MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx showed potential for years, with plenty of high draft picks for a success-starved franchise to build around. Pieces were always missing in the end.
Perhaps the most important area that needed to be shored up was team chemistry, and they finally found the right mix last season on their way to the WNBA championship.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin led this bonding process like only a mother could. The 41-year-old, 6-foot-2 center with three daughters of her own has returned for another year with the Lynx. Her teammates couldn’t be happier to have the lanky lady they call “Mama Taj” back in the fold.
“I love having her back,” point guard Lindsay Whalen said.
The feeling is mutual. The former Josey High School star took advantage of a break with her professional team in Poland to visit Whalen for a bit in Prague earlier this year. Now she can catch up with the entire team, which starts the regular season May 20 at home against the Phoenix Mercury.
“She’s always looking out for us,” said forward Maya Moore, who is coming off her rookie season.
Star shooting guard Seimone Augustus listed the ways McWilliams-Franklin has helped foster a family-like atmosphere.
“Let’s have a barbecue. Let’s get everybody together. Let’s have movie night,” Augustus said, adding: “We can’t stand not being around each other. Let’s go to the mall and shop. That helps us keep everything balanced.”
It was coach Cheryl Reeve who worked on her center over the winter, finally persuading her to put retirement on hold for another year.
McWilliams-Franklin is about as unique of a professional athlete as can be found. She was an English writing and rhetoric major at Division II St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, who married an Army sergeant she met while playing basketball in Italy. She’s into professional wrestling and video games, and she has a dream of starting her own clothing line. She speaks Spanish and Italian.
The Lynx are her sixth WNBA team in 13 years and the fifth since leaving the Connecticut Sun after the 2006 season. With the Detroit Shock in 2008, she won her first WNBA title. That year, and the one after, was when she forged her relationship with Reeve, who was an assistant coach at the time.
McWilliams-Franklin was the free agent Reeve wanted before last season, seeing an obvious spot on the Lynx for this coach-like leader and slick-passing, rebounding and mid-range-jump-shooting center. So she put on the full-court press again this year to get the whole group back for another run.