The Los Angeles Sparks were about to play the San Antonio Stars last Saturday in a preseason game, and Sparks guard Riquna Williams, the former University of Miami star, looked across the Staples Center court during warmups and saw Jessica Thomas, the recent UM graduate and an undrafted rookie with the Stars.
Williams never overlapped with Thomas at Miami, but a Cane is a Cane, so she went over and offered some advice.
“I told her, ‘This isn’t college anymore. Some of these women are Olympians, they’ve played all over the world, so you have to step up and play with confidence,’ ” said Williams, a five-year WNBA veteran who owns the league record for most points in a game with 51.
Williams missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon and is thrilled to be back for the 2017 season, which begins on Saturday.
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“I told J.T., ‘You can’t look at the bench and wait for [UM coach] Katie Meier to tell you what to do. If you hesitate, they’ll take the ball from you and it’ll be going the other way.’ ’’
She also reminded Thomas that “you never know who’s watching,” so it’s important to make the most of every opportunity.
Two days later, Thomas was released after going 1 for 7 with two assists and three turnovers in two preseason games. She had braced herself for the news, as her two former Hurricanes teammates, Adrienne Motley and Keyona Hayes, had also been cut from their camps — Motley by Indiana and Hayes by Minnesota.
“It’s really intense,” Thomas said of her first impressions of the WNBA. “It’s a different pace, no wasted movements, different atmosphere. Everyone’s making a living now. This is how they eat, and you can feel it. As a point guard, my job is to make the veterans look good. I had a great opportunity with San Antonio, learned so much in two weeks, and now I know what I have to work on.”
Williams remembers those early days well and has worked tirelessly in the WNBA and overseas, as have two other players with Miami ties — Williams’ UM teammate Shenise Johnson (Indiana) and Minnesota Lynx 6-6 center Sylvia Fowles, a three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year who attended Miami Edison High and Gulliver Prep.
Williams, a native of Pahokee, has spent her offseasons playing in Slovakia, Israel and Turkey. She made the WNBA All-Rookie team in 2012, the All-Star team in 2015 and last year went back to school to get her diploma.
While rehabbing from Achilles surgery in Miami, Williams was pushed to graduate by Meier, UM assistant coach Lonnette Hall and academic advisor Barbara Stratton. She enrolled in summer school and last December earned her liberal arts degree. Williams is the first college graduate in her family.
“My grandmother had only one dream and that was to see me walk across that stage with a diploma,” Williams said.
“I missed the ceremony because I was playing overseas, but I let my grandma open the envelope when the diploma came, and she cried. If I hadn’t gotten injured, I wouldn’t have gone back to school, so it was a blessing in disguise.”
Johnson is also thriving and eager to get the season started under new Indiana coach Pokey Chatman.
The Fever made the playoffs for the 12th year in a row last season but was upset in the first round by Phoenix. Like Williams, Johnson has spent winters overseas, in Turkey and Hungary.
“I was absolutely terrified when I first got over there, but you have to be open-minded,” Johnson said. “The fans are different, drills are different, food is different, you don’t speak the language. But it broadens your horizons and makes you tougher. Each of us comes back a better player.”
Through it all, Johnson and Williams keep in close contact with Meier.
“She is like my second mom, a life mentor,” Johnson said.
Fowles, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, is the most veteran of the players with Miami ties. She is a three-time All-Star, was the MVP of the 2015 Finals and won Olympic gold medals in 2008 (Beijing), 2012 (London) and 2016 (Rio de Janeiro). The Lynx won the WNBA title in 2011, 2013 and 2015, all odd years. Minnesota aims to win it again in 2017 after losing in the Finals in five games last year to Los Angeles.
“We can’t change last year, but it’s in the back of our heads, for sure,” Fowles said.
Fowles plays in China for Beijing Great Wall in the winters, so she doesn’t spend much time in Miami anymore. When she does make it home, she spoils her nieces and nephews and visits the kids on her charity AAU team, Team Fowles.
Fowles said: “I want those kids in Miami to know that anything is possible, you can make it from Miami to the pros if you follow the right path.”