Nicky Anosike settles in as a pro

Nicky Anosike moved into the starting lineup at Tennessee midway through her freshman season and was a stalwart at the spot for the next three-and-a-half years. She started her first game as a pro for Minnesota, and has yet to leave the lineup. The former Lady Vol and current Lynx center is having an All-Star worthy season just one year after her All-Rookie Team debut in the WNBA.

The way Nicky Anosike sees it coaches have enough on their minds before a game. That is her explanation when asked about what is it about her style of play – she acknowledges she is not the most athletic or talented player on her teams – that make coaches put her on the floor to open the game and then keep her in the starting lineup.

"I think coaches have enough to worry about," Anosike said Thursday afternoon in a phone interview after practice. "They don't want to be dealing with what players are going to come to play and what players are not and I think with me coaches feel comfortable putting me in the lineup, because they know what I can bring every game. They can count on that. That's something that they know is constant."

Anosike leads Minnesota in rebounds per game at 7.2 and field goal percentage at 53 percent – Nicky Anosike stats. Anosike's boards and field goal percentage – she is averaging 14.1 points per game – make sense because she plays close to the basket. But she also leads the team in assists and steals per game at 2.9 in both categories. Those are eye-popping numbers for a 6'3 center.

"I'm going to rebound. I'm going to play defense. I'm going to do the little things that help win games," Anosike said. "Coaches know I am going to bring that every game so I think that's what really puts it over the top when they are deciding who the starters should be."

Anosike also still hears Pat Summitt rattling around in her head. It's one thing to want players to not take off possessions – as Summitt tries to demand at Tennessee – but it's another to have a player like Anosike who actually doesn't.

"I think the type of player I am, I am not the most prolific scorer, I am not the most athletic person out there, I am not the smartest player out there, I can't jump the highest," Anosike said. "I don't take things for granted and I know I have to come focused every single game, whereas maybe a player that is known for being any of those things can kind of become lax and kind of become comfortable, whereas I don't ever take anything for granted. I don't feel like I have that right to relax or get comfortable or to feel like I've arrived.

"Like Pat always says, ‘You never arrive.' That is something that is right up my alley and my mentality and the way I think. Just because you played good last game doesn't mean that you don't have to prove yourself. It is always a challenge proving yourself. You never live off what you did in the past. I think the reason why I was successful at Tennessee is because we (Anosike and Summitt) have a lot of the same principles so of course a lot of the things she was saying I totally agreed with, so they still stick with me even at the pro level.

"So definitely that's one of the things that she harped on the whole four years – you never get comfortable, you never get complacent, because while you're relaxing someone else is working their way to the top. There is always that mentality of no matter what you've got to keep pushing."

Although Anosike volunteered that her talent and athletic levels aren't as high as some of her teammates, nobody has likely ever outworked her at practice or in games. She laughed out loud when told that media watchers at Lady Vol practices this past season noted that Anosike might have killed, figuratively speaking, some of the freshmen if she had been on the floor with them.

And although she couldn't be at practice – Anosike played in Israel and then Poland but she did make a brief stop in Knoxville between pro teams and was honored at halftime of the South Carolina game for winning the NCAA's Woman of the Year award – she watched Lady Vol games on the Internet while overseas and fretted about the team's performance.

Part of her concern was having witnessed the game at Rutgers – the greatest comeback in Lady Vol history after Tennessee trailed by 20 points at halftime, 33-13, but prevailed 55-51 – and realizing what the team was capable of doing. Anosike, whose family now lives in New Jersey, was home for the Christmas break and attended the game in Piscataway.

"I actually watched all their games on ESPN360 while I was overseas," Anosike said. "It was really frustrating. I know they're young and people were saying it's not an excuse anymore, but I didn't really feel like that was an issue. I was at the game when they played at Rutgers and I saw that in their eyes – I saw the fight, I saw the Tennessee that everyone is used to. I saw that when they played Rutgers. And they just didn't bring that every game."

In hindsight, the Rutgers win may have given the team a false sense of confidence, a notion that perhaps they had arrived. The Lady Vols followed that game with a lackluster win over Kentucky at home – the Wildcats would later defeat them in Lexington – and then a loss at Vanderbilt.

