Testing all their resolve

WNBA: Local players like Katrina Colleton, Kisha Ford and Kelley Gibson find that college stardom does not translate into security in the fledgling women's league.

July 11, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - From the wide smile on her face in the Miami Sol locker room, you could tell that Katrina Colleton has finally learned how to exhale, in a basketball sense.

Colleton, a Miami shooting guard, had just shot 2-for-12 in a less-than-artistic WNBA game with the Washington Mystics at the MCI Center recently.

But one of those two baskets came in the midst of a late run that would help the expansion Sol bag a 57-55 upset over the Mystics.

"It just wasn't my day. The shots weren't falling, but the coach took me out of the game and told me that if we were going to win, I had to be aggressive, regardless of whether the shots were falling. Luckily, that one fell," said Colleton, a 5-foot-11 guard, who spent two years with the Los Angeles Sparks, almost entirely as a reserve.

Local fans will remember Colleton as the point guard on the 1992-93 Maryland team that spent four weeks at No. 1 in the national polls, averaging 13.1 points, four rebounds and nearly four assists a game.

But, as Kisha Ford and Kelley Gibson, two other WNBA players with local ties, can attest, college stardom can mean little on the professional level, even in a fledgling league like the WNBA.

Ford, a teammate of Colleton's in Miami and a Bryn Mawr graduate, is the all-time leading scorer at Georgia Tech, and was a fourth-round pick of the New York Liberty in 1997, the WNBA's inaugural year.

Ford, a 5-10 guard, was a valuable reserve for the Liberty, averaging nearly 16 minutes a game over two seasons in New York, but that didn't stop her from being cut by the expansion Orlando Miracle last season, eight games into the season and three days before contracts were guaranteed.

"You start to question yourself as a player, but when you think about things, I know I've been there. I've been to the championship game in this league and I know that I can play at this level, so I'm not going to let someone tell me that I can't play here," said Ford.

Like Colleton, Ford was invited to Miami's preseason tryout and made her way onto the Sol's roster. She began the season on the injured list with a back ailment and a fractured wrist that still ails her, but was activated on June 9, and is averaging 14 minutes and five points.

Ford's second-half defense on Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw was a key factor in the Sol's win.

"Kisha's just like the Energizer bunny. She just keeps coming at you. She's a very good defender and very active. She'll throw her body anywhere. She'll make some things happen," said Miami coach Ron Rothstein. "She was a big-time scorer in college, so she's learned how to adapt. She's given us a real spark."

Said Ford: "Every day it's something different. I'm just a spark, whether it's defensive or offensive, I come in to give the team something, a lift. If we're down a lot, I'll go in there and do whatever it takes to get us within arm's length to win the game."

Indeed, while stars like Holdsclaw and Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie have the benefit of knowing their presence in the WNBA is necessary for the league to survive, players like Ford, Colleton and Gibson live much closer to the edge.

Rothstein, who coached in the NBA for the bulk of his career, said it may be tougher for fringe players in the women's game to last than their male counterparts, given that there are only 16 teams in the WNBA, 13 fewer than in the men's league.

"The numbers make it tougher, and the fact they don't make as much, so they have less of a cushion, in terms of dollars, so it probably is tougher," said Rothstein, adding that most women's players have their college degrees, giving them other career options.

Colleton, who has a criminal justice degree from Maryland, plans to counsel juvenile delinquents when she's done playing, and Ford, a management major, is planning to get her Master's degree in the coming off-season.

