MINNEAPOLIS In the winter of 2005-06, 35-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin traveled to Korea to play during the WNBA offseason. It was the seventh foreign country she'd played in after 10 years of professional basketball, and the veteran had seen her fair share of the game around the globe.
But that winter sticks with her. She was asked to wake up at 8 a.m. each day for organized stretches. She didn't want to get up that early, not after late-night games, not with a body that was already beginning to hint at the stresses of age.
She did, though, and soon she began to notice a difference. Once the stretching became a routine, there was immediate relief and, even better, a long-lasting improvement. She felt better after games, more energized and loose, and when McWilliams-Franklin returned to the United States, she began to incorporate the stretching into her morning routine. She's still doing it today, everything from calf and quad stretches to breathing exercises and meditation. Maybe it's more than 5 minutes some days, less time the next. Maybe it's not at 8 a.m., but McWilliams-Franklin has made the routine her own.
It sounds so simple. A player stretching. Hardly revolutionary.
But what's notable about McWilliams-Franklin's routine is that six years after she first returned from Korea, she's still playing. She's 41 years old and a starting forward on the reigning WNBA champion Lynx, and when you ask her what physical habits have kept her going, the stretching is the first thing she names.
These are not drastic measures. She doesn't work out all day or bombard herself with supplements. She doesn't push herself or hold herself back. Instead, the oldest woman ever to play consistently in the WNBA relies on knowing her limits. She counts the little things, on stretching and a regulated diet, as responsible for her longevity.
It's not flashy. It's not even that exciting. In fact, it's nothing more than hard work, and it's a mentality that seems out of place in today's world of sports.
At 41, McWilliams-Franklin knows her years in the league are numbered. That's not because she surpassed Tammy Jackson and Yolanda Griffith, who both played until they were 39; McWilliams-Franklin isn't even aware that she's the oldest player ever in the league. It's simpler than that. She plays because she loves it.
Only love of sport can build a work ethic like the one of McWilliams-Franklin or Kevin Willis, the NBA's oldest player to compete in more than one game in a season. For Willis, there was the knowledge that yes, he was creeping up on players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parrish, but it never came down to that. It never was about money, either, not when he returned to Atlanta after winning a championship in San Antonio, not when he played five games with the Mavericks in 2007 at age 44.
"As long as the teams were interested, I was interested," said Willis, who last played in the 2006-07 season. "It wasn't from a monetary standpoint. I had still had something to give and still loved the game."
"It was a lot of commitment on my behalf, but it was love, and there was passion. So it wasn't work."
That all sounds a bit strange in a world where basketball contracts can be worth tens of millions of dollars per year and Kobe Bryant is considered to be teetering at the brink of physical breakdown at 33. What business to 41- and 44-year-olds have taking the court when others a decade younger are breaking down? It's a complex question, one without a real answer, but it exposes just how vast the generation gap that exists in sports today may be.
There aren't that many similarities between Willis and McWilliams-Franklin. Both played for several teams eight for Willis, seven so far for McWilliams Franklin. Both have ties to Georgia. Both tout taking care of their bodies as integral to their longevity. But past that, the sheer mechanics of training vary so much between men and women that it's hard to compare the two.
Willis stressed that he doesn't drink or smoke. McWilliams-Franklin is more focused on her diet, which has been meat-free for eight years. (She calls herself a "fish-atarian.") She's also cut out former vices like jelly beans, chips and soda.
Willis swears by the mantra of weight training.
"I just kept training," Willis said. "Nothing was out of the ordinary. The older I got, as I got to my 14th, 15th years, I'm just training like I always did. When you train like I did, it provided not only the physical but the mental capacity to challenge myself again."
McWilliams-Franklin hasn't touched a weight in five years, apart from the occasional leg extension. Instead, she's added lower-impact exercises like swimming and biking to her routine. She works with bands and kettle balls. She does yoga and Pilates. She runs with her husband and occasionally on the treadmill, focusing more on 10-minute miles than 4-minute ones.
What unites the two is their approach to the game, their love and dedication. Their similarities lie in their age and the leadership roles it pushed them into, the roles that made them all too aware that what was normal in the early days of their careers is no more.
When Willis played in San Antonio from 2002-2004, he was on a championship team. He was one veteran among many on a club that included Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr and David Robinson. He didn't need to be an example. But when he returned to the Hawks, who drafted him in 1984, 20 years after his debut, Willis noticed something. Suddenly, he had to lead. He got his playing time, but Willis quickly realized he could make the biggest impact by modeling a lifestyle to young players.
