- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Taj McWilliams-Franklin is picking at her sushi, even though you assume she would be ravenous. She had just finished practice with the Minnesota Lynx about an hour earlier, and hadn't eaten much in the past few days.
She hasn't said if this will be her last WNBA season, but her goodbye to playing competitively can't be all that far away: She'll be 42 years old on Saturday. She hopes that not too long after her birthday, she'll be celebrating her third title in the WNBA, and second with the Lynx.
However, concerns about her age and playing future really have nothing to do with why her appetite has been spotty or why she has struggled sleeping. The fact is, it's usually like this for McWilliams-Franklin, a 6-foot-2 forward who has been playing professional basketball for 20 years.
She and her brain have a long-standing tug-of-war: When she wants it to begin the process of slowing down and shutting up, it resists and keeps churning.
This particular day, she hadn't fallen asleep until around 5 in the morning. After the Lynx's victory the previous night, she'd watched video, critiquing first her performance, then that of the team. Then she'd viewed more film for Minnesota's next opponent. Then she went over her notes on that foe.
Still wide awake.
"I said, 'OK, I'm going to watch 'Columbo' and 'CSI,'" said McWilliams-Franklin, who actually has seriously studied police forensics. "At about 4:30, I said, 'I've got to fall asleep somehow.' What's keeping me awake except my own head?"
Welcome to Taj's world of paradoxes. To play a professional sport at a high level until age 42, a person has to take good care of herself but Taj also has these days when she neither sleeps nor eats well. And she worries most about taking care of others.
That includes her teammates, but starts with her family. She has one adult daughter, Michele, who was born in 1988, before Taj started her college basketball career. Another daughter, Schera, is a college senior whom Taj gave up for adoption as a baby, but who she has since reconnected with. Taj and her husband, Reggie Franklin, have a 9-year-old girl, Maia.
She is known to teammates, fans, opponents and media as "Mama Taj," the woman who seems to have a heart big enough to "mother" everyone who needs it. But Taj was once the scared, overwhelmed teenager who knew she couldn't properly care for a second child and cried every tear she had inside before giving Schera to another family to raise.
More paradoxes? There are indeed many between her present and past selves. Taj is the self-confident WNBA spokeswoman with a splendid eye for fashion. But she used to be the girl who barely spoke and was painfully self-conscious about how she looked.
She radiates a sense of serene calm and often joy. But she honestly can't remember even a day of just being happy and worry-free while growing up.
Taj has been married for nearly 12 years to Reggie, who says, "It's amazing to be around her." Yet she sometimes still frets it could all evaporate, and she'll have to be ready to go it alone again.
Race, gender, age, background, interests. The gregarious Taj can converse with anyone about anything. Yet during her youth in the South, she was troubled by barriers between the races that might not have been concrete in actual construction, but felt just as hard and impenetrable.
Back then, she thought she wasn't supposed to ask questions. Now, she knows she'll never stop asking them.
"Basketball allowed me to understand and appreciate the ways I was different, more so than if I had never played," Taj said. "When you talk about studies that show how athletics helps women with self-esteem and self-confidence, I say, 'I'm one of those people!'
"The image I had of myself was so low. I was gangly, my head was always in a book, I wore glasses, I was a nerd; people laughed at me. Basketball helped me change from that caterpillar to the butterfly I am now. I'm so happy now to be me."
The woman who sees it all
Taj has lived in many cities in many countries. In the United States, she has played for franchises in Richmond, Va., Philadelphia, Orlando, Uncasville, Conn., Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, D.C., New York and Minneapolis. Overseas, she has been on teams in Greece, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Australia, Korea, Russia, Luxembourg, Turkey, Israel, Poland and Germany.
Wherever she is, Taj notices the paradoxes. Like brisk, purposeful shoppers sharing sidewalk space with homeless wanderers.
"My life was once a chaos," she said. "How do you get where I'm at today? I don't even understand how to put it into words. Why have I been spared, but then I meet young women who have no idea the impact they could have on others' lives? They have no sense of their own value.
"I walk around cities, and I see people and try to figure out, 'Why are you here in this position? Why are you begging for money? What's the difference between you and me?' Because I don't think there is that much difference."
Tears begin to slide down her face. Here is true vulnerability, something that she typically does not show. She is the crafty veteran, the wise mentor, the humorous sage.
