Alexis Hornbuckle stays humble

Midway through her WNBA rookie season Alexis Hornbuckle finally had a chance to reflect on where she had been and where she was headed. The Shock's top draft pick went from Tennessee to college graduation to Detroit and now finds herself on the cusp of making history if her team can take out San Antonio. She reminded herself in July to stay humble, and she's repeating the message in October.

"I know that once I start thinking all this is because of me it will all go downhill," Alexis Hornbuckle said in a phone interview from San Antonio after the Shock's shoot-around before tonight's game two in the WNBA Finals.

"I take a step back and humble myself and realize the situation that I'm blessed to be in right now. It was a quick turnaround. It really didn't hit me until mid-season of the WNBA because I didn't have time to take it all in and, ‘Man, I just won back-to-back championships and now I'm playing for a team that could potentially be a WNBA finalist.' "

Hornbuckle helped lead Tennessee to national titles in 2007 and 2008. A little more than 12 hours after the horn sounded on her college career, Hornbuckle was at a golf resort near Tampa, the site of the Women's Final Four, waiting to hear her name called in the WNBA draft. The Shock took her No. 4 – Lady Vol teammate Candace Parker went No. 1 to the Los Angeles Sparks – and Hornbuckle has played a key role, even leading the league in steals despite coming off the bench.

Hornbuckle can make history if the Shock win a championship this month – they lead the best-of-five series 1-0 after Wednesday's 77-69 win over the Silver Stars – by becoming the first player to ever win an NCAA national title and WNBA title in the same year. It's a feat a player only has one shot at, and it hasn't been done since the league began play in 1997. (Update: The Shock took a 2-0 lead after beating San Antonio, 69-61, on Friday night.)

Hornbuckle wasn't aware of the unique double until the series with San Antonio began. Had the Shock played the Sparks, which lost to the Silver Stars in the Western Conference Finals, it would have been guaranteed to happen since Parker and rookie guard Shannon Bobbitt play for Los Angeles.

The 5'11 guard for the Shock was reluctant to talk about the possibility.

"I'm blessed to be here, and I'm just trying to take it one game at a time," Hornbuckle said. "Obviously winning the whole thing is something I want to do just because I hate losing. It would be a neat thing to do, but first and foremost it would just be neat to have a championship, period, as a rookie. That's really what I was thinking about. I just hate losing."

Her former coach, Pat Summitt, likes Hornbuckle's chances.

"If you talk about her and what she brings, she's one of the best rebounding guards they've got. She's aggressive, she's attacking the basket," Summitt said. "She's looking to be that kind of player for them. I think it could very well happen."

"I hope she's right," said Hornbuckle, who exchanges text messages with Summitt on a regular basis and will occasionally call to talk even though "I don't really like to talk on the phone."

Hornbuckle led the league in steals with 79 despite playing in a reserve role at 22.0 minutes per game over the 34-game regular season. She also was first in the league with steals per game at 2.32 and steals per 40 minutes at 4.23. She was satisfied with her defense but not her offence after averaging just 5.4 points per game.

"I'm happy – so far, so good," Hornbuckle said with a tone that wasn't convincing, and she noted her coaches wanted at least 10 points a game. "I feel like it could have gone a little better as far as offensive efficiency. As far as that part, I'm a little frustrated. I feel like I let myself down and let my coaches down but at the same time I'm trying to pick up my defense, energy, hustle plays, rebounding. Bring all that."

Summitt wasn't surprised to see Hornbuckle atop the league in steals as a rookie. (And fellow rookie out of Tennessee, Nicky Anosike, was second with 75 takeaways and made the league's All-Rookie Team.) The only question mark for Hornbuckle's college coach was how much playing time she could carve out because of the Shock's veteran-laden lineup at guard.

"The one thing I didn't know early on is how much confidence they would have in her, because they're a pretty stacked team," Summitt said. "I didn't know if she would have that kind of impact just because I didn't know what her minutes might be and I thought they might be limited. She's earned her time and taken advantage of it."

Hornbuckle accepted the challenge at training camp that she needed to find a niche with the Shock.

"I knew I was going to come in and be a role player," she said. "We have guards such as Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith and Elaine Powell. They know what they're doing. They're experienced."

