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. McWilliams-Franklin 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 with a home game 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. It means the Lynx will bring their top nine scorers back from the 2011 squad that went a league-best 27-7 during the regular season and surged to the title by only losing one of their eight playoff games. They also add Devereaux Peters, a former Notre Dame star in McWilliams-Franklin's mold who was the third pick in last month's draft.
This team has come a long way since those back-to-back 10-24 records in 2006 and 2007. Only two of the Lynx's first 12 years of existence led to winning marks, prior to the title they took last October.
"My rookie season, we didn't always have the best of times," said shooting guard Candice Wiggins, who's entering her fifth year. "Sometimes I wanted to literally strangle Seimone to death. But you see the good in everyone, and you start to grow. You don't know someone until you really get to know them. We actually take the time to get to know each other. I have to give a lot of credit to Taj. Taj really taught the whole team that in a way only a mother could probably teach."
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 championship. That year, and the one after, was when she forged her relationship with Reeve, who was an assistant coach there 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.
McWilliams-Franklin agreed, though she sent her coach an email message right before the draft.
"'Coach, I'm old,"' she told Reeve, pushing for the team to draft Peters as a replacement and a protegee.
Her lobbying paid off.
"I can't continue to play 36 minutes a game no matter how much I want to play," McWilliams-Franklin said.
So they'll enjoy her while they can this year and see how far they can go.
"They really enjoy coming here together and being a part of this, and that's what makes us special," Reeve said. "I hope that's something we never lose. It gives you an edge."