But not always. She remembers being a young mother riding a bus for several hours with her baby and barely $20 in her pocket. Thinking the whole time that she had allowed herself to end up in this predicament, taking 100 percent of the blame, feeling a failure.
She was smart, capable, ambitious, hopeful and yet many mornings, she wondered how she was going to drag herself out of bed, desperately wishing there was a way to hit the "restart" button.
You know the old saying, "If you're going through hell, keep going?" Taj kept going. She's on the other side now. Yes, she has her nagging fears. But hell is in her rearview mirror.
"I believe everybody has a cycle that you have to break at some point to move forward. It took extraordinary effort," she said when asked why she didn't become a "casualty" of teenaged pregnancy. "I don't even understand now how some days I woke up.
"I thought of ways to kill myself when I honestly could not think of a way out. I was hungry for days in college, and struggled to feed my daughter. But I think God's hand was on my life from the moment I was born. I just did not always understand that -- or appreciate the effect on my life that random individuals would have. I was able to make it through because I was being looked after."
Also because -- even if she doesn't say it -- she has a will stronger than most do.
Those searing recollections of the worst days, though, now are countered by so many good memories. There were those people who reached out when she really needed help. There was a sport that she was a natural at, but then learned the nuances of, which allowed her to make a living and see the world.
There was the embrace of women's basketball fans, the ones who already know her story, but will still read it again now and relish her many triumphs -- even those that have come at the expense of their favorite teams.
There are the new spectators, the ones who aren't into any of the "social significance" of women's sports, who don't get the slightest bit weepy over the empowerment stories yet have come to think of watching the WNBA as, well, an acceptable diversion for a sports junkie.
"I hope in my lifetime that I can see the transition to it being more mainstream entertainment," Taj said, "but never losing the social mandate that we have to do things in our community."
The girl she used to be
Taj was born in Texas in 1970, but grew up mostly in Augusta, Ga., home of The Masters golf tournament. To her, that event and the exquisitely manicured Augusta National course felt so distant that they might as well have been in another galaxy.
She estimates the student population of schools she attended was 90-95 percent African-American.
"In the community at large, it was always unspoken that you knew your place," she said. "I thought my dad would have been furious if I'd gone over to someone's house who was white. Or brought anyone white to our home."
A keenly observant child, she noticed that her father would speak deferentially to white people, yet simmered inside about the lack of respect he often felt he received in return.
She would think, "Isn't this a major conflict? Don't we need to talk about it? If you're upset about how people treat you, shouldn't you discuss it with them?"
But she kept that -- and everything else she was curious about -- to herself. Children weren't supposed to bring up such topics in her home.
"My dad was the dictator of our house, and what he said went," Taj said. "He wasn't a diplomatic parent like, 'I'll tell you the reasons why.' It was, 'No means no.' But he was a hero to me. And you know how it is when you're a kid: Your parents are bigger than life."
In fact, though, now she can see they were searching for answers and did the best they could. Her parents divorced when she was 4, then remarried around the time she reached adolescence. But they soon realized that was a mistake. Her mother joined the Army and moved away to Texas; her parents would divorce again in a few years. Her father, with whom Taj stayed, took on a second job.
"I had to be like a mom then to my younger brother," Taj said. "As a kid, you don't understand why your mom isn't there; you think you're unlovable. And my dad was always busy or distant."
Taj fled into the solace of words: She would read and write until she was burrowed so deep inside her own head that the real world almost seemed fictional.
A teacher/coach at Augusta's T.W. Josey High School, Lynn Brantley, saw the raw-athlete potential in Taj, and encouraged her in several sports. She tried to be as much a mother to Taj as she could, buying her first nice dress for an athletic banquet. Taj had an older sister with whom she wasn't close, so playing sports provided another outlet for sisterhood.
"It let me bond with other girls," she said. "It was a camaraderie I didn't have otherwise."
Still, Taj felt isolated and lonely at home. What was love, she wondered. Was it working multiple jobs to pay bills? Sure, that had to be love. Was it quarreling? Well, maybe that was love, too. It just didn't feel very good.
When there was a boy who paid attention, Taj was swept away.
