Welcome to WNBA Thursday! The season kicks off June 3, but on Thursday the Chicago Sky faces the Chinese National Team in the first preseason game. Most players are immersed in preseason training camps, where each athlete is competing against her fellow teammates for a slot on the 11-person roster.
This week we checked in with Nicole Powell, a Stanford graduate and seven-year veteran of the WNBA who now plays for the New York Liberty. Named Most Improved Player of the Year in 2005, she lead the league in three-point shots and helped the Sacramento Monarchs win the WNBA Championships. Last year she carried the Liberty to the Eastern Conference Finals. She's also competed internationally, winning a silver medal in the 2003 Pan-Am Games. And she's also, as you'll find out in her post, a guitarist.
Powell took a break from preseason training camp to recall her first athletic test, freshman-year high school P.E., and to remember that the stage she's on has changed but that the game remains the same.
Before shoe deals and Nike contracts, before all the media hype, before lockouts and contract negotiations, before we had followers on Twitter (or Twitter even existed), we were kids with a blank future and the gear to match. When I showed up to P.E. class as a freshman on the first day of school, I was issued a gray T-shirt with Mountain Pointe High School stamped on the front and a pair of cotton, maroon shorts to match; it may have been a no-name brand, but that didn't matter. It was school issued and as freshmen, receiving our first MPHS labeled shirt from the equipment manager was a rite of passage.
For every sport, whether you were training in the weight room or on the track, it was the same: Gray undershirts were given for basketball and football, gray shirts and sweats for the tennis and track teams. They weren't the most expensive shirts, but they were that perfectly weighted material that could endure a thousand washes, never lost its shape around the neck, and always stayed soft.
It was more than a shirt. The gray represented a blank slate that embodied who we were in that moment: open books beginning to take on the responsibility for our future and to write our own destinies. How long would we study? How hard would we work? How far would we push? Would the body in that gray earn a spot on the JV or varsity team? Would the team go on to win a state title?
On Sunday, team members for the New York Liberty received a different set of grays for the WNBA's annual preseason rite of passage -- training camp. The shirt is no longer jersey gray, but blue, and has been upgraded to 100 percent polyester, but the meaning remains the same. Fifteen athletes are competing for 11 roster spots under the constant surveillance of staff; while the coaches begin to form opinions on the player combinations they think will be most successful. What will this team transform into by the season opener? It's not clear yet, but the foundation of success we hope to achieve is being laid now while we train in our "blues," tucked away at the practice facility, not when the final version of our team is unveiled in June.
I received words of wisdom as the perfect send-off when I made my way to New York this week. I ran into legendary musician George Benson going through security before my flight from Phoenix and was mortified when he not only saw, but commented on, the guitar I was carrying (which I've tastefully dubbed as an affordable instrument, although it's really a dime-store guitar that is one notch above junky). What he said, however, rang true, "The guitar you got is perfect for practice."
He reminded me that to be good at anything takes good old-fashioned hard work, just as it did to make the high school team. And this month I'm looking forward to all the practice time training camp affords alongside these high caliber players. We will challenge one another to be better and develop into a unified group at the same time. As a result, fans will see a polished and refined team as we shed our blues and put on our uniforms for the home opener at the Prudential Center.
But that'll just be the start of turning our efforts into a championship -- we'll have to wait until September to measure what we've accomplished in our blues.
Next week we'll be checking in with Angel McCoughtry of the Atlanta Dream.
WATCH: Nicole Powell talk about her role models as she was growing up: