Foes but still friends

Nicky Anosike doesn't miss the hot Tennessee summers. Shannon Bobbitt does miss the chartered flights. Alexis Hornbuckle joked she didn't miss her college teammates, but they pointed out that she contacted them all the time. All three spent some time with the media in a teleconference Tuesday in which they also caught up with each other.

The three former Lady Vols, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alexis Hornbuckle, chatted with the media in a conference call set up by the WNBA during the break for the Olympics. The teams have returned to practice while the Olympians remain in Beijing – and while the trio waited for reporters to dial into the conference, they talked about their late-season break from competition, keeping in touch with each other and planning a get-together.

"I don't like them so I try not to talk to them as much as possible," Hornbuckle later joked to the media.

"You call me every day, three times a day," Bobbitt said.

"Honestly, we try to keep in touch," Hornbuckle said. "Before the conference started we were joking with Nicky that I texted her but I guess my text didn't go through. We were good friends in college so we try to keep that going, even though we're in different states."

Bobbitt likes the state of California. Anosike enjoys the mild summer climate in Minnesota.

"I'm in a great state; I'm in a great city," Anosike said. "The weather is great. I don't have to deal with the groggy Tennessee heat anymore. It kind of got to me while I was there. The weather is beautiful out here. It never gets hot. It always really nice."

The former Tennessee player that entered the league as the top pick, Candace Parker, who is in Beijing with the USA team trying to win the gold medal, has received the lion's share of attention, but Anosike, Bobbitt and Hornbuckle have wasted no time making their marks on their teams.

Hornbuckle was selected fourth overall by Detroit and is a major contributor off the bench for the Shock. She is second on the team in minutes played behind Plenette Pierson, the 2007 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. Among rookies, Hornbuckle plays the fifth-most minutes and is second in steals (2.2 spg), fifth in assists (1.9 apg) and sixth in rebounds (3.9 rpg). Her first-year stats compare favorably to teammate and four-time All-Star Deanna Nolan's rookie season.

Detroit lost four games in a row before the Olympic break but remains in third place with a 16-11 record and is only a half-game behind the Connecticut Sun, which is in first place.

"We kind of fell by the wayside right before the break, but we're getting ready over this break to come back and try to get to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference," Hornbuckle said. "I struggled a little bit at the beginning (making the transition from college to pro ball), but I love where I'm at and I'm learning a lot and just trying to fulfill my role."

Anosike was taken as the second pick in the second round by Minnesota. She quickly became a starter for the Lynx.

Anosike is one of three rookies to start each game – the other two are Parker and Amber Holt – and she ranks third both on the Lynx and among rookies in scoring (9.0 ppg). She also ranks third among rookies in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and second among first-year players in double-doubles with three. She leads the WNBA in steals (2.5 ppg) as a front-court player and is one of two players to rank in the top 15 in both steals and blocks.

"I'm loving it and I'm having so much fun," Anosike said. "It's the most fun I've had in a while, because I play a pretty big role on my team, and I am enjoying it. We're kind of still fighting to get in playoff position, but it's been fun and we're working hard over this break to try to improve so that we can clinch a playoff spot."

Minnesota is 13-13 and 4.5 games behind San Antonio, which tops the Western Conference. The Lynx are just 1.5 games behind 15-12 Sacramento for the fourth playoff spot in the West with eight regular season games left to play for Minnesota.

Bobbitt was the first pick of the second round by Los Angeles and after initially struggling to get minutes for the Sparks, she has now moved into the starting lineup.

"I didn't expect it," Bobbitt said. "Being a rookie you just want to learn the ropes, learn from all the veterans. I am put in that position so early, and I'm going to do the best I can."

Bobbitt is tied with Parker for first among rookies in assists (3.5 apg). The Sparks have exceeded their previous win total from 2007 by five wins, in part due to Bobbitt's play, as her assist average is better than any Sparks player of a year ago. She had a career high 10 assists against Minnesota on July 27. She has hit 17 three-pointers for the Sparks and also has 50 rebounds on the season.

"My season is going well so far," Bobbitt said.

Los Angeles and Sacramento have identical 15-12 records for the third and fourth playoff spots with seven games remaining for both teams.

"We also are fighting to get into the playoffs and my transition from college to the Los Angeles Sparks has (gone) very well, Bobbitt said. "It hasn't been a hard adjustment. I am loving the weather out here in California."

The players were loose and engaged during the interviews – all three can give expansive answers – and several questions focused on the adjustment from a college environment to the pro ranks.

ADJUSTMENT TO LOSSES

The three players lost five games in the past two years at Tennessee after finishing 34-3 in 2007 and 36-2 in 2008. All three have more than doubled that loss total in three months in the WNBA.

