McWilliams-Franklin is strongest Lynx in the chain
You can't walk into a sporting goods store today and buy knee pads like Taj McWilliams-Franklin's. Puffy, rectangular and immaculately white, the pads look so old-timey they could have been chipped off a statue of Bill Russell.
"I have to order them from a small company and get them sent, because nobody has them anywhere," said McWilliams-Franklin, the starting center for the Minnesota Lynx. "I bleach my knee pads to make sure they stay white. I'm really weird about that. I don't like them looking dirty, even though I use them every game. I have to go home and bleach them, bring them back nice and new and white.
"For me, it's about old-school. I love these. These are me."
A 40-year-old mother of three -- hence her nickname, Mama Taj -- McWilliams-Franklin has had a pro career that has taken her through the old American Basketball League (1996-98), the WNBA (since 1999) and just about every European country with a women's pro league. She and Sheryl Swoopes of the Tulsa Shock, also 40, are the oldest players in the WNBA, but only the 6-foot-2 McWilliams-Franklin starts and logs significant minutes.
The only Lynx starter not named to the WNBA All-Star Game, McWilliams-Franklin was averaging 8.7 points and 6.5 rebounds through Aug. 11 for the Western Conference leader. She tops WNBA centers in assists and can still hit a big shot when necessary. McWilliams-Franklin scored a season-high 18 points and sank the game-winning jumper with 1.3 seconds to play in a 62-60 victory over San Antonio on Aug. 4.
"I don't think Taj can retire," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. "She's having too much fun. She's just having a blast with this team. Hopefully, she's got another 10 years in her."
The way McWilliams-Franklin takes care of herself, she just might.
After giving birth to her first two children, McWilliams-Franklin read everything she could about fitness, training and diet. Now, she concentrates more on flexibility and overall conditioning than strength training. Instead of running on a treadmill, she swims. Instead of pounding weights three times a week, like her younger teammates, she favors yoga and Pilates.
"As my body ages, I listen to it, and I tweak and change what I need as far as workouts," she said. "I take my vitamins. I stretch every morning. I eat right. I make sure that I don't put junk into my body. If I do, it's like a present to myself, it's not an everyday thing. I watch my weight. There are controls you have to input if you want to be an elite athlete for a long period of time.
"If you feel like you want to be five years and out, then you can do whatever you want. Don't stretch after games. Don't stretch in the morning. Half-stretch during practice, then run hard. If you're knee's aching, don't say anything, don't ice. Those things catch up to you, and that's where a lot of careers are derailed, because after seven years their body is going to go, ugh, I can't do it anymore."
Before games, McWilliams-Franklin can be found painting her nails or stitching a dress she designed. At the Lynx's annual Catwalk for a Cure benefit for breast-cancer awareness, McWilliams-Franklin and her youngest daughter, 8-year-old Maia, modeled dresses they'd made themselves.
Often, McWilliams-Franklin has to catch herself when talking about Maia, whose first name sounds like that of rookie teammate Maya Moore. That Maya, 22, is a year younger than McWilliams-Franklin's oldest daughter, Michele.
"Whenever I talk about Maia, I have to say, 'My Maia,' because Maya will be like, 'Huh? What?'" McWilliams-Franklin said. "And I'm like, 'Not you, my Maia.' And now both of them are my Maias, so now it's like, 'My little Maia, not my big Maya, my little one.'"
Either way, Mama Taj is a role model to all her kids, on and off the court.