Storm's O'Neill pays tribute to former UW teammate Burt by wearing her jersey
In a special way, two former Washington stars will make their WNBA debut today as Seattle prepares to face Chicago in its exhibition opener...
Seattle Times staff reporter
In a special way, two former Washington stars will make their WNBA debut today as Seattle prepares to face Chicago in its exhibition opener.
Kristen O'Neill will play with the number of former UW teammate Kayla Burt stitched on O'Neill's Storm jersey.
O'Neill looked down at the No. 20 last week during Media Day and gave a soft smile when asked if it meant anything — especially since it was a diversion from her UW No. 33 jersey.
"I choose this number as a tribute to Kayla [Burt]," O'Neill said. "The adversity that she's been through, she's such an inspiration to me. Every time I put on my jersey, it's a subtle reminder to never take the game for granted."
Burt's story made national headlines. The former Huskies guard suffered a cardiac arrest and nearly died on New Year's Eve 2002. Burt, diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, returned to play with a defibrillator implanted in her chest. But she ultimately had to retire when the device went off twice during a game in 2006.
Burt is currently transitioning from an assistant coach at the University of Portland to becoming an emergency medical technician. But O'Neill often thinks of how her former teammate could be by her side, grinding away to make a pro roster.
"I got teary-eyed. Ultimately I think her number wasn't available, but it was an honor when she told me and a cute moment," said Burt, noting that Storm center Janell Burse wears No. 33. "I wish I was still playing basketball so to see Kristen, someone that I'm really close with, it's cool to know that she thinks of me and has the number to symbolize that.
"I'm proud of her. She's very determined and not going to get cut because she doesn't work hard, that's for sure."
Burt is among the legion of area fans O'Neill has cheering her on at Storm camp. Not since Washington's run to the NCAA tournament second round in 2006 has O'Neill played in her home state. Since then, the versatile 6-foot-1 wing has been in Europe playing basketball.
Undrafted and receiving only lukewarm interest from WNBA teams since graduating, O'Neill played in Spain twice and most recently in Ireland. Overseas, where the club's owners demand that the Americans shoot, O'Neill broke from her college defensive mind-set and regained her shooting touch.
"There were times where I'd check scores and be like, 'Dang, Kristen had a career-high 40 points,' " said Burt of O'Neill, who played everything from point guard to power forward at Washington. "It was just crazy to see because Kristen in college was probably one of the [most] selfless players I played with — almost to a fault. You'd wish she'd look to score more often."
O'Neill's 25th birthday on April 12 was spent playing pick-up games with Sheryl Swoopes and talking with coach Brian Agler about what needs to be accomplished to make the Storm roster.
"I didn't know that [O'Neill] was not drafted because when I saw her play, I was very impressed," Swoopes said. "She can shoot the lights out and just has a great sense of the game."
O'Neill is one of seven rookies in training camp. With promising wings such as All-Star Swin Cash, Shyra Ely and Katie Gearlds leading her position, chances are slim for O'Neill to make the roster. Agler plans to carry 11 players, putting an emphasis on the backup point guard and post positions.
Yet, healed from foot injuries, O'Neill is a strong defender, solid leader and good shooter — finishing her career tied for fifth all-time in three-pointers made (136) at Washington. Those are attributes Agler, who's also director of player personnel, likes.
"She's doing well," Agler said. "She's one of quite a few that needs to make an impact. You evaluate in practice, some of those things you can see in practice, but you can't simulate live game action."
O'Neill will get plenty of playing time during the team's two-game trip, ending in Sacramento on Friday. Veterans Yolanda Griffith and Swoopes will not play in the second half tonight, when Agler will try other combinations.
Griffith and Swoopes are slated to start in Chicago with rookie Kimberly Beck, the third-round pick, Ely and Gearlds.
"We've had a great week of practice and we're learning a lot, but we've got a long ways to go," O'Neill said. "I feel like I'm learning so much and am still really excited to be here."
And Burt feels the same.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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