"I hate losing," Hornbuckle said. "I guess we can all say we hate losing because we're competitive. But the difference is you have so many games in a row. You have back to backs. You're traveling. It's a lot different from playing in college. You know you're going to play on a Thursday or a Sunday, maybe a Tuesday game. You know your schedule is kind of set out for you as far as days but here you've got to be able to bounce back.

"You might have a game that went into overtime and you're flying into the next city the next morning for another game. I think the schedule is kind of rigorous on your body as a rookie, but you kind of just adjust to it."

Stacey Dales, who is now retired from the WNBA, and Sidney Spencer, a second-year player, spoke to the rookies at orientation. Realizing that losses happen was part of their instruction.

"In college you might have one or two players that you need to focus on … but at this level everyone is in the WNBA for a reason, and everyone is good," Anosike said. "I think you have to accept you're going to lose sometimes. During our rookie orientation we heard from a lot of the great players.

"Stacey Dales told us you really don't have time to get down on yourself because, number one, it's not that horrible – and when we lose in college it's horrible. You're losing but so is everyone else so you kind of have to look at it that way. You don't have the time to really dwell on it like you did in college. You can harp on a loss in college because you have four or five days to think about it before the next game."

"It's a competitive league," Bobbitt added. "You can lose on any given night. … I am definitely not used to losing, but it's something that you have to adjust to because every team is good."

COMMUNITY SERVICE

Anyone who reads the league or teams' websites realizes the players often are in the community from working the drive-through lane at McDonald's in conjunction with the eatery sponsoring some games this season in a marketing promotion to planting flowers at the Ronald McDonald House to putting on clinics to handing out samples at Trader Joe's food stores.

Hornbuckle has turned up in quite a few of those activities from shooting pool for charity to flower planting.

"I try to do different type things, but you don't want to get worn out," she said.

"Whenever I'm asked to do something or definitely when it's a team function I'm always with it and looking forward to doing things for the community and giving back, but I definitely don't want to take a toll on my body and make sure I stay well rested and focused," Bobbitt said.

Anosike pointed out that she played for a team that needed to find its niche with the community, unlike Detroit, which has won a WNBA title, and Los Angeles, which plays in a major market.

"I try to get out in the community as much as possible," Anosike, who noted that it has the dual effect of helping people and promoting the Lynx, which had won very few games in the franchise's history. "They don't have quite the reputation of the LA Sparks or the Detroit Shock. We know we have to kind of get a buzz going in the community. I think we have a greater responsibility."

BIGGEST ADJUSTMENT FROM COLLEGE TO THE WNBA

The players mentioned learning new roles, the schedule – especially back-to-back games – commercial travel and the mental challenges.

"The hardest part for me probably just getting used to (looking) to score, because that is something that my coach really put an emphasis on when I met with him for the first time after I got drafted," Anosike said. "I've had a tendency to not look for my shot and just to play defense. Now I truly focus on playing both ends. That was really difficult for me, but I've been working out a lot with my coaches. Coach Jennifer Gillom has really been helping me, and I am getting more and more confident."

Bobbitt elicited laughter from her former teammates when she mentioned the travel.

"Traveling, I am not used to going through security at the airport or having to wait in lines at restaurants," Bobbitt said.

While at Tennessee, Bobbitt remembered van rides from Texas to Florida when she played in junior college. That changed to chartered flights and buses that deliver players to the tarmac for easy boarding at Tennessee.

"I'm used to being spoiled by the University of Tennessee," she said.

As far as on the court, Bobbitt cited having to increase her basketball IQ, the speed of the game and needing to learn every position on the floor in the Sparks' system.

"I am still learning that and getting better at that," Bobbitt said. "I've been working on running the team better, learning player weaknesses and strengths. We've been working hard."

The Sparks are missing three players because of the Olympics with Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones all suiting up for the USA, but the team has returned to practice and is using the time to get reps for others. Bobbitt hopes that means the rest of the team will not always count on the big three to score.

"We know other players have to step up," she said. "Rebounding the ball and less turnovers will help us a lot and everybody stepping up and playing their roles."

Hornbuckle agreed the professional game requires more focus from her.

"The most difficult transition was the mental aspect, as Shannon said," Hornbuckle said. "I have a tendency to zone out. My attention span doesn't prove to be that long. But in the WNBA everybody is so smart, especially the veterans, that you have to know exactly what's going on and everybody's strengths and weaknesses, as well as your own."

BEST PART OF BEING A PRO COMPARED TO COLLEGE

Personal time without the burden of academics and the chance to sleep were singled out by the players.

"(Coach) Bill (Laimbeer) and Rick (Mahorn), do a good job of giving us the days off that we need to allow our bodies to rest," Hornbuckle said. "Everything is kind of on your own, and I really like that because I like to sleep in my free time and not have to go to tutoring or a night class or anything like that, that feels real good. Like Shannon said I am used to being spoiled. I hate waiting in line. It's just something you kind of get used to."

