Wednesday, September 7, 2005
'Senior Seven' more than just sentimental favorites
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
Sacramento's Kara Lawson remembers exactly what initially got her into this sport. The "reason" will be wearing jersey No. 4 for the Houston Comets in the Western Conference finals against Lawson's Monarchs.
She's an Olympic gold medalist and NCAA player of the year. But Houston's Dawn Staley has yet to win a WNBA crown.
"I became interested in women's basketball because of Dawn Staley," said Lawson, who grew up in Virginia. Like so many kids in that region during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lawson was mesmerized by the U.Va. guard. "I was in third, fourth, fifth grade, and that was when Virginia was going to three Final Fours in a row. Those were the basketball camps I went to. I was enamored with Dawn and the things she could do with the ball."
Now, of course, Lawson plays with someone who's a college contemporary of Staley's and a fellow Olympian: Monarchs center Yolanda Griffith.
"Yo is the best player I've ever played with," said Lawson, the former Tennessee standout. "Her game has no ego. She doesn't care who scores or who makes the great play. She's unbelievable catching the ball -- you can throw her a terrible pass and she's like a vacuum and can go catch it. She's great on defense, reading things, a great passer. She's unbelievable to play with."
Griffith and Staley are both 35; they are among seven players aged 34 years or over spread among the four remaining playoff teams. We'll dub them the "Senior Seven." The oldest is Houston's Tari Phillips, who turned 36 in March and is just more than a month older than teammate Janeth Arcain. For those of us born in what now seems like the ancient 1960s, Phillips and Arcain are our representatives in the postseason, since they checked into the world in 1969.
Three players are 34: Connecticut's Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Indiana's Natalie Williams and Houston's Sheryl Swoopes. McWilliams-Franklin will be 35 in October, Williams in November and Swoopes next March.
Only in sports are you "old" in your mid-30s. And in some sports, that's older than in others. Andre Agassi, once the essence of youth, now at 35 seems like some kind of supernatural time traveler at the U.S. Open, with his tennis contemporaries long since retired.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who turns 35 next month, hopes to lead the Sun to their first title.
In women's hoops, the Senior Seven just don't seem as old in their sport as Agassi does in his. In fact, you could make a good case for three of them -- Swoopes, Griffith and McWilliams-Franklin -- as the league MVP. Age takes a toll on everyone, and yet this group of players keeps taking a toll on their competitors.
But of the seven, only two have WNBA championships: Swoopes and Arcain, with four apiece in their time with the Comets. Swoopes, of course, also won an NCAA championship at Texas Tech.
Staley fell short at Virginia in her three Final Four appearances. Griffith was recruited by Iowa but didn't play there, spending her college career at Palm Beach (Fla.) Junior College and then Division II Florida Atlantic.
Phillips played at Georgia and Central Florida. Williams won two NCAA volleyball titles at UCLA, but the Bruins' basketball team made the NCAA Tournament just once in her time there. McWilliams-Franklin played for NAIA school St. Edwards.
So for those five, a WNBA title would be the biggest team accomplishment in their careers, short of the Olympics (Phillips and McWilliams-Franklin are the only ones of the seven who haven't been Olympians).
"Obviously, whether you're a rookie or veteran, it's very special," Swoopes said of winning a WNBA title. "The older you get, the more experienced you get, as your time starts to wind down, it's more special."
The Senior Seven bring so much to their teams. For the Comets, Swoopes does everything, of course. I gave the MVP nod on ESPN.com a few weeks ago to Seattle's Lauren Jackson. Now, I'd change that vote to Swoopes.
Arcain's value was never more apparent than last season, when she stayed with her Brazilian national team because of the Olympics -- and Houston didn't make the playoffs. Staley has become the Comets' stabilizing force on and off the court. Phillips provides depth and experience inside for Houston.
McWilliams-Franklin has been the key inside presence for Connecticut, as has Griffith for Sacramento. With the ankle injury to point guard Ticha Penicheiro that might keep her out all of this series, even more weight falls on Griffith to keep the Monarchs as cohesive as they've been.
"Losing TP is tough," Lawson said, "but with Yo, you always have a chance."
Williams, meanwhile, is a dependable force in the paint for Indiana.
"When Natalie first came to training camp [this season], she'd hurt her knee and I didn't know if she was going to be able to play," Fever coach Brian Winters said. "We nursed it through training camp, and as the season has gone along she's gotten in better condition. She's playing the best basketball of the year at the end of this season.
"I don't think there is anybody as strong as her in the WNBA. She can really move people around. She creates a lot of space to rebound."
McWilliams-Franklin was pragmatic about the experience factor that older players bring, saying coaches like to have it but "I don't think it's a key component to having a championship team."
Maybe not if all that an older player brings is her experience. But, again, the Senior Seven has far, far more than that. And at least one of them is going to win her first WNBA title.
The neat thing is that no matter who it is, WNBA followers will be happy for her -- even if she beats their team to get it. Because that's the kind of respect this group has earned.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.