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Continued: Lynx's Augustus finds greatness

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 30, 2011 - 1:10 AM

It just didn't seem fair. Seimone Augustus had labored for five seasons to gild her credentials as one of the premier players in women's basketball, shining through the gloom of the woeful Lynx and winning a gold medal in the 2008 Olympic Games. So why, after two years of misfortune, should she have to rebuild her reputation from scratch?

A knee injury in 2009 ruined her WNBA season and made Augustus wonder whether she would ever return to top form. Others raised similar questions a year later, when abdominal surgery slowed her considerably. She worried, she fussed, she stewed. And then, as Christmas approached last winter, she sat down for a difficult conversation that changed everything.

Doneeka Hodges-Lewis, Augustus' longtime friend and former LSU teammate, urged her to swap the self-pity for some serious introspection.

"She broke me down in tears and told me the truth," Augustus said. "I'm like, 'I've done so much in the league, why do I have to prove myself all over again?' She told me, 'Mone, it's been two years, and you really haven't played like yourself. ... You've got an opportunity here to start over and rebuild yourself, to put a new perspective in people's minds about who you really are. You can redefine yourself from this point on.'"

Augustus didn't want to hear it. But the more she thought about her friend's advice -- and the prodding from others who saw her untapped potential -- she knew she needed to put aside her pride and get to work. The resulting dream season redefined Augustus in the most wonderful way possible: as the woman who lifted the Lynx to their first WNBA championship, won the trophy as the Finals' most valuable player and earned the title of Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.

Getting there required some retooling. Augustus, 27, committed herself to becoming an outstanding defensive player last season, adding a new dimension to her game. She lost 30 pounds. She stepped forth as a more assertive leader, taking charge in the Finals as she averaged 22 points per game -- including an epic 36-point performance in Game 2, when she carried her team to a come-from-behind victory that deflated rival Atlanta.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who took over in 2010, entered last season eager to see what a healthy Augustus could do. After challenging Augustus to seriously consider the legacy she wanted to create, Reeve witnessed the flowering of a player determined to discover how great she could be.

"There are 11 other coaches in this league who shook their heads and said, 'I can't believe what you did with Seimone,'" she recalled. "My response was, it's what Seimone did. It's what she decided she wanted to do, because she had the drive, the want."

Augustus takes particular satisfaction in earning a title with the Lynx. Despite the team's years of losing and instability, she remains intensely loyal to the club that made her the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. She is deepening her roots in Minnesota by buying a home here.

Already, Augustus said, she is hearing from Lynx fans coveting another WNBA championship in 2012. She believes her team has the potential to write another transformative chapter in its history, just as she did during a season made all the sweeter by the struggle.

"Once I had that conversation with Doneeka, everything rushed into me," said Augustus, who is playing this winter with Spartak Moscow Region in Russia. "Everything changed. I thought, 'All right. It is time for you to buckle down and start to be what people need you to be in this league.'

"I feel like everything is possible. If you put your mind to it and put in the work, you can make anything happen. Nothing is impossible any more for me."

Transforming mind and body

Last summer, the Lynx completed the most successful season in the franchise's 13-year history. Their 27-7 record was the best regular-season mark in the WNBA, and their first-round triumph over San Antonio marked the first time they had won a playoff series.

Augustus got the parade she craved, as 15,000 people flooded downtown Minneapolis and mobbed the white convertible that carried her and fellow guard Lindsay Whalen. Though she recorded the lowest regular-season scoring average of her career -- 16.2 points per game -- Augustus' expanded skill set helped her team in other ways. She routinely provided lock-down defense on the league's best players, energized the Lynx with her ceaseless drive and demonstrated a knack for making plays when her team needed them most.

The championship filled a nagging void for Augustus, who had long wrestled with the perception that she couldn't take a team to a trophy. She won dozens of individual accolades at LSU, but the Lady Tigers lost in the NCAA tournament semifinals in her sophomore, junior and senior seasons. That pattern became more pronounced with the Lynx; Augustus was named the 2006 WNBA rookie of the year and consistently placed among the league's top scorers, even as her team repeatedly missed the playoffs and finished below .500.

It pained Augustus to see opponents laughing at the Lynx and hear her own teammates anticipating blowouts even before tipoff. Her despair would grow much worse in 2009, when Augustus collapsed because of a torn ACL in her left knee only six games into the season. For the first time in her life, she faced a significant layoff from the game she lived for, with no guarantee she would return with her talents intact. To compound matters, her father, Seymore, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Her grueling rehabilitation confined Augustus to Minneapolis. Her dad couldn't travel, and her mother, Kim, needed to stay in their hometown of Baton Rouge, La., to care for Seymore. Augustus had prided herself on being an optimist, but she found herself tested in ways she had never foreseen.

"I had weak days, weak moments, where I felt like I didn't see any progress," she said. "You're thinking, 'When is my leg going to get stronger? When am I going to be able to jump, to run?' Once you get back on the court and you're not as fast as you were, you can't jump as high as you did before, you do have a lot of doubt. You wonder, 'Will I get back to being the player I used to be?'"

