In a total turnaround of Thursday’s matchup between these teams, San Antonio dominated Phoenix 106-89 on Saturday. The Silver Stars’ Sophia Young had another big night, with 25 points and seven rebounds. And Becky Hammon was back to “normal” – after a subpar performance in the 95-83 loss at Phoenix – as she had 21 points and six assists Saturday.
But … I’m not actually going to write about the Silver Stars or Mercury in this post, or even directly about the WNBA. Rather, I’ve been meaning to get to something else for a while, and this seems like a good time … because both Young and Hammon have a connection to my “subject.”
And that is Megan Mahoney, a former Kansas State and Connecticut Sun player. I chatted with her a little earlier this summer, catching up on what her life is like since basketball – but not the WNBA – is still a big part of it.
Mahoney was a big fan favorite in her time at K-State, and she’s the same now in Italy, where she has played the past few years. She spent two WNBA seasons in Connecticut, then was traded to Houston at the start of last season, but was cut from the roster.
It was hard for her, of course, but she took the opportunity to enjoy the summer in a way she hadn’t probably since she was a kid. And she’s doing the same thing this summer.
There are several players like her … good enough to play professionally, but squeezed out of the WNBA by how incredibly tough it is to make a roster. Still, she is making the most of her skills by competing in Europe and enjoying life and the opportunities there as much as possible.
Mahoney is one of those players for whom I will always have a fondness. Covering her Division I career gave me the chance to watch her grow up, to go through the tough times that all college players do, and to mature as a person. But I also got the opportunity to see her home and spend some time with her family, so I know what she carries with her when she goes overseas.
She is a small-town South Dakota kid who has seen sunsets in Italy, the French countryside and the grandeur of the Alps _ all thanks to basketball. Through her, the rest of her family _ her father, Pat, has never flown in an airplane _ has experienced things they never would have otherwise.
“My childhood was kind of limited to that area,” she said of where she grew up. “And I played in tournaments in Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming. But I would have never imagined it as a possibility to see what I’ve seen.
“Once I was on the bus in Italy, and we were going through Tuscany. And I was saying to myself, ‘I’m in Tuscany!’ A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do things like this. A lot of times, I remind myself of how special it is.”
Megan is from just outside of Sturgis, S.D., and thus the connection to Hammon, who is from nearby Rapid City. Six years younger, Mahoney looked up to Hammon and was even ready to follow her footsteps all the way to Colorado State. But K-State’s lure was too strong, and although she cried her eyes out over having to do it, Mahoney said no to Colorado State.
Obviously, there is a lot I could write about her time at K-State. But suffice to say this: She played her tail off there. One time during her career, somebody who didn’t know anything about the Wildcats asked me to describe their starters.
And just because this is how my brain works (for better or worse) a movie character popped into my head when I was describing Mahoney: Rev. Frank Scott, as played by Gene Hackman, in “The Poseidon Adventure.”
As the movie began, he was this charismatic figure who, despite his outward confidence, was seeking answers and unsure of how to find them. But once disaster struck, his natural leadership ability took over, and he was not going to stop until he reached his destination – or died first.
Now, unfortunately, Frank did die – sacrificing himself to save the rest of the survivors – but his passionate, searching nature was the heart of the movie. He went on the trip to try to discover his true beliefs, but in the end, he found his true “calling” – which was to help others. He couldn’t save everyone – ultimately, not even himself – but he saved the ones he could.
That might seem absurdly deep, especially when maybe all the person really wanted to know was, “How good is her jump shot?” But I always say that I don’t cover “sports” … I cover people who play sports. And some of them make me, as a writer, think a lot.
I always thought there was something special about Mahoney, at her core, that I wasn’t sure even she was aware of. I didn’t know exactly what it was, or even how to define it. But I got a big clue about it when I went to Sturgis to do a story on her before her senior season at K-State.
It was five years ago this month, during the “rally” week where thousands of bikers and their motorcycles – mostly Harleys – come to the Black Hills. I saw Rushmore and Crazy Horse for the first time, listened to never-ending sounds of engines reverberating all day and night, saw the sparkling chrome of machines lined up like the modern-day “horses” they are.
This was where Mahoney grew up, and I knew it had shaped her but not necessarily “defined” her. I knew she would travel far from here. Talking to her family, especially her grandmother Elda, got me closer to what I sensed was inside her.
Elda is a delightful woman, someone who’s seen so much of life from the house she’s lived in since the 1950s in Rapid City. I sat and talked with Elda all afternoon, and then we went out to get pancakes for supper because we wanted to keep talking. Elda is from the “greatest generation” – those who got our country through World War II – and I heard the story of her husband, Dick Mahoney, an amazing man.