Life as a professional player suits Hornbuckle, who said she likes not having curfews and mandatory study halls and being able to keep her cell phone on road trips.

"You're on your own," Hornbuckle said. "You don't have to worry about waking up and opening the door for a room check, which I think is necessary because you do want to keep everybody in and make sure they're not out doing something they're not supposed to, so I understand all the rules at the college level. But it's nice to know you have all the freedom in the world, and it's on you and your responsibility to do what you need to do."

Hornbuckle no longer has to cover her tattoo – Summitt had a policy of no visible tattoos – but what is somewhat surprising is that she has one. When Hornbuckle was a freshman at Tennessee, she said her father, a reverend, would be furious if she inked herself.

"He would still kill me," said Hornbuckle, but the preacher handled it a little better because the tattoo on her shoulder says "The family that prays together stays together," and it has a cross with praying hands and "Hornbuckles" in the sleeve of the cross. "It's family-oriented so I knew he wasn't really going to disagree with it too much."

Hornbuckle did credit her time at Tennessee within the disciplined system of Summitt with helping prepare her for the next level.

"Oh, definitely," she said. "Coach Summitt did a great job getting you ready as far as off the court and the basketball aspect of it, working hard every time you're on the court, and not to mention just being mentally strong. When I got to Detroit you had to be starting from preseason and training camp. You had to come in here, and you were fighting for a job. Nothing was guaranteed and every day you're still fighting for a place. You have to give it your all, you have to do your best and that's everything Coach Summitt instilled because it helped me grow as a player."

Hornbuckle's maturity was on display in one of the WNBA's biggest media moments of the season when the Sparks and Shock got into an on-court skirmish between Parker and Plenette Pierson. It ended with punches thrown, though none connected, and a total of 10 players on both teams and one assistant coach, Rick Mahorn, suspended for one to four games.

Hornbuckle didn't join the fray but instead held back Pierson to help end the fight. While all around her were losing their heads – the Shock's Mahorn and the Sparks' Lisa Leslie even made contact – Hornbuckle kept hers. It was noted by her father, the Rev. Jerome Hornbuckle, and Summitt.

"My dad was joking. He said, ‘That's the first time I saw you be a peacemaker,' " Hornbuckle said. "Coach Summitt said it showed some maturity."

So has Hornbuckle gotten passive?

"Whoa, whoa I'm not soft," she said with a laugh.

The guard has a lean body type, but her athleticism allows her to make plays that other guards can't make, especially in the open court on defense and off the glass. She hounded Becky Hammon, who had scored 35 points in the clincher over the Sparks, and forced her into two turnovers in the fourth quarter to help preserve the Shock's victory in game one.

The Shock have a reputation for being an overly physical team, but Hornbuckle said it stems from Bill Laimbeer and Mahorn and is not necessarily rooted in reality when compared to the rest of the league.

"I think the reason we do have the rep is because of Bill and Rick, the ‘Bad Boys,' so they expect us to be the ‘Bad Girls of the WNBA,' " Hornbuckle said. "I feel like if your body is in shape why not use it? And that's what (Lady Vols strength and conditioning coach) Heather Mason used to tell us: ‘Why not throw your bodies around because that's what you worked so hard to do.'

"You look across the league and we're not the only physical team out there, but they say, ‘OK, they're the Bad Girls. The Bad Boys are their coaches so they're overly physical or this and that.' We just go out there and we play basketball. We're going to compete and we're going to do whatever it takes every possession to knock down shots or be physical and go after the ball. We don't go out to hurt people. We're going to go out there and play hard. We're going to set solid screens. We're going to try to box you out. We're going to post up as hard as we can so we can get the better position. But that's basketball, and every team does that."

A rematch of the Shock and the Sparks would have meant a rehash of the incident – which generated tremendous media coverage for the WNBA last July – so perhaps for the Shock players it's better to play San Antonio without the sideshow.

"It's kind of good not to answer those questions obviously," Hornbuckle said. "We kind of wanted to play LA just because we lost to them twice but at the same time San Antonio beat us twice so I'm happy to play them again to have a chance at revenge. I hate losing and I'd rather come out on top and it doesn't matter how it boils down. If we were able to come out and win the whole thing, then we're making a bigger statement right there in itself, and we don't necessarily have to play the Sparks to do that."

