Storm's Le'coe Willingham is focused on winning another WNBA title
Storm reserve Le'coe Willingham is happy to come off the bench for Seattle after being a starter on Phoenix's 2009 WNBA championship team.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Storm @ Phoenix Mercury, 7 p.m.
Le'coe Willingham tried to conceal her laughter.
The sobbing voice on the other end of the phone declared the end of the world. Listening an ocean away in Spain at 4 a.m. last winter, Willingham finally had to stop her son's misery.
"He's bawling, crying," Willingham recalled of the exchange with Derrick. "He's like, 'We lost! We lost the championship! All I ever wanted to do was win one championship! Just one like my mommy.' "
Willingham, fighting the urge to giggle, told the 9-year-old it was OK. There would be more chances in his life.
"I had to bite my tongue to not laugh," she said. "I said, 'Derrick, you're 9, you've got the rest of your life, baby. I was 28 when I won my first championship. It takes some time, baby, and a lot of hard work.' "
Humility and patience are the essence of Willingham. Characteristics that, while they might not add up to rebounds, points and steals in Storm box scores, certainly are a key to the team clinching the Western Conference's top playoff seed in July.
The Storm (26-6) concludes its regular season this week, playing at Phoenix (15-17) on Friday, then at Los Angeles (12-20) on Saturday. While Mercury reserve DeWanna Bonner is the heavy favorite to win the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award, Willingham, too, possesses traits that make her an ultimate reserve.
"She's kind of like that glue player," Storm star Swin Cash said of Willingham. "We need a big three? She's right there waiting to knock it in for you. She's setting screens and she's always doing exactly what she's supposed to do. I'd say she's 'Miss Consistent.' She just seems to be doing all of these little things."
Small contributions without the need of grand recognition is why Storm coach Brian Agler, who is also director of player personnel, aimed to acquire Willingham first when WNBA free agency opened. Willingham started for Phoenix's 2009 championship team, but the Mercury was unable to retain her because of salary-cap issues.
Plus, the team had Bonner, a lanky, 6-foot-4 wing player who is averaging 12 points and 5.9 rebounds off the bench. As a rookie in 2009, Bonner was selected by media as the Sixth Woman award winner.
Willingham welcomed returning to the bench with the Storm after starting the past two seasons and didn't even fuss that her No. 43 jersey went to center Ashley Robinson. A former star at Auburn like Bonner, Willingham just flipped the numbers and waited for her turn to play.
"It's all about winning for me," said Willingham, who is averaging 5.7 points and 4.2 rebounds. "I don't necessarily get noticed, but it's OK with me because ... I've just never had an ego. Everything I've been through in life, I'm just thankful.
"I'm thankful to Connecticut for giving me a shot, but that's a place that I had limited action. So, I'm just thankful to have the opportunity (in Seattle and Phoenix) to showcase that I can do more, contribute more and be part of special teams. Last year was special and I equally believe that this team is special this year."
Derrick was born after Willingham's successful freshman season at Auburn. But the idea of "Miss Georgia" basketball being pregnant wasn't received well in her hometown of Augusta, Ga.
Willingham didn't pursue a relationship with Derrick's father and was determined to raise her child while completing school and playing ball. She was undrafted in the WNBA, but the Sun signed her to a free-agent contract in 2004.
"Everybody was like, 'You ruined your life,' " said Willingham, who averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds during Phoenix's championship run last year. "Like it's impossible to come back from being pregnant when that's a natural part of life and it's the best part of being a woman. It was motivation to prove that I can. And also to let other young women know you can be a mom and still do what you want to do career-wise."
Willingham earnestly believes she's on the brink of another WNBA title. Yet, in the locker room she's the steady reminder that the work is not done and that the team has to be focused and patient.
Just as she told Derrick last winter.
"She's a breath of fresh air," said Storm forward Camille Little. "It's great to have her opinion, and she plays hard. Brian is so tough on us sometimes; you want to hear some positive reinforcement. Le'coe always makes sure she does that."
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com
|A panel of 39 media members, including Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans, is among the group selecting postseason WNBA awards. Here's a list of six Evans is considering for Sixth Woman of the Year:|
|Svetlana Abrosimova||F||Seattle Storm|
|Extra points: Only third time in nine-year career the utility backcourt player hasn't been a starter. Averaging 12.2 points and 4.6 assists in past five games.|
|DeWanna Bonner||G-F||Phoenix Mercury|
|Extra points: You often forget Bonner isn't part of starting rotation. Has scored 15 points or more in 10 games this season, averaging 12.2 and 5.9 rebounds overall.|
|Charde Houston||F||Minnesota Lynx|
|Extra points: Gives coach Cheryl Reeve high blood pressure with shot selection, but a boost in Lynx's playoff-return pursuit. Averaging 13.2 points in past 10 games.|
|Briann January||G||Indiana Fever|
|Extra points: Still shaky in coach Lin Dunn's system, but second-year guard manages to contribute a spark. Averaging 3.4 assists in past five games.|
|Kelly Miller||G||Atlanta Dream|
|Extra points: Whether veteran leadership for starting guards or defensive plays, Miller has been big in Dream's playoff run. Ten-year pro averaging 3.6 points and 2.6 assists.|
|Plenette Pierson||F-C||New York Liberty|
|Extra points: From getting dirty defensively to averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 boards in Liberty's past 10 games, you can see why East opponents groaned when Pierson was traded from Tulsa.|
— Jayda Evans
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.