He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a teen-ager during the Great Depression, then enlisted in the Marines in 1940. He was assigned to Pearl Harbor, and on the Dec. 7, 1941, morning the base was attacked, he and his comrades raced to get machine guns to try to fend off enemy planes.
He survived Pearl Harbor – plus many major battles in the Pacific theater: Midway Island, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands and Okinawa. He also survived malaria that he contracted during the war, although it would return for the rest of his life.
Elda explained while he wasn’t consumed by his war experiences, they were never that far away in his mind. But it wasn’t his suffering that he thought of. In fact, she told me he seemed most bothered by what had happened with “the enemy.” He worried whether the Japanese soldiers he’d fought had ever received proper burials. He was an empathetic man forced into a fight for survival, but then haunted by what he’d had to do to survive.
She showed me his two Purple Hearts and the bullets that had been removed from his foot and leg. Megan never met her grandfather; a postal carrier after he returned from the war, he died at age 56 in 1976, seven years before she was born.
But hearing about him was a crucial link for me to some of what I sensed was “special” inside Megan. She would grow up in a very different world than her grandfather, but there was an unmistakable genetic similarity.
The Sturgis rally this year was again the first week of August, and it reminded me of my trip there. One of the things I talked to Megan about this summer was how her grandmother was doing.
“Grandma lives the simplest life, she’s got a routine that she does every day,” Megan said. “She doesn’t get out of South Dakota hardly at all. But she’s so happy, so content.
“I get to travel and see so many things, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But it brings me back down to earth when I visit her, because life is so simple with her. Most of the time, she does the talking and I listen to the stories.”
Megan does have some stories of her own, of course. Her team this past season finished first in the Italian League and then made it to the finals of EuroCup. There, she faced a team that included Young, who of course Mahoney had also faced back in their Big 12 days.
Included on Mahoney’s squad were former UCLA player Michelle Greco, the Sacramento Monarchs’ Rebekkah Brunson and the Seattle Storm’s Suzy Batkovic-Brown.
“It was really exciting; I was happy to be a part of it,” Mahoney said. “The club and the city were really excited, we had a good fan following. It was pretty special, and I enjoyed being with my teammates.
“For me, this year was a pretty good year; it wasn’t extraordinary numbers, but I was consistent. The biggest thing was being in a situation where I was comfortable and confident. I fit into my role there. For any player, when you feel comfortable and you know what’s expected of you, it helps you to just go out and play.”
Mahoney said her team felt the pressure of being expected to do well last season, but it was a “positive” pressure.
“I think I’m coming into my own as a person and a player,” she said. “Last year, I had gotten traded to Houston (in the WNBA), but when I went down there and got cut after a week and a half, it was really hard. That’s a knock on your confidence for sure.
“I was disappointed and upset, and my agent was asking me if I wanted to get into another camp, and I made the decision I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to step away and take the summer off. I enjoyed the heck out of it; I got to do normal-people stuff.
“This year, I watch games – I watched (former K-State teammate Nicole) Ohlde play on TV the other night. Sometimes, it hurts; I can feel it in my gut, just wanting to be out there. But overall, I’m content. I’m doing other things. I miss it, but I’m OK being away from it. And I really enjoy playing overseas.”
She has taken the opportunity to see as much as she can of Europe, and often tells herself how lucky she is.
“Even though I don’t have time to do a whole lot of sight-seeing during the season, you still get to meet people, hear their language, try their food,” she said. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve seen a lot of cool things, and when my mom comes over, I get to play tour guide a little. We’ve been to Venice and Florence and Pisa.
“I’ve been to Moscow twice, got to see the Red Square. I feel like all of Europe is beautiful. There are the main attractions that everyone hears about, but I really like it all. Once, we had a 15-hour bus trip to Slovakia, and we went through Switzerland and Austria. It was breathtaking. And this year, we played in France where it was mountainous, clean, green and beautiful. And in Italy, I prefer the little towns you don’t really know about. They’re so cute and historic.”
And while Italy isn’t much like Manhattan, Kan., the way Mahoney feels about fans is still the same as in her Wildcat days. She has learned enough Italian that she can have conversations with people, and she always looks to connect.
“We had some diehard fans in Italy that would bus to see all of our games,” she said. “I think they take a liking to you if you reach out at all. I hate when I see players who are too … I don’t know what the word is … too “big” to talk to fans. Give them a little time, say hi and smile.
“I think fans over there are just like here. They like giving high-fives and when you try to communicate with them. They like when the Americans try to speak Italian. So I guess you could say the connection is still the same; the fans are such a big part of sports and helping you win. Just bringing enthusiasm and energy.”