'Mama Taj' looks after young Lynx

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Taj McWilliams-Franklin, 40, is raising kids -- her own, and her younger Lynx teammates.

Her high school coach persuaded Taj McWilliams-Franklin to play basketball at age 15.

Now she can't give it up.

The Lynx's 40-year-old "Mama Taj" played her 400th WNBA game on Tuesday, and the league's oldest player scored 18 points in a victory at Tulsa. But her value to the team with the league's best record is not her scoring -- it's her defense, leadership and stern nurturing.

She has real mom experience. Lots of it. McWilliams-Franklin had two babies before she was 20. The second was placed for adoption because McWilliams-Franklin, then a single parent, could barely support one child.

Basketball helped her survive. She came to relish the competition and appreciate her mental ability to slow the game down.

Her two oldest daughters, Michele, 22 and Schera, 21 and reunited with her mother, have grown up. But Taj and her husband, Reggie Franklin, a serviceman she met while playing basketball in Italy and married in 2000, are raising another daughter, Maia, 8.

Reggie and Maia stayed with McWilliams-Franklin in her St. Paul apartment for part of the summer. But even after they left last week, her mothering continues. After practice Thursday, she took one teammate aside for a one-on-one chat. After a bad play during a game, she will give the offending teammate the look or quickly scold someone.

Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen said McWilliams-Franklin brings the team together.

"You can talk all you want about the things she has done on the floor," Petersen said, "but it is in the locker room, in the scouting reports, in the film sessions and just even around the airport -- she's somebody to talk to that has been there and done that. She has seen it all."

This is McWilliams' 13th WNBA season, and she has played abroad in 10 countries in Europe and Asia.

"We call her Mama Taj," guard Candice Wiggins said, "but really she is like a coach, a big sister for us, off the court and on. She has taken us all in. We are like her little chickies and she is the mother hen."

Reluctant ballplayer

McWilliams-Franklin was born in El Paso, Texas. Her parents, who had three children, were both in the army. When Taj was 3 months old, her family moved to Florida, and later to Ohio, New Jersey, Florida again and Georgia.

She was attending T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School in Augusta, Ga., when girls' basketball coach Lynn Brantley asked her to play. She never had played before, and her father wanted her home after school to do chores.

Brantley's promise of a possible athletic scholarship changed McWilliams-Franklin's mind.

"That was important to me since no one in my family had been to college," said McWilliams-Franklin, a straight-A student then, "and no one had money for anyone to go to college."

Her coach taught McWilliams-Franklin the basics: "Hit the [backboard] square on all my shots. I already could jump, I was a leaper. Get as many rebounds as I could. Pass to my teammates and stand under the basket."

McWilliams-Franklin received more than 50 college offers, and signed with Georgia State in November of her senior season. Two months later, she found out she was pregnant.

The coaching staff at Georgia State stuck by her.

"There was never a moment when they said, 'You have destroyed something,'" McWilliams-Franklin said. "My dad did [say that] and for a while my [high school] coach did."

She had Michele in 1988 as a freshman at Georgia State, played during the second half of the season, but basketball didn't work out. The coach was fired and the replacement "told me that school was no place for kids, " said McWilliams-Franklin, who was working part-time and living in on-campus housing.

Another chance

She dropped out of college and moved to Austin, Texas, to be with her mother. A friend put her in contact with Dave McKey, the coach at St. Edward's University.

"I was out of shape, rusty," said McWilliams-Franklin, who delivered Schera 16 months after Michele's birth. "But [McKey] said you are so talented, you could really help our team."

McWilliams-Franklin was persuaded; she received a partial scholarship and paid the rest of her college expenses at the private Catholic school with loans.

Before returning to college, she placed Schera up for adoption. "[It was] the best thing for her," McWilliams-Franklin said. "It wasn't the best for me for many years."

Raising one daughter was tough enough. "I was going to St. Edward's, taking out loans to pay for an apartment, lights, food, school, clothes, bus transportation," McWilliams-Franklin said. "I had to make it stretch."

She ate macaroni and cheese, wore sweat clothes given to her team. Yet she loved the school. Her daughter was allowed to be at practices and in her classes.

"After my first year when I did so well, I could have gone somewhere else, transferred to a D-I," McWilliams-Franklin said, "but I felt loyalty is rewarded with loyalty."

When her college career ended, McWilliams-Franklin still needed money to take a few more classes to graduate. So the 1993 NAIA Player of the Year signed with her first pro team overseas.

The start of the American Basketball League in 1996 thrilled her -- it was a chance to earn money on a team in the U.S. She went to a combine for prospective players in Atlanta which drew about 900.

"I had some ridiculous number on my jersey like 286; after all that, I made it," McWilliams-Franklin said.

She played for the Richmond Rage, which moved after one season to Philadelphia and then folded.

McWilliams-Franklin moved on to an WNBA career -- she is the league's No. 2 career rebounder -- and every winter kept playing overseas, where contracts are more lucrative, for teams in 10 different countries.

She learned Italian and Spanish. In her spare times, she reads, writes and sews.

McWilliams-Franklin has a sense of humor, too. She often tells her teammates that they sound like one of her daughters.

"I'm hoping it's not her 8-year-old daughter," said the 24-year-old Wiggins.

Playing until 50?

The Lynx play San Antonio on Friday; the last time they met, McWilliams-Franklin made an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer to give the Lynx a 62-60 victory.

"I just don't think Taj can retire," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said after that game. "Those competitive juices -- she is just having a blast with this team. Hopefully, she has another 10 years in her."

McWilliams-Franklin laughed at that suggestion. Since age 35, she has been signing one-year WNBA contracts, wondering every year if that season might be her last.

"It's always like that for me because I have a family," she said.

The family home, with Reggie, is in San Antonio. Between the WNBA season and playing overseas, she doesn't see it often.

"Last year I was home for three weeks," McWilliams-Franklin said, "this year for 12 days."

Reeve made signing McWilliams-Franklin, on the New York Liberty's roster in 2010, the Lynx's top priority among free agents during the offseason; they worked together when Reeve was an assistant coach and McWilliams-Franklin the center on Detroit's WNBA championship team in 2008.

"Our practices, the instant she got here, got better," Reeve said. "Our offense worked better because she was setting screens for people. Her attention to detail is second to none in the league."

So how long will she play?

"Once I don't feel I can give something to the team, [to] the players, to the coach, that's when I will decide," McWilliams-Franklin said. "Basketball allowed me an opportunity to see things, and be part of different cultures and experiences and to touch people in a way that I don't think I could have without it."

But it didn't save her, she said. Watching her parents struggle, she vowed to find a way to succeed.

"I refused to be part of that statistic that says black teenage moms are on welfare and never become anything," McWilliams-Franklin said.

She raised one daughter. Reunited with another. Is raising a third.

And now Mama Taj is watching over 10 others.

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