"I think it's the same for many teenaged parents; certainly a lot of young girls I've spoken to," she said. "When I was growing up, there was never any talk about sex or taking precautions. And I never saw my mom and dad even hug or kiss each other. Our family was very sterile as far as affection.
"So having somebody give you that affection you're excited and amazed that someone likes you. That's how it was with Michele's dad."
Finding out she was pregnant was a shock. It's so easy for the judgmental and cynical to say that everyone should know all the facts of life. But there are many, still, who don't. A culture of silence -- that some things are not to be talked about -- has resulted in so many girls facing a lifelong responsibility they aren't prepared for.
"I really didn't understand what was happening; my coach was the first one to recognize it," Taj said. "The truth is, I was ecstatic at first, because I thought, 'Now I'll have somebody to love.'
"But also scared because I thought my dad would blow up. My coach went with me so I could tell him. It turned out badly. He thought I'd destroyed my future, and him thinking that devastated me. Because that was my greatest fear: to never leave Augusta or ever really do anything."
So much of the terrain she'd traveled in life had seemed rough and inhospitable. But this was the hardest obstacle yet. More were to come.
A decision to say goodbye
Taj had signed to play basketball with Georgia State, which initially stuck by her when she became pregnant. She had baby Michele, played for the Panthers, and planned to stay at the Atlanta school. A coaching change there altered that; under the new regime, a player with a child was no longer welcome, Taj said. Taj had another very difficult conversation with her dad.
That's when she took the aforementioned lengthy bus ride with Michele, going from Georgia to Austin, Texas, where her mother lived. She got a job, but then became pregnant a second time.
"I was so angry with myself that I had allowed myself to be stupid again," she said. "One of the things that really bugs me is kids who have kids and then give them to their moms to raise. I never wanted my mom to be in that position. Yet here I was with another baby coming, and I was struggling just to take care of Michele.
"Being responsible, finally, for me meant putting my second daughter in a place where she'd have a mom and dad there to take care of her and protect her. I had a semi-open adoption. I knew the people; I picked them out."
For a couple of days after giving birth in January 1990 to a girl who would be named Schera, Taj cried and cried. On the third day, more of a sense of calm came over her. This was love, too: letting go because you want what's best for someone. This is where the despondent young woman who didn't know which direction her life was headed truly started to become someone who was going to make it.
Later that year, Taj found a welcoming place to study and play basketball at St. Edward's University, an NAIA school in Austin. She worked, went to school, practiced, played at a very high level, ate mac-and-cheese and ramen noodles and raised her daughter. As a parent, she was strict, like her father, but also always kept an open dialogue with Michele. There were no questions that couldn't be asked, no subjects that were off-limits.
Taj finished her college career in 1993, when she was named the NAIA player of the year, and soon began the global odyssey of women's pro basketball. At one point, there was a custody dispute with Michele's father, who briefly took over her primary care. But soon she was back with Taj, who had help watching the child from a close friend who became a nanny.
Overseas leagues, the short-lived American Basketball League (for which she played from 1996 to 1998) and the WNBA kept Taj employed and frequently relocating.
Michele is 24 now and has her own life in Texas. She has said in some interviews over the years that many memories of her youth are a blur, and there were times she was angry at basketball for taking her mom to so many places. But just as Taj grew to understand the difficulties her own mom and dad had faced, she thinks Michele has recognized that parents are just human and do what they can.
Someone worth waiting for
Taj devoured two types of fiction books during her teenaged years: horror novels and romance epics. The former appealed in some ways to her sense of dark humor: The awful fates that befell Stephen King's characters, for instance, would remind her during her own angst that things could always be worse.
As for the romances, of course she wanted to believe there was a Prince Charming out there somewhere who'd look at a tall, thin, bookish, introspective girl and see the treasure trove of ideas, thoughts and feelings she held inside.
As the years went by, Taj found that the more prosaic "monsters" in the life of a financially struggling young mother/student-athlete/pro player were not the things that were chronicled in best-sellers yet they could rip apart a person as surely as a werewolf could. You had to be tough to survive.
And when Prince Charming finally did come along, Taj wasn't that teenaged girl who'd wished for him years earlier. In fact, she no longer believed such a man existed. Perhaps that's partly why she didn't recognize him at first when they met. That, and he didn't necessarily "look" the part.