"Some games they looked like they never woke up from their pre-game nap," Anosike said. "They just didn't look focused. Yes, they were young, but at the same time I saw with my own two eyes what they were capable of doing against a really good Rutgers team."

Anosike followed the team closely and agonized over the losses. She wants the current team to seize what they have now and succeed – because it ends all too quickly.

"You don't realize how fast your four years go," Anosike said. "Obviously you're always a Lady Vol, but you'll never be able to step on the court again with that uniform on."

Anosike was part of the mass graduation of five starters – all five of whom were drafted and four still play in the WNBA – and she also was aware of the injuries sustained by Vicki Baugh, Kelley Cain and Cait McMahan, a core of returning players who were all expected to play major roles. She noted that first-year players were thrust onto the court and having to log minutes that they were not yet prepared to play.

"People that go to Tennessee they often sit out their freshman year, their sophomore year and then they start getting into the lineup their junior and senior season, so they have time to see what it's like to be on the bench and then when they do get on the court they cherish it, and they don't want it to go anywhere, so they really bust their butts. But those players came right into playing so they don't really cherish it. It's taken for granted.

"That is what I saw on the court. I saw that they didn't really appreciate where they were or what the people before them gave to have the luxuries of a sold-out crowd or all that adidas wear, Pratt, all those luxuries they have. It's like they don't cherish it because they never had to work to get it."

The exception to that playing time as freshmen and sophomores, of course, was Anosike, Candace Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle – called "The Big Three" by Summitt – who started early in their careers and logged a lot of minutes. But it even took that trio two years to get on the same page on the court, and the result was two national titles in 2007 and 2008.

Summitt did take away some luxuries last February, including all of the team's practice gear and the locker room. She has said she will wait to see how the players report back in September in terms of conditioning and off-season skill work on their own before deciding when to give it back.

The team also was hurt by the loss of Baugh, who returned from ACL surgery in May 2008, appeared to have turned a corner physically and psychologically in late December and then re-tore the ligament in early February 2009.

After Anosike was drafted by Minnesota in 2008, she opted to wear No. 21 in honor of Baugh, who had torn the ACL in her left knee in the title game win against Stanford in Tampa.

"I think I was really emotional when she went down in the championship game," Anosike said. "Obviously ESPN caught me crying – (Let's Go Y'all) – but Vicki was someone that was so special to me because she kind of reminded me of myself when I was a freshman, kind of just raw talent and not really knowing her abilities or how great she can be."

Anosike and Baugh both played on the perimeter and handled the basketball in high school. In college they were moved to the post and were playing with their backs to the basket for the first time. Baugh struggled early as a freshman but showed in the 2008 postseason how outstanding her game could be.

"She was out there working hard, because that's all she knows," Anosike said. "I kind of sympathized with her at Tennessee knowing you can be great but not really knowing what you need to do to get there. So seeing her go down when she had so much potential reminded me that you can never take this game for granted, and you don't know when you'll go down. It can be a championship game while you're making a great play. It can be at any time.

"She's a special person to me, she's a great girl and also she's a reminder that you never know what is going to happen so every play, every time you step on the floor, cherish it and just go hard."

Anosike was watching the Oklahoma game online last February when Baugh re-injured the same knee – and just like in Tampa it was on a move to the rim in which she tore the ligament and still made the basket.

"Oh my God, I was watching that game when it happened," she said. "It was the same exact way, scoring a layup."

Anosike realized Baugh was trying to get back on the court to help her team, but she worried that the sophomore pushed herself too hard.

"I was really nervous about it before it even happened," Anosike said. "So seeing it happen it's almost like you know something's not right, but there's nothing you can do about it and then when it happens it's even more frustrating. The first one was sad, but the second one was more frustrating, because I felt like she shouldn't have been out there."

Anosike and Baugh remain in close contact.

"She sent me a text message (before a recent game) and said, ‘Hey, Big Nick, I'm thinking about you, just want to let you know I love you,' " Anosike said. "So that was really sweet."