The player who'd never had a major injury in his career began to witness players a decade younger than he nursing chronic aches. Willis saw different habits, at times a dedication that fell far short of his own.
"It's just a different breed of guys," Willis said. "But if you take care of yourself and the physical part of the body and you continuously try to stay strong mentally, all these things won't happen. You have to stay the course."
McWilliams-Franklin has noticed the same thing. Perhaps it's because of the constant scrutiny, she said, the opportunities for celebrity that can be nothing more than a detriment to players' work ethics. She's not sure what the cause is, but she knows the gap is there.
"It's a gap, but it's getting better," McWilliams-Franklin said. "More players are listening more to the old players and what they're doing, so they're figuring it out."
It's not that there isn't hope. Both Willis and McWilliams-Franklin sense that they've had an impact. There were players who listened and made tangible improvements. Maya Moore even talks about McWilliams-Franklin's slow moves, habits fostered by age that the 22-year-old hopes to incorporate into her own game. It's easier to see that kind of impact on the Lynx and with women in general, who are all too willing to nickname McWilliams-Franklin "Mama Taj" and call her their mother hen, as Candace Wiggins did last season.
Willis said his leadership wasn't vocal; he simply worked the way he'd always worked, and eventually some younger players noticed. They'd question him about his habits, as if searching for the magic solution that might extend their careers. What they got, though, was a more blunt truth.
"A lot of guys look at that, young guys in college and some of your younger-generation guys now," Willis said. "They look back at what I did and say, Wow, how did you do it like that? What did you do? What did you eat?' It's like, it's just basic. I take care of my body."
It's so simple, and yet the discrepancy remains. But the simplicity of it all may just be the reason behind both players' optimism that their habits can catch on. Each has built relationships with players in recent years who have adopted the same dogged approach to basketball as the veterans and can become liaisons to a new generation. For Willis, it's the Timberwolves' Kevin Love, whom he calls one of his favorite players today. The two spoke extensively at the 2011 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, and Love won Willis over with his intensity and focus.
For McWilliams-Franklin, the ray of hope is even closer at hand. It's second-year Lynx forward Moore, whom McWilliams-Franklin called the hardest worker she's seen in a number of years. But as proud as McWilliams-Franklin is of Moore and all she's accomplished, to watch her is a reminder that Moore's special behavior should be closer to the norm.
"You want it to be the norm and not the abnormality," McWilliams-Franklin said. "For now, it is kind of abnormal that you have a hard-working young player."
McWilliams-Franklin isn't sure that she'll return next season. In fact, the Lynx's top draft pick this year, Devereaux Peters, was chosen in large part to replace the veteran forward, who emailed Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve before the draft to remind her of one thing: "I'm old."
Soon, she'll join Willis among the ranks of retired stars who can do nothing more than watch and analyze. Their critiques might be written off as the disgruntled mutterings of basketball's curmudgeons, but that's so far from the truth when players like the two of them can still lead by example even in their retirement. Just look at Willis, who said that he's just as strong today as he was when he was playing. He's 49 years old, and his body hasn't failed him yet.
Kevin Willis is still a name that players recognize, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin can be one of those names, too, when she retires. If they keep speaking, keep advocating everything they believe in, it will be hard for players to ignore them. This is the stuff of self-esteem and respect, of knowing one's limits and making the most of them. This is about a true love of basketball, the kind of love that every player espouses and few manage to hold onto.
So yes, Willis had his routines. So does McWilliams-Franklin. They have their beliefs and their choices, but doing what they've done is about so much more than rote behavior. It's a philosophy that reaches beyond basketball to life.
Walk into the Lynx locker room before a game. It'll likely be empty, save for McWilliams-Franklin sitting at her locker or stretching up against a wall. At first glance, she's no more than 25, with her long, black hair in a ponytail and the kind of defined arms a movie star would beg for. Look a little closer, and it's still hard to see the age. The clearest sign of it, really, is that she's there at all, alone in that locker room.
She's separate, and she's allowed to be. As her career has progressed, McWilliams-Franklin has become just as much an example as she is a player, and she's marked by that. She's different. She's a teacher.
Sometimes, though, she still gets to be just Taj, and these are those moments. They might be mundane, and no one might be watching, but whatever those handful of minutes alone contribute, they're working. And they've been working for years.
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