Taj had ended a long relationship in January 1999, shortly after the ABL folded. Later that year, following her first WNBA season, she was competing in Italy. She and some fellow American players would go to a local Army base to buy supplies. She kept seeing this same guy, randomly. One day, she went to watch the soldiers playing hoops on the base, and there he was again out on the court.
"He had his socks pulled all the way up to his knees. He was like 5-9, 150 pounds, maybe," she said. "He was 19, and he looked like he was about 15. He had this young face. I thought, 'That's somebody's little brother, he needs to be looked after.' The mother instinct, of course."
Reggie Franklin, though, almost immediately thought this was a woman he wanted to date. Taj at first constructed roadblocks. You're out of your mind, she told him. I'm nine years older than you. I have a daughter who's not that many years younger than you are. Forget it.
But Reggie wouldn't go away. He grew up in a large family in Oklahoma, and he liked structure and order, following rules and getting things done. How many young guys long to be thought of as predictable, reliable, dependable? Reggie did, and two months into dating Taj, he was talking about marriage.
"I told him, 'I don't think you know what love is. It's about making sacrifices,'" Taj said. "I'd never seen a good marriage up close. I didn't want to get married and mess it up.
"We went back and forth, and it finally came down to him saying, 'I don't have to date for years and years to know what real love is.' I told him, 'I'm going to be gone a lot.' I wasn't going to give up basketball when I just really understood the game and was doing well. He accepted that. We got married in December 2000, a year and two months after I met him."
Both kept their word: Taj has indeed been gone a lot as she has pursued her career, and Reggie has adapted. Their 9-year-old, Maia, is currently with Reggie at the family's home base in San Antonio. They were in Minneapolis with Taj for most of the summer. Maia recently sent her mom a letter saying that while she was happy the Lynx were winning in the playoffs, she was also sad because it kept Taj away longer. That brought Taj to tears, of course.
Taj often marvels that Maia, who currently has a preference for tennis, sometimes is "scary" with how outgoing and confident she is. Part of that definitely comes from Reggie.
"My husband is just the best," Taj said. "He still surprises me with flowers and takes me on dates when we are in the same place. He knew I wasn't going to be a housewife, and he accepts me being who I am.
"He has the highest self-esteem of anyone I've ever been with. So it's never affected him that I played pro ball."
To the contrary, he has enjoyed watching her. Reggie still gets nervous and worked up before and during games.
"We do have a lot of time when we're away from each other," said Reggie, who is now out of the Army. "So we work really hard to stay in touch and communicate. I want to be sure she knows that everything is fine at home and she has nothing to worry about here.
"Just being together as a family and around each other is the best, so that's what we look forward to. Maybe the time apart makes the time we do have together as special as it is."
A sisterhood on court
Taj also cherishes the relationships she has made with teammates -- and even adversaries -- over the years. She's universally respected in the WNBA, and not just because she's "old."
"She's still playing because she's good," Los Angeles coach Carol Ross said. "The bottom line is that if we didn't know how old Taj was, we wouldn't even be talking about her age.
"I've never coached her, but my admiration from the outside is that she seems to be a nurturing player, which doesn't always mean warm and fuzzy. She can say, 'Don't do that,' or 'This is how you do it better.' Those players are underestimated in sports, but they're critical to any championship team."
Taj played in the WNBA Finals with Connecticut in 2004 and '05. She won her first WNBA title in 2008 with Detroit, where current Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was an assistant and got to experience the comfort of having a veteran player like Taj.
Also in Detroit, she befriended another "oldie but goodie" player, Katie Smith. Smith smiled remembering their days with the Shock. Taj always kept a box of dog treats on hand, even though she herself didn't have a dog, because Katie and her pup would sometimes drop by her place while out on a walk.
Smith is just four years younger than Taj, so she understands what it takes to prolong a pro career.
"She does all the extra work to prepare and recover," said Smith, who went to St. Edward's earlier this year to see Taj's jersey retired in a ceremony. "She stays in shape, does stuff like 'Insanity' and 'Abs of Steel.' But it's also about understanding the game and having a brain that knows how to guard somebody who's bigger or quicker than you. And then it's just being able to get the job done."
Taj has started the past two seasons for Minnesota, winning her second WNBA title in 2011. During this regular season, she averaged 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds. In six playoff starts thus far in 2012, her averages are 5.8 and 4.3.