Hornbuckle had three Lady Vol teammates playing for the Sparks in Parker, Bobbitt and Sidney Spencer – former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman is a Silver Star, but she is in street clothes on the bench after tearing an ACL in the preseason – so part of her was pulling for them.

"I was rooting for them to play more, but I really didn't have a personal preference (of which team to meet in the finals)," Hornbuckle said. " I'm just happy that we came out of the Eastern Conference and have the opportunity to win a WNBA championship."

By now Hornbuckle has adjusted to playing against her former teammates. She faced former Lady Vol Loree Moore – they played together for one season at Tennessee – in the Eastern Conference finals against New York.

"It's not that big a deal," Hornbuckle said. "It was definitely weird the first time I played against Nicky and the very first time I played against Shannon and Candace seeing them in different colors and being on the opposing team. It was very different. But now it's just like, OK, we're on different teams. We're still players. We're still going to talk. We're still going to hang out or go out to dinner or speak to each other.' "

Hornbuckle also realizes that the WNBA is a business operation, and that point was underscored when her best friend, Tasha Humphrey, a rookie out of Georgia, was traded to Washington for Taj McWilliams-Franklin in August.

"It's a business," she said. "Coach Laimbeer is going to make whatever moves he thinks are necessary to better the team. I hated for her to go because we are so close, and I loved being around her, but it is a job, it's a business, and we still talk every day so you kind of take it from there."

Laimbeer is often miked for television broadcasts, and he doesn't mince words on the sidelines. Hornbuckle has played for an intense coach in Summitt so she was ready for Laimbeer.

"I like playing for Bill," she said. "He's very blunt, very honest. He lets you know where you stand as a player. There's no gray area. It might not always come across the best way, but the majority of the time he is definitely right. He knows what he's talking about so you just kind of have to listen to him and don't really take it how he says but what he's saying."

After tonight's game in San Antonio, game three will be played Sunday, Oct. 5, (4:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2) at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center. Hornbuckle's parents, Jerome and Quan, who reside in West Virginia, plan to attend the game.

"My mom's brother lives in Detroit," Hornbuckle said. "They'll be back for Sunday's game in the stands."

Hornbuckle's chocolate Lab, Hershey, lives in West Virginia with her family. She got a pit bull named Ali to keep her company in Detroit, and he will live in Knoxville soon with a friend because Hornbuckle will play in Istanbul later this month. She leaves about two weeks after the WNBA season ends and won't return until May, in time for WNBA training camp in 2009.

Hornbuckle has creaky knees, but they've lasted so far, despite playing for a consecutive 12 months from the beginning of her senior season at Tennessee to the close of her rookie season with the Shock.

"They're holding up actually," she said. "I have the same old aches and pains."

For a female basketball player the window of opportunity to make money in the sport can slam shut at any time due to injury or competition for slots on a team. Hornbuckle, like other WNBA players, wants to take advantage of the opportunities to earn a living, whether stateside or overseas.

"While my body is able to I'm going to get out there and play," she said. "I think it's important to take care of my body and do all the little things to help my knees stay where they need to be – ice and exercises, strength building, resting, just making sure I take care of my body."

Hornbuckle will keep up with the 2008-09 Lady Vols while in Turkey this winter. She noted half the team is new, but she's curious to see how the freshmen mesh with the returning players.

"I'm going to go online and keep up with them," Hornbuckle said. "I'm going to be rooting for them and make sure they're doing all right."

Current Lady Vol Cait McMahan said the team was gathering together to watch the finals. McMahan, who is a Hammon fan, wasn't openly pulling for either team – especially with a former Lady Vol on both rosters – but she did note that the Sparks would be dangerous in 2009.

"Watch out for them next year," McMahan said. "They're going to want some revenge."

McMahan did express confidence that Hornbuckle could pull off the double titles this year.

"That would be awesome for her," McMahan said. "If anyone deserves it, it would be Alexis."

Hornbuckle may have been disappointed in her offensive production, but Summitt pointed out that the first-year guard had helped get her team to the most important series of the season – the last one.

"Lex has had a great rookie year," Summitt said. "The difference that she made was, to me, significant. I think she's one of the reasons they're still playing."

The words of praise still matter to the former Lady Vol.

"It does mean a lot just to know that she still supports you and wants you to do well as a player," Hornbuckle said.

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