Anosike speaks her mind – she was always bluntly honest in her media interviews while at Tennessee – but it's underscored by her Mother Hen-like qualities. She also worries about Parker coming back this month to play for the Los Angeles Sparks after giving birth in May to Lailaa. The news of the pregnancy last fall took Anosike by surprise.

"My reactions were all over the place," Anosike said. "I really didn't know what to think, but then I called her and she sounded so happy that there was no way I could think it was wrong because she sounded happy. And if she's happy I'm happy. They (Parker and husband Shelden Williams) seem like they are really enjoying Lailaa. I spoke to her a few nights ago and our conversation was cut short because Lailaa was hungry."

It's apparent from watching Parker on the court that she is working her way back into shape. She has said in interviews that her body is not doing what her mind wants it to do in terms of foot speed and reaction time to the ball.

"My biggest thing is her health," Anosike said. "I just want her to be healthy. I think she'll be great. She's going to be back to the CP we all know. I just hope that she's making the right decision, and she didn't come back from having a baby too soon. That's my only worry, but other than that I don't have any worries. I know she'll be great.

"I know she's not the CP we all remember before the baby, but she's a really stubborn person. She wants to get back and work hard and be back to herself. This is a person that came back in a tournament game after her shoulder popped out. This is a person who had her whole knee reconstructed freshman season. This is a person who has strength that she is not even aware that she has. She can come back after anything. She's proven that time and time again, and I think she'll prove that this time."

The Sparks were preseason picks to win the WNBA title, but injuries, an aging roster and the loss of Parker until July has Los Angeles looking up at four teams in the Western Conference standings, including Minnesota, which is 9-6 and in second place.

The Lynx have a solid roster that includes fellow 2008 draftees Candice Wiggins and Charde Houston and are being led by first-year head coach Jen Gillom, who stepped in seamlessly when Don Zierden departed days before the season opener to take a position with the Washington Wizards.

Anosike has put up All-Star numbers at center, but she will need the nod from the coaches to play in the league's showcase event on July 25 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut - All Star Events.

Lisa Leslie, who has played in just five games this season because of injury, was voted by fans as the starting center for the West in what was likely a nostalgic nod to the retiring veteran, who is one of only four players – the others are Tina Thompson, Vickie Johnson and Tamecka Dixon – to have been in the league since its debut in 1997.

The WNBA coaches will pick the reserves, and those players will be announced on Monday. Anosike would welcome the honor, if it comes.

"It would definitely be something special," Anosike said. "Playing at Tennessee and being a role player and playing defense and being a hard worker, it was great. We won two championships."

But an All-Star selection would validate Anosike's game at the pro level.

"I always knew that there was more to my game," she said. "Making the All-Star team and being able to showcase that and being amongst those players and proving to everyone that I belong there would definitely mean the world because that's what I wanted to show everyone from high school to college to now. I knew in my heart who I was; I knew in my heart I was a great player. Now just getting to show everyone is all I ever wanted."

Anosike's attitude – at Tennessee, overseas, now with Minnesota – has been to accept what the team asks her to do.

"Of course," she said. "That is what winners do. I will never accept losing. Whatever my team tells me they need to do I am going to do. If we win or lose at the end of the day I just need to be able to go to sleep that night and know that I am doing what they ask me to do."

Hornbuckle was the first of "The Big Three" to follow up the NCAA titles with a WNBA championship when she won a ring with Detroit last fall. Anosike would welcome a chance to be the second, and the Lynx have their eyes on a bigger prize than just playoff contender.

"Definitely," Anosike said. "That would be crazy because a franchise like this has historically been at the bottom of the league. So being able to be one of the pioneers that really makes this organization great would be awesome. Bringing a team from pretty much the pits to contenders for the finals, that's huge. That says a lot about the players and who they are.

"Doing it in a place like Minnesota, where they're dying for a good sports team – these people here love basketball; the (college) Gophers, they get great crowds – they're just looking for a great team to follow, and I think that can be us. There is already so much buzz in the community about us with the little we've started to do this season. Making it to the Finals? That would be great. We could pack the stands easily in a place like Minnesota."

