Old and new mesh well for WNBA’s Lynx

MINNEAPOLIS – Old School is 42 years old. Old School has a daughter who’s 24, 14 seasons of WNBA experience and two championships. Old School is still going.

You might think she’s predictable or set in her ways after so many years in the league, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, over the past two seasons, Old School has done something no one saw coming. Since she joined the Minnesota Lynx, Old School has become fast friends with new school.

Old School is one of Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve’s nicknames for Taj McWilliams-Franklin, her team’s feisty, hard-working veteran. New school is Maya Moore. No one calls her that, but the 23-year-old star is the epitome of all that is young and new. She’s celebrity. She’s a little bit of flash on the court. She’s a kid. She could be everything that is annoying and different to McWilliams-Franklin, but somehow she isn’t,  and the two have become fast friends.

“Sometimes when you’re old school, these new-school players, they do things that drive you crazy,” Reeve said. “So I kind of watched that a little bit last year as Maya as a rookie might come down and jack up a three when Taj wants to come down and get a quality possession. So I’ve seen Taj grow to be more patient with Maya.”

But now, two years into Moore’s career, this has gone way past patience. It’s gone beyond the game, even, which is what initially brought the two women together, to a more personal and long-lasting relationship that’s bigger than just these two women and their sport.

Initially, Moore and McWilliams-Franklin were drawn together because of their shared work ethic. No matter that Moore’s game was faster-paced to McWilliams-Franklin’s more studied, pragmatic approach; there was still something that linked them. Both women are the last to leave after games, staying the longest in the training room and icing their exhausted limbs. They give every ounce of themselves in competition, and it wasn’t hard for either to notice that similarity.

So on those training tables, they began talking. Moore’s game matured, too, and at the same time McWilliams-Franklin came to understand that a dose of flash is what makes the second-year forward special. They grew together, and the talk went beyond basketball. Despite the similarities that their sport imposes between the two, they quickly realized there’s so much more that they share.

Both women are deeply religious Christians, which affects their choices off the court. They attribute their success to God, and they each stress faith and family. Once they realized that they both had that background, the connection was quick.

“You always have a close relationship with someone like a sister, especially a sister in Christ,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “I think that’s a lot different than basketball. In basketball, we want the same goals, and we know who gives us the ability to do this stuff. We’re always like minds, I guess, because we’re focused on achieving team goals first, and the rest follows.”

When the Lynx traveled to Atlanta, Moore’s hometown (McWilliams-Franklin grew up in Georgia as well), in August, McWilliams-Franklin stayed behind to attend services at the World Changers Church International with Moore, her mother, Kathryn, and some of their friends. It was a fun experience for both to bring their friendship even further off the court and share in something they both value.

“I think that’s what really connects us more than anything is our faith and the way we can kind of encourage each other to really enjoy and refresh in that way off the court,” Moore said. “It’s a bigger picture kind of a relationship.”

But it would be naïve to assume that religion is the only thing that binds the women. It’s a base, of course, a shared value system that makes it easier for the two to relate, but even basketball can color the spiritual. Sport and religion are somehow intertwined with Moore and McWilliams-Franklin, Values bleed into basketball and dedication colors their relationships with both forces. So yes, they have all that in common, but when it comes down to it, these two women genuinely like each other.

McWilliams-Franklin jokes that she has more in common with Kathryn Moore that she does with Maya. Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t change the genuine affection she feels toward the younger player. There’s a sense that Moore represents a sign to McWilliams-Franklin that the league is going in the right direction, that this new generation will uphold what she’s built. That’s important for McWilliams-Franklin; she’s invested time in this sport and these relationships, and the league will be a better place if more young women have the same tenacity and dedication as she.

Basketball might erase the age difference between the two, but Moore is still the kid and McWilliams-Franklin the sage veteran. Moore knows she can learn from McWilliams-Franklin, and she said that she’s known since she was very young to surround herself with wise people. So the veteran teaches and shares, but she also is having some genuine fun.

“I just enjoy her,” McWilliams-Franklin said of Moore. “She’s so much more mature than most rookies or second-year players. She’s an awesome kid. She doesn’t let the stardom get to her, which is tremendous for someone with her fan appeal.”

Reeve knows that what these two players have is special. She may never witness a relationship like it again in coaching, not with a 19-year age difference and that amount of collective talent. She’s enjoyed watching the two grow closer, and she encourages it. Anything her young players can pick up from the woman known as Old School and Mama Taj can only help.

“I just cherish every moment I have with her, because she’s definitely a veteran presence that you can feel the difference when she’s not around,” Moore said. “I hope everybody’s kind of soaking it up and taking that courage that she plays with and determination.”

The two women push each other, Moore with her raw talent and skill and McWilliams-Franklin with her knowledge, experience and drive. Each is learning in the moment, but McWilliams-Franklin is looking to the future as well. She can’t wait to see what Moore does with her career, both on and off the court. She’s waiting for the moment in seven or eight years when the protégé becomes the mentor, and to see that will be the greatest reward.

“You wait to see that they can now mentor and help someone new that’s coming in,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “She doesn’t know who it is now, but she’ll be touching someone else’s life.”

Soon, it’ll be Moore’s turn to pay it forward, to some new player who’s just now in high school or college. Old School will be long retired, but she’ll be watching as her message and approach are passed on once again, and the relationship will keep on giving.

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