"The freedom, like Lex talked about, freedom to do what you want to do has been nice as opposed to always having to go to class and always having to rush from one spot to the next so just being able to step back and take time for myself these past few months has been nice," Anosike said.

MISS MOST ABOUT COLLEGE

Hornbuckle made jokes about avoiding her former teammates – while cutting up with them as soon as she joined the teleconference – and Bobbitt mentioned the talks the team used to have about various topics.

"We were all such good friends in college, and the WNBA is a lot different," Anosike said. "People have lives of their own and they have lives outside of basketball whereas at Tennessee our life was pretty much school and basketball and we were basically all we had at school. I learned to cherish that. Now that I am out of that situation I really miss it.

"We try to keep in contact. I talk on the phone with Pat (Summitt). I miss the friendships that we had on Tennessee."

Anosike's outreach includes Alberta Auguste, the fifth senior in their class. All five Tennessee starters were drafted by WNBA teams the day after they won the program's eighth national title and second in a row.

Auguste was drafted by the New York Liberty in the third round and was cut in training camp. She then returned to Knoxville to fulfill 15 hours to get her psychology degree – Auguste is on track to finish in December – and join her four former teammates as a graduate of Tennessee.

"I really do miss her a lot," Anosike said. "We're all close on the (Lynx) team, but it's not like it was at Tennessee. Some of us were in class together. We were pretty much all in study hall together. We were at practice for a million hours a day together. We were always together. Here it's more of a job setting where you go to practice and then you go your own separate ways."

THE BANNER GAME

The 2008 national championship banner is expected to be raised in November, likely against San Francisco on Nov. 15 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Anosike and Hornbuckle will be playing overseas with Anosike in Israel and Hornbuckle in Istanbul, Turkey. Bobbitt's plans are not finalized, but she also expects to be overseas. That means the three won't be in Knoxville to see their second banner raised to the rafters.

"I wanted to make it back for that, too," Hornbuckle said.

"We saw it last year," Anosike noted.

THE SKIRMISH

Hornbuckle and Bobbitt were part of the biggest story to come out of the WNBA this summer – in terms of buzz and media coverage – when their two teams got into a skirmish in the waning seconds of a July 22 game at Detroit.

Parker and Pierson got entangled at the free throw line and a series of events later, punches were being thrown – none landed – and players were leaving the benches. Ten players ended up being suspended plus one assistant coach for the Shock.

Some of the commentary afterwards centered on Parker's takedown tackle of Pierson after she stood over her and Hornbuckle's restraining of Pierson to keep the fracas from escalating even further.

The role of Hornbuckle as peacemaker was a little surprising, since she also can mix it up, if need be. Hornbuckle acknowledged her initial reaction was to join the fray, but then she saw Pierson.

"I saw Plenette going and she looked really, really fired up so I just kind of grabbed her and took it from there," Hornbuckle said.

"It was a heat-of-the-moment thing. First year (at Tennessee), I would have wanted to fight. But seeing an all-out brawl on the court - and it was a very good game, whenever L.A. and Detroit face each other it's going to be physical - I just wanted to see the game get finished."

The fight pitted former teammates on opposite sides, but that adjustment had been made already.

"We were teammates, and we're still good friends and once the ball gets thrown up we're on opposite ends of the court so we just go out there and do our jobs," Hornbuckle said. "We were friends right after. I was talking to Shannon right after the game. It's basketball. It's competitive. Things like that might happen. We hope not, but it happened. It's kind of like you've got to fend for your teammate, but it's not so much to the point where you want to go fight or something like that. It was just a part of the game."

"To add on to what Alexis said, we're here to compete, two great teams going at it, it's going to be physical," Bobbitt said. "The game got out of hand a little bit, but for the most part we just wanted to finish the game out and compete and may the best team win. That was really it. I don't really think about it anymore. I've moved on from it. I'm moving on to the next game."

The event exploded on the Internet and in mainstream and secondary media outlets with seemingly everyone weighing in with an opinion.

"Obviously we're not looking to go out and promote fighting for the WNBA or any sport professionally, but I would say that it did help out with ratings," Hornbuckle said. "You look on YouTube. It was on ESPN. It was on the news. It was everywhere. Every channel you turned it on somebody was talking about it.

"That just let people see that yes, we're women, but at the same we're just as competitive as a man, and this is our job, and we're just as serious about basketball as anybody else."

"She said it all," Bobbitt said.

Anosike saw the video clips later of the incident. Her support for her former teammates was unconditional.

"I guess my reaction was playing with Lex and Shannon and Candace that's something they didn't want to happen, but I feel like they handled it well," Anosike said. "Lex being out there trying to break it up I feel like she was doing the right thing. Candace did the right thing, also. Obviously you do have to defend yourself. Candace is definitely a target, one of the main targets on the LA team. I know she felt like she had to defend herself.

"All three of them are my former teammates, and I'm going to back up whatever decisions that they made. I think the bottom line is they did what they had to do in that situation."


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