There is something a little extra special about seeing players in the WNBA Finals that you got a chance to watch a lot when they were in college. Such is the case for me with Phoenix’s Nicole Ohlde (Kansas State) and Indiana’s Tamecka Dixon (Kansas).
One or the other is going to win a WNBA title this week. It would be the third for Dixon, who won two in Los Angeles (2001, ’02) and signed as a free agent this season with Indiana. It would be the first for Ohlde, who came to Phoenix this year in a trade from Minnesota. Both players are former starters who are now reserves and have accepted their roles well.
The Fever’s Dixon is only 33, but this is her 13th season in the WNBA. This summer, she was one of four players still in the the league who’d been there since its inception in 1997. She was picked in the second round of the “regular” draft that year; the league also had a two-round “elite” draft since it was just getting started.
Los Angeles took Stanford’s Jamila Wideman in the first round, but even then – with Wideman having led the Cardinal to three Final Four appearances _ I thought Dixon would be the better pro. Her game was so well-suited to the next level, and she’s proven to be a valuable contributor both as a starter and reserve for all these years.
“I think the biggest thing as you get older is making sure you eat right and you keep in as good a shape as possible,” Dixon said.
She did take a few years off from going overseas to compete, which she said has helped prolong her WNBA career. Dixon played nine years for LA, three for Houston and is in her first season in Indiana.
“It’s been great here, the chemistry off the court as well as on,” said Dixon, who considered retirement from the WNBA but liked the opportunity enough in Indiana to keep playing. “It makes it a lot easier for me to go out and do my job when I like who I’m working with.
“I think basketball is basketball, ultimately, but every franchise I’ve been with had its unique differences. But I can speak for the Indiana franchise now – they’ve been a class franchise. It’s been a great summer for me.”
A native of New Jersey, Dixon still calls that home base. She came out to Lawrence, Kan., back in 1993 because of then-KU coach Marian Washington, who was able to lure players from far away because they trusted her.
“I loved my years at Kansas; the people really embraced me there,” Dixon said. “And the same thing has happened here in Indiana.”
When Washington’s health problems resulted in her retirement during the 2004 season, Dixon and many other ex-Jayhawks drifted away from their ties to the school. In Dixon’s case, it was a matter of loyalty to someone she thought of as like a second mom, and she felt no link to the subsequent Jayhawk leader, Bonnie Henrickson, or her staff.
I talked to Dixon a few years ago when she was playing for Houston, and told her I hoped that she could make a re-connection to KU because she was too important a figure in Jayhawk women’s basketball history to be cut off from the program. I sensed she wasn’t ready to do that then. But … talking to her during these WNBA Finals, I was glad to see that had changed.
Dixon smiled when I mentioned Kansas, and said she has been checking out the statistics of Jayhawks senior Danielle McCray, who on Wednesday was announced as the coaches’ pick for Big 12 preseason player of the year. Dixon also said that Henrickson had sent her well wishes this WNBA season, and she really appreciated that.
“I think Bonnie’s doing some good things at Kansas,” Dixon said. “I want to stay closer to the program. Hopefully, the program can get back (to the NCAA tournament). I think we’ve got a pretty good player there now. I haven’t had a chance to see her in person, but I’m on the web site following them when I’m overseas in Italy. She is putting up some good numbers.”
Henrickson had to establish her own program at KU, of course, but she’s always been respectful of what Washington did there for a quarter-century. She knows it matters to bridge the gulf between the Jayhawks’ success of years past and their hopes for a successful future.
As for Ohlde, her bond to Kansas State will always be very strong, as she grew up in nearby Clay Center, Kan. Chatting with her at the Finals, I reminded her of the story her dad once told me about how “homesick” she was early in her freshman year in Manhattan, Kan., – even though she was only a half-hour from home.
Ohlde, 27, laughed with embarrassment at that, especially since now she is accustomed to living overseas to play basketball. But that’s all been part of the growth process.
“I think the first time I went over to Europe it was kind of like when I first went to Manhattan,” she said. “I didn’t really know what was going on. But it’s something I’ve gotten used to, and luckily my parents and friends have been able to visit me wherever I am, and I’ve been able to go back home some, too. I’m still a small-town kid at heart.”
Ohlde was a two-time Kodak All-American at K-State and then became the No. 6 pick overall in the 2004 draft. And when you look at who was taken ahead of her – Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, Nicole Powell, Lindsay Whalen, Shameka Christon – that tells you how terrific that class was.
Ohlde went to Minnesota, which seemed like a good fit. It wasn’t all that far from Kansas, and she had some solid veterans there to learn from. The Lynx made the playoffs her rookie season. But then Minnesota went into a mode of spinning its wheels. Although I like the youth movement the Lynx have now and think it could pay off, it was good to see Ohlde get a fresh start in Phoenix. Even though that meant going from being a starter to a reserve, it was a positive move for her because she is a mobile post player whose size can be utilized by the Mercury and now she’s surrounded by talent.
“I was happy right away when I heard,” Ohlde said. “To be playing with the players who were here, but also the style of play – you kind of get it and go, and your instincts take over. Everything about it, I’ve been happy with.”
The only problem has been injuries. She broke a bone in her left foot just before she left Hungary in May, which forced her to miss the start of the WNBA season. Then she fractured a bone in her left wrist on July 11 against Sacramento, costing her more games. She played just 21 of the 34 in the regular season.
“The only other time I’d been hurt was during the summer in college (after her freshman season),” Ohlde said. “Now I’ve had two broken bones in a couple of months. It was crazy. With my foot, I was just warming up and jogging and felt something. I tried to play throughout that game, but it got worse. Luckily, I was coming home (to the United States) the next day so I could get it checked out.
“With the wrist, I threw the ball in and tripped over somebody and then landed wrong. It was a really freaky thing.”
Ohlde started every game she played for the Lynx, and she had been a starter full-time at K-State, too. So coming off the bench is a new thing for her, but she has adapted well.
“As far as my role, I have no problem with it,” she said. “We’re here in the Finals now, and I’d never won a playoff game before. So I’m obviously happy about that. We have great players here, so whatever I can contribute, I’m glad to do.”
Ohlde enjoyed the camaraderie of college, and that really isn’t replicated anywhere in the WNBA because players are adults with their own lives. But she said the atmosphere at Phoenix is closer to that feeling that she had at K-State than had been the case with other teams she’s played on in the WNBA and overseas.
As soon as the WNBA Finals are over, she’ll have a little time to go home to Clay Center and then head to Hungary again.
“I played there last year,” Ohlde said, “so it’s nice because this is my first time going back to a team I’ve already played for. So I know the area and everything. It’s more calming than going to another different country.
“I want to keep playing as long as I can keep doing it. I told myself if it was ever not fun anymore, it would be time to quit. But so far I’m still having a good time, and as long as my body can hold up, I’d like to keep playing.”
Both Dixon and Ohlde have been grateful to the WNBA for the opportunity to play professionally in the United States. And they can see the impact that has on young players just starting now.
“I think the girls today have the opportunity to get in the gym and do things a lot earlier than we did,” Dixon said. “As a result, their games are coming along faster, and something is there for them visibly to shoot for. I didn’t have the WNBA when I was growing up, but they do. They can see something to reach for.”