The Eastern Conference leader is Indiana, led by Tamika Catchings, also a former Lady Vol. Atlanta, led by former Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw, has nearly doubled its win total already from its inaugural season a year ago. Tennessee leads the WNBA with 13 former players currently in the league.

"What is it about us?" Anosike said. "I think, in general, the players that stay in the league are the ones who are competitive, who have that edge, who want to win. They don't accept losing. Obviously we have so many games that losing is part of it, but some players kind of accept it and those are the players that are usually on their way out.

"So I think being at Tennessee it just becomes who you are. It becomes a part of your identity and coaches like when you bring that to the team in the pros. I think at Tennessee it's ingrained in your head that losing is not acceptable. No matter who, what or were, it's never acceptable. It will never be OK, and I think the coaches in this league respect that, and they want Tennessee players on their teams because they know that's what we bring."

The Lynx played the Dream earlier this week – Atlanta pulled away in the fourth quarter behind a brilliant performance by Holdsclaw – and Anosike spoke to the former Tennessee superstar before the game.

"Every time you see a Tennessee player you always say hello," Anosike said. "Obviously there's not too much time to talk when you are about to play against each other. But you always say hello, you always pay your respects, especially to people who paved the way for people like me to go through the program and to have all the luxuries that were afforded to me while I was there.

"Anytime I see Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Kara Lawson, any of those players, I always pay my respects."

Anosike also tries to make connections with basketball fans. She has two Facebook pages: One is her open fan page – Nicky Anosike Facebook I and the other is her personal profile – Nicky Anosike Facebook II.

She is not yet on Twitter – though several of her Lynx teammates are, including Houston, Wiggins, Augustus, Renee Montgomery and Rashanda McCants – but she is aware of it.

"Someone was telling me I need to get on there," Anosike said. "I think I need to go ahead and do it. I am not really the most computer-literate person. I was overseas and one of my teammates made me get Facebook, and that's how I got it, because I had no clue. If someone was willing to sit down and help me I am open to it. I don't know exactly what to do."

Lady Vol fans who have watched WNBA broadcasts on television or online have likely also heard Anosike's name pronounced as Ano-SEE-kay – the correct way – after hearing it as Ano-SICK-ie for years at Tennessee. The rhyming Nicky Anosike stuck in college and after trying initially to correct it, Anosike opted to just let it go.

"I just let people say it how they wanted (in college)," Anosike said. "I wanted to correct it when I got to the pros because I wanted people to pronounce it the right way. I felt like in college it was too late. I accepted it until I got to the pros, and then I put a stop to it."

Lady Vol fans also remembered that Anosike had been engaged while in college to Tennessee football player Demonte Bolden. That union has ended.

"I think our lives just took us in two opposite directions, and it was too hard to force it to happen," Anosike said. "Maybe there is still a future, I don't know, but he is definitely still a part of my life, and we are definitely still friends."

Since Anosike graduated with honors with three majors, she has played in the WNBA – the draft was held hours after the title game in Tampa – and played overseas. She played in Israel before the team had to make roster cuts for financial reasons and then was signed to play in Poland.

"Being overseas really helped me to get my scorer's mentality back," Anosike said. "Overseas you have to be in attack mode all the time, and I lost that offensive mindset so being able to gain that back overseas really helped me."

After this WNBA season ends Anosike will head overseas again next fall.

"I signed with a team in Romania," said Anosike, who has soaked up the cultural opportunities. "I read online that the University of Tennessee is thinking of implementing a plan where every student has to spend at least one semester abroad because now a lot of employers are looking for well-rounded employees. They are looking for people who traveled. I think for me personally I am always looking for the future and looking for what I can become, so being able to travel that helps me for my next step."

The short time between the conclusion of the WNBA and the start of overseas play – a total of 12 days – means Anosike likely won't make it back to Knoxville in the fall for any practice sessions – "You are so tired from the season and then you know you have to play another seven months," she said – but she will follow the team online again.

When Anosike's professional playing days are over she plans to go to law school.

"And then hopefully on to some powerful position," Anosike said. "That's all I know. I am going to be in a powerful position."

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