Mixing motherhood and sports: A birth, a rebirth

Vanessa Hayden-Johnson was worried that the birth of her daughter would signal an end to her professional basketball career. Instead, she is rejuvenated in her return to the WNBA with the Lynx.

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Vanessa and Zyon Brianna Hayden-Johnson: Vanessa sat out last season to have a baby. She is back playing and credits Brianna, now 11 months, for helping revitalize her career.

Photo: Vanessa Hayden-Johnson, Special to the Star Tribune

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After her third season with the Lynx in 2006, Vanessa Hayden went to Istanbul, Turkey, to play pro basketball. Shortly after her arrival, the 6-4 center called her husband in Gainesville, Fla.

Hayden was sobbing. "I'm pregnant," she said.

Her tears were not of joy. Brian Johnson knew his wife's world had just crumbled.

"I'm not going to play basketball again. I love basketball. I'm going to get fat," she told Johnson.

Her career instead was reborn. Hayden had her baby -- Zyon Brianna -- last June, then spent eight months in Turkey playing basketball as she and her sister cared for her daughter. Today she will play for the Lynx in their third and final exhibition game.

Minnesota will face the Los Angeles Sparks in Grand Forks, N.D., on Mother's Day. The Sparks have three of the other 17 mothers playing in the WNBA, including three-time league MVP Lisa Leslie, whose baby is 11 months old -- the same as Hayden's.

"I think it is good for the WNBA when our players get married and have babies," Leslie said in her recently released biography, "Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You."

"We are professional women in sports," Leslie said. "It is a good thing for people to see that female athletes can have family lives, just like other working women."

Hayden's pregnancy was not planned. Many people, relatives, friends, even agents -- not hers -- advised Hayden not to have the baby.

"I am a Christian woman and we are a Christian family," Hayden said. Abortion was not an option. Hayden returned to Florida and on June 3, 2007, two days before her 25th birthday, gave birth to her baby girl.

Zyon, her first name, comes from "To Zion," an inspirational song by Lauryn Hill about her choosing to have a baby, her oldest son, over a career and rejoicing about the decision.

Hayden-Johnson, who has added her husband's name since having their baby, is also celebrating. She credits Zyon with salvaging her WNBA career, rather than ending it.

"If it had not been for my daughter, I don't know what I would be doing right now," Hayden-Johnson said. "I was headed the wrong way before. I was a selfish person, very selfish, with an all-about-me attitude. Even with basketball, I was like, whatever. Cut me tomorrow, I don't care."

Change has come

Hayden-Johnson said she is a different person now.

"I want my daughter to say, 'No matter what my mother went through, she made it, she didn't give up, she kept going,' " she said.

Second-year coach Don Zierden said he has heard a lot about Hayden-Johnson -- both good and bad. She had been overweight, not motivated. He offered her a fresh start.

"I've learned this in our profession: You are 6-4 on a good day and you are 6-4 on a bad day," Zierden said. "We need somebody to help us in the middle."

That could be Hayden-Johnson, a first-round pick out of Florida in the 2004 draft. She averaged 11.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for Besiktas in Turkey this season and improved those numbers in the playoffs. She received a bonus for leading her league in blocks.

Zyon was with her father in Florida this past week, but he and the baby will join Hayden-Johnson in Minnesota on Monday for eight days. Hayden-Johnson said she has become neater, more organized and no longer eats junk food.

Her weight is down from a high of 280 pounds when she delivered to 239. And she wants to lose more.

Grandmother role model

Hayden-Johnson wants to be the mother she never had. Her grandmother, Adella, raised her in the projects of Orlando. Her mother, Vicky, was a street person, addicted to drugs, who died of AIDS when Vanessa was 12.

Her father, Van, was a drug dealer and spent 12 years in prison. Hayden-Johnson tried to build a relationship with him when he got out. By then she was 19. Within a year, he died from an aneurysm.

Her grandmother spoiled her, buying her a teddy bear on every holiday. Her collection grew to 223 by the time she was playing in college at Florida.

Childhood traits like that had her husband worried when Hayden became pregnant.

"Vanessa was like a baby having a baby," Johnson said. "To be honest, I thought Vanessa would be lost. Would she change diapers, take the baby to the hospital? It's hard work, and Vanessa is like a big baby. But she shocked me how well she is with the baby."

"When I became a mother, I became another person," Hayden-Johnson said. "It changed me for the better. If you have a baby, if you can become a mother, you can do anything. I can land a plane, I believe. I gave birth."

Zyon, whose father is 6-1 and 295 pounds, weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces at birth. But the baby now weighs 25 pounds and is wearing clothes for babies 18 to 24 months.

"She is huge," Hayden-Johnson said. "She is going to be a post player."

Just like mom.

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