She heard plenty of skeptics betting against her. They grew louder in 2010, when Augustus landed in the emergency room in April because of severe pain from uterine fibroids that needed to be removed immediately.

After her abdominal surgery, she missed only nine games. Still, the lingering effects hampered Augustus through a summer that would be the least productive of her WNBA career. Reeve looked beyond the numbers to see a player who always gave whatever she could, whose resilience, fortitude and willingness hinted at what she might achieve once her health was restored.

During their final meeting of 2010, the coach challenged Augustus to expand her thinking beyond a year-to-year frame. With five WNBA seasons under her belt, Reeve told Augustus she had reached a tipping point in her career, a time when she could step forth as a great player or settle for merely being good.

"I think that allowed her to look inward, to think about what type of ownership she wanted to have over her legacy," Reeve said. "Was it going to be about everyone else doing the dirty work, or did she want to be in the thick of things, controlling her own destiny? Something clicked."

Reeve was not the only one encouraging Augustus to push herself farther. Perennial All-Star Tamika Catchings, who played with Augustus in Turkey last winter, sent her a note telling her she was on the verge of becoming an "unstoppable" player. Hodges-Lewis helped put her in the right frame of mind. Augustus' fiancée, LaTaya Varner, confronted her with another hard truth -- she needed to lose weight -- and urged her to revamp her diet.

Augustus sought advice from Catchings, who is renowned for her defense, about sharpening her skills at that end of the floor. To Reeve's delight, Augustus returned to Minnesota lighter, fitter, quicker -- and ready to end any doubts, in her own mind and in others.

"I knew I needed to prove to myself, and prove to other people, that I could win," Augustus said. "I didn't recognize it, but everyone else around me recognized I was at that point in time where I needed to think about my legacy. I wanted to go out, work hard and get back on track."

When Augustus showed up for training camp last spring, teammate Charde Houston was moved to tears by her transformation.

"Her determination was established long before she stepped foot in training camp," Houston said. "She made up her mind that she wanted to lead us. She wanted to put us on her shoulders and carry us."

The pieces finally come together

Augustus also found inspiration in the promise the Lynx held for the 2011 season. No. 1 draft pick Maya Moore enhanced a roster already deep with talent and led by a coach with a champion's pedigree. Egos were shelved, friendships were formed, and the team became "Los Lynx," a tight group that enjoyed parties, movie nights, shopping and winning basketball games.

As the season progressed, Reeve said, it became obvious the Lynx wanted the ball in Augustus' hands at every critical juncture. She thrived inside that bull's-eye, leading her team in scoring in half of its games and drawing raves for her tireless defense. In two late-season games against San Antonio, she helped hold guard Becky Hammon -- one of the WNBA's most prolific scorers -- to one basket on 20 shots, while scoring 39 points herself.

By the time the Lynx reached the playoffs, Augustus' focus had become ferocious. She never had made it to postseason play, and the Lynx had been only twice, losing in the first round in 2003 and 2004. With a chance to shape the legacy of herself and her team, she poured body and soul into every game.

"I wasn't going to be smiling or joking or playing around," she said. "I didn't care about the pressure that was placed on me; I was going to do whatever it took to help my team win. This was what we'd been fighting for all season, what I'd been fighting for since I got into the league. I wasn't going to look back on this and regret anything."

Augustus scored 65 points as the Lynx defeated first-round opponent San Antonio in three games, then opened a sweep of Phoenix in the Western Conference finals with a 21-point, seven-assist effort. In the WNBA Finals, against Atlanta and gifted rival Angel McCoughtry, she dug in even more. As the Lynx struggled in Game 2, with several players in foul trouble, injured or ineffective, Augustus calmly dumped in 11 of 14 shots and finished with 36 points, including 15 in the decisive fourth quarter.

That attitude transferred to her teammates, who fed off her passion.

"I think in the playoffs, she realized something that not everyone does," Lynx center Taj McWilliams-Franklin said. "This could be the last moment you have to play the sport you love. She grabbed that thought and held on to it and just played her heart out. When you do that, it inspires others."

Augustus had predicted she would cry if the Lynx won the title, and she did. She shed far more tears that night, she said, than she did during her two years of strife.

On Jan. 1, Augustus will tuck all of that away and begin looking toward a new WNBA season, as well as the culmination of her European schedule. She hopes to make the U.S. team that will play in this summer's London Olympics; off the court, she will settle into her new Twin Cities home and begin planning a 2013 wedding.

With all of that looming in her future, Augustus' legacy remains a work in progress. She already has rebranded herself in the way she wanted most: as a champion, at last.

"Every moment up until last year helped build character and perseverance," she said. "It helped me redefine who I was and what I wanted to be. Now I know why I went through those hard times, to get to this point. And I've never felt better."

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