DeLisha Milton-Jones enters 18th season with grace and tenacity

DeLisha Milton-Jones enters her 18th season in the WNBA this year. Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images, courtesy of the Atlanta Dream.
DeLisha Milton-Jones enters her 18th season in the WNBA this year. Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images, courtesy of the Atlanta Dream.

DeLisha Milton-Jones is a two-time WNBA champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who enters her 18th WNBA season in 2016. Last year she became the league’s all-time games-played leader, and is the most veteran athlete at 41 years of age. Milton-Jones is well-known for her sweet smile and bubbly personality, as well as her tenacious defense.

Going into her first preseason game with the Atlanta Dream today, she was feeling a combination of excitement and nervousness.

“I feel like I have butterflies like the day I entered into the league,” Milton-Jones said. “I feel like a rookie all over again – a rookie with experience. I want to bring my vet mentality but keep the youthfulness that a rookie has. That mentality that you throw caution to the wind and have fun.”

She played her college basketball at the University of Florida from 1993-1997 under coach Carol Ross. In 1997, she was named SEC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and was the State Farm Wade Trophy recipient.

The 6-1 Riceboro, Georgia native was selected fourth overall in the 1999 draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. She completed two stints there, from 1999-2004 and from 2008-2012, and has also played for the Washington Mystics (2005-2007), the San Antonio Stars (2013), the New York Liberty (2013-2014), and most recently, the Atlanta Dream (2014-present).

Milton-Jones is excited to be back playing in her home state.

“Playing back home means everything to me because I now have the chance be around family that I usually don’t see very often,” she said. “It’s exciting to run out the tunnel knowing I have support that is very close to my heart there cheering me on.”

However, Atlanta hasn’t been her favorite city in which to play.

“Los Angeles will always be special because that’s where my career started and where I won my two championships,” she said. “Bonds and memories were formed that will last a lifetime.”

She cited a few reasons for choosing her current jersey number 1, one of them being, “this league will probably never see another me after I leave because of my 18 years as a professional.”

Milton-Jones said her love for the game has increased over the years, and she is smarter in game situations than when she was younger.

“I only worry abut what I can control, and that’s my attitude and effort,” she said.

She is also pleased at how the league has grown since it began.

“Structurally we are more solid than ever, but I truly do miss having teams in certain cities like Houston, Sacramento, Orlando, Miami and Utah,” Milton-Jones said. “Fan support has been constant and more people recognize our talents and abilities, but we still have more ground to cover.”

“Players are stronger, faster and more skilled, giving the game a faster pace with more ‘ooh ahh’ moments worthy of SportsCenter top 10 plays. We have more rights as players and are using our voices more, but there’s still room for improvement.”

Milton-Jones has a few ideas to grow the league.

“Increased media coverage during the offseason as well as in season needs to change,” she said. “Also, I feel that we have yet to embrace what this league represents- a very diverse group of women that can appeal to all walks of life.”

Despite being ranked in the top five in both rebounds and steals, in the top ten for points, twelfth all time in blocks, and just one of five players with at least 5,000 points and 2,400 rebounds in her career, Milton-Jones was not named to the WNBA All-Decade Team in 2006 nor to the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time, selected in 2011. Her numbers and accomplishments clearly qualify to be placed on either one or both of the lists.

She responded to not being selected to either list by saying, “the only thing I have control over is what I do with the time I’m given on the floor. I feel that my body of work speaks for itself. Being ranked in the top 10 of every category has to speak volumes. I may be a vet, but my numbers speak for my career then and now. I hope and pray that I will be given my just due by the voters when it’s time for them to decide. I want to be among my peers, that I share the record books with, by being recognized for my play and achievements as they have. It’s a prestigious award that I would be honored to add to my list of accolades.”

Milton-Jones is excited to see where the WNBA is headed under new president Lisa Borders, an Atlanta native who helped bring the Dream to the city.

“I think her energy will be infectious from the board room to the court,” Milton-Jones said. “There’s a certain electricity surrounding the 20th year of the league that she will take to an entirely different level. It’s rather timely that we have brought in someone with the vigor that she possesses.”

Serving as an ambassador for young athletes as a WNBA player, she feels she holds certain obligations.

“My obligations are to be a beacon of strength and an example of a viable goal that many young girls can want to achieve,” Milton-Jones said. “I take being a role model seriously and I watch everything I say, post and do as a result because our youth are impressionable.”

She encourages young athletes to be tough on themselves and to have patience, because “it’s a process when you’re seeking perfection.”

Not only can Milton-Jones play basketball, she can coach basketball. In 2005, she coached the professional men’s basketball team, the Los Angeles Stars, where her husband Roland was playing at the time. And with her WNBA career winding down, Milton-Jones could see herself reenter the coaching field.

“I can see myself coaching on any level from collegiate to the professional- men or women. Commentating is something I would also love to do,” she said.

Basketball has shown Milton-Jones much about life.

“Basketball has taught me that it is not far removed from real life by the adversity we face everyday,” shesaid. “The same lessons can be applied in each setting to solve problems of every magnitude.”

“But the most beautiful thing it has taught me is that I can go clear across to the other side of the world in a very remote part, not speak the language or look like anyone else around and can understand them all because basketball is a universal language once you’ve established chemistry. Amazing how you can play together without saying word but understand each other through movements.”

 

The Dream tip off their season May 14 against the San Antonio Stars.

 

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