Current Lynx teammate Candice Wiggins did some calculating and figured out that when Taj was playing for the Orlando Miracle at the start of her WNBA career in 1999, Wiggins was in that city for a 13-and-under AAU tournament. She went to see a Miracle game, along with a few other future pro players like Los Angeles' Candace Parker.
"None of us knew then how much Taj was going to impact us," Wiggins said. "She had to claw and scratch her way to respect. She earned it with all the odds stacked against her."
Taj still has a lot in front of her. She'll be an assistant to women's hoops head coach Greg Williams at Rice University this coming season. That was a job she worked hard to get, sending letters and résumés to several programs. Williams, who previously spent time coaching in the WNBA, understands how much value Taj can bring in working with young people.
Whenever she does stop playing, there is so much that she could do. Maybe she'll keep coaching at the college level, or try it in the WNBA. She could see herself being a general manager or even working in the league office. Who knows more than she does about how to make the connections between players, coaches, owners, fans and sponsors?
"I really admire her willingness to do different things," Reggie said. "Even though she isn't sure how it's going to turn out, she'll jump into trying something anyway. I don't think she's ever going to be someone who just takes time off."
With a career that could produce another title, a future full of possibilities and a happy family unit, you might think that's all the bases covered. But there is one more important thread that stretches back to Taj's past and is now reconnected to her future.
In 2007, a former WNBA player who was working at a college camp in Austin told Taj that she'd met her daughter at the camp. But she wasn't talking about Michele or Maia.
Then someone came to a WNBA game at San Antonio in which Taj was playing, and sought her out afterward to say, "Did you know I coach your daughter? Her name is Schera."
The last Taj knew, Schera Sampson and her parents were still living in Texas, but she hadn't had any updates from the adoption agency in a very long time.
Schera wanted to meet Taj, who was invited to an AAU event Schera was playing in. Taj assumed Schera's parents would be there, but they weren't. It was little awkward and a lot emotional. Plus, Taj fully understood how protective and even fearful Paul and Erma Sampson were.
They had told Schera when she was very young that she was adopted, and who her mother was. The child was drawn to basketball, and had even gone to a game in which Taj was playing. But McWilliams-Franklin never knew she was there.
Once Schera was a teenager, she felt a strong need to get to know Taj.
"I think the guilt that I felt having to give her up because I'd been irresponsible really weighed on me," Taj said. "God chose to bring her back when I least expected it. To see that she was OK, had a happy home, played basketball -- it was a blessing that happened while I was young enough to still really be able to appreciate her, but old enough to be wise about it."
Schera now plays basketball at Shawnee State in Ohio, where she's studying graphic design and journalism. She sees in herself traits that are similar to Taj's. She was worried at first about how -- or if -- she would connect with Taj and her family. Especially with Michele, the half-sister who is a little more than a year older that Schera.
"We just clicked, like any other sisters, and we talk all the time about everything," Schera said. "It's been really good for me. And I love my little sister, too. I got the chance to be around Maia more this summer."
Schera is grateful that her parents have accepted and supported the new relationships she formed.
"There were some adjustments in the beginning," she said. "But the parents who raised me are OK with me doing what I think is right. When I was first reuniting with [Taj], she told me the whole story of her life and what happened. I've only had good feelings for her."
In this, and so many other ways, Taj has made peace with the past more than she ever imagined she would.
"I'm happy I've been able to have some impact on her life," Taj said of Schera. "When I gave her up, I never thought I'd see her again. A little piece of heaven came back."
Taj still loves words. Perhaps one day, she'll author a book, weaving more details into the narrative she has thoughtfully shared with those who've come to know her.
"We're all destined to have tough times in our lives. Some of us have to get through a lot of messy stuff," Taj said. "But things change, and you can decide you're going to be greater than whatever the messy stuff is.
"Candice Wiggins is always telling me I should write my life story. And I say, 'I'll wait.' All my life hasn't happened yet."
Once a scared, overwhelmed teenage mom, Taj McWilliams-Franklin has grown into "Mama Taj," the woman who has a heart big enough to mother everyone who needs it, whether it's her teammates or three daughters, including one the Minnesota Lynx star gave up for adoption.