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Tuesday, June 24, 2003
Abrosimova back on track for Lynx

By Pam Schmid
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The bothersome back? Better. The faulty free-throw shooting? Fixed.

Svetlana Abrosimova
Svetlana Abrosimova, right, steals a rebound from Charlotte's Shalonda Enis.
The problems that dogged Svetlana Abrosimova last season appear over -- right?

"Don't say that!'' the 6-foot-2 Lynx forward retorted, only half in jest, upon hearing the optimistic assessment.

Abrosimova will not let positive thoughts burst her bubble of caution this season.

After enduring two WNBA seasons while beset by foot and back problems, Abrosimova grants that she feels healthy again. Consequently, her versatility on the court is back on display this season -- she's gliding down the court in transition; draining feathery 3-pointers; lunging after loose balls and leaping for rebounds.

Abrosimova has thrived under the offensive system of first-year WNBA coach Suzie McConnell Serio, who shifted Abrosimova during the preseason from small forward to power forward and has since decided to keep her there.

"She does so many things well,'' McConnell Serio said. "She's a player who always makes things happen on the floor, offensively and defensively.''

Yet uncertainty lingers for the former Connecticut star. Asked whether she feels she's at her healthiest since the Lynx drafted her two years ago, Abrosimova demurred.

"See, you cannot say that,'' she said, shaking her head, "because last year at this point, I felt great, too. My foot didn't bother me, my back didn't bother me. I felt great. It's the same way now. I don't know how my back is going to handle the season.''

Her caution reflects reality -- and a different mindset from a year ago, when she was averaging 16.8 points over the first eight games of the season. Her lower back periodically had plagued her since college, but she banished thoughts that it might be vulnerable and didn't exercise it or rest it before the season began.

By the time it began bothering her -- about three weeks into the season -- Abrosimova could do little about it.

She couldn't chase after loose balls because it hurt to bend. Her range grew shorter, so she took fewer 3-point shots. She tried to adjust by using her legs more, and pushing with her hands, but it all felt so different.

"I didn't feel like that was me out there,'' she said.

A one-game layoff didn't help, and Abrosimova's minutes and productivity tailed off. Over the final 24 games, she averaged 8.5 points while shooting only 33 percent from the field. Her frustration carried over to free throws; after shooting 72.7 percent from the line her rookie season, she shot only 48 percent last year.

"Because I wasn't healthy, and I knew the team depended on me, and we kept losing,'' she said, "altogether it was just horrible.''

Overcoming hardship isn't new to Abrosimova, who as a shy 17-year-old traveled 8,000 miles to Storrs, Conn., speaking rudimentary English and using a Huskies media guide she barely understood as her base of knowledge.

"I wanted to get high education,'' she said. "None of my family members got it, so I was the only one who could.''

The opportunity came thanks to basketball, a sport thrust upon her as a tall first-grader, when she was selected to attend a special basketball school.

What she lacked in skills she more than made up for in competitive zeal -- evident by the frequent fights she started while scrambling for the ball. Her coaches liked her drive and began working with her more.

Abrosimova's parents knew next to nothing about the sport. So her mother, Ludmila, went to the library and checked out a book of translated stories about NBA stars such as Isiah Thomas and Moses Malone. They set up a basketball net in the family's high-ceilinged living room, and allowed Svetlana to break mirrors and phones while working on her shot.

Abrosimova was a rising star by her teenage years, playing on Russia's junior national team with players two years older. At age 16, she was named MVP of the European Championships for players 18 and younger.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma watched her play on videotape and offered her a scholarship. Although her Russian coach promised Abrosimova she never would play on another national team if she left the country, she called his bluff and packed her bags.

At UConn, basketball was the only easy thing for Abrosimova early on. She had few friends and spent all her time off the court studying -- a page of text taking up to two hours to translate.

"Nobody could help me,'' she said. "Math, chemistry, physics -- all that stuff was easy. But sociology! American students, they didn't even go to class, it was so easy. For me, I couldn't understand it.''

Not until her junior year did Abrosimova begin to come out of her shell -- growing out her pixie hair cut and jawing off at Auriemma in increasingly frequent intervals.

"She began getting sarcastic -- throwing things back at him,'' said Lynx forward Tamika Williams, who played with Abrosimova at UConn. "She'd say 'Yo' a lot -- a lot of slang, New York-type thing. We thought: 'She's American now.' ''

A torn ligament in her left foot slowed Abrosimova's progress as a WNBA rookie. Then came her nagging back problems a year ago.

Now, Abrosimova can point to her newfound caution as a reason to hope for her first injury-free season. Because she knows she no longer can trust her back, knows it could go bad at any minute, she's actually respecting it.

Last season, she went straight from playing overseas to the WNBA -- and refused to rest her back until she had no choice. This season -- aside from the ankle she tweaked in practice last week -- she feels fresh and recovered, having taken a full month off after an eight-month season in Italy.

A less grueling training camp also has helped this season, as have practices that beat up her body less. Unlike last year, she also spends a boring -- but crucial -- hour each day performing back exercises to improve her core strength.

"It's not easy doing the same stuff over and over,'' she said. "But now I'm smart. I'm getting smarter.''

So far, so good.

"I always thought she was a great player,'' McConnell Serio said. "But now that I'm coaching her, I have an even greater appreciation for what she does.''