four NCAA Tournaments, Milton-Jones was a two-time first team all-SEC selection and a 1997 All-American. She won the Wade Trophy that year, symbolic of the top Division I women's player. She also graduated with a degree in sports management, and a minor in mass communications.

Her first two professional years were in Portland with the American Basketball League (ABL), which began in 1996, a year before the WNBA was formed. When the ABL folded after its 1998 season, the Sparks selected Milton-Jones fourth in the 1999 WNBA supplemental draft. This is her second goround in Los Angeles; she was traded to Washington in 2005 for Chamique Holdsclaw, and traded back in 2008 by the Mystics for McWilliams- Franklin.

Milton-Jones has won championships on several levels. In addition to the WNBA titles with the Sparks in 2001 and 2002, she's been a member of the U.S. gold medal Olympics teams in 2000 and 2008, and its FIBA World Championship teams in 1998 and 2002.

Coaching? Jones has done that too – a men's team when another American Basketball Association league briefly surfaced in 2005. Unfortunately that team only played six games before folding because team ownership was bouncing checks better than the players dribbled the ball.

Did she imagine this life as a little girl back in Riceboro, GA, where she was born?

"There's no way possible I could have seen this happening to me," Milton-Jones said. "There weren't that many opportunities for me. When I was in college, I was planning to go overseas (to play) or working a 9-to-5 job. But lo and behold the WNBA came along.

"I didn't know how long my career would be. No one ever told me a number. So I've kept going with the flow and loving what I'm doing."

What Makes Her Special Carol Ross is in her first year coaching the Sparks. But she was Milton-Jones' coach at Florida, and recruited her to the university.

She said she hasn't seen much change in who Milton-Jones is, or how she competes.

"The same things I love coaching about her now are the same things I loved evaluating her as a recruit," Ross said, the words rolling gently off of her Mississippi drawl. "She plays with great enthusiasm. It doesn't matter if DeLisha has fouled out of the game or is in the middle of the game. She is emotionally invested.

"She's going to be the best cheerleader on the bench. She's going to be enthusiastic on the court. She brings such joy and passion to the game. She has great energy. She plays hard. She was a good leader in college and she's still a good leader."

Indefatigable? "That's a good word," said Ross, chuckling. Milton-Jones is also at that stage where she's being coached by those she played against, like Sandy Brondello, who's spent 12 years in the WNBA as a player and coach.

"She's the ultimate professional," said Brondello, an Australian native now in her second season with the Sparks. "She takes care of her body, she's a competitor; she wants to win.

When I played against Dee, she was all those things too. I'd rather be coaching her than playing against her, put it that way, because she's tough. She's got that edge about her that makes her special."

All Around Player Milton-Jones is not a huge scorer in the WNBA, averaging 12 points a game in her career. But she's also never been the first scoring option either. With the Sparks it was first Leslie, then Holdsclaw, and now Parker and Toliver. In Washington, it was Beard.

But she plays a complete game – passing, shooting, rebounding and defending. And she plays a team game. Whatever Ross needs from her that night, Milton-Jones is happy to oblige. Milton-Jones also commands player respect in the locker room.

"She's intense and it transfers," Beard said. "She's very wise in the things she says and she chooses her words carefully.

And they mean a lot. You look at Dee and understand she's been an Olympian; she's been in this league a long time; she's gone through the ABL, she has international experience. And if you're not willing to [learn] from the stuff that comes out of her mouth, something's wrong with you."

Hoffman concurs. "She's such a leader that you listen to every word she says. She's been through the fire. We're trying to get to the finals, the championship. You always want to listen to somebody who has been there and who's won."

Milton-Jones knows she can't play forever. "I know I'm on that last straightaway; the finish line is up the street," she said. She and her husband of nine years, former NBA player Roland Jones, talk often about the next phase of her life – maybe coaching, maybe broadcasting as a game analyst, and maybe starting a sports academy.

"I want to give something back because the game's given me so much," Milton-Jones said.

But not now. There's still a spring in the step, a desire to compete. Whatever the ending to this season, Milton-Jones wants to keep playing in 2013.

"I definitely want to come back next year because, honestly, I feel great," she said. "I don't feel like I'm 38, and I hope I don't look at play like I'm 38. I know that I can still play this game at a high level because usually, when you're at the point I am at my career, people try to cover you up – hide you.

"Things have gotten harder for me because they moved me from the paint to the wing. I'm guarding guards and small forwards for 40 minutes now.

Before it was maybe 20. But that's a testament to my work ethic, and the things I do to make sure I can compete at a high level."

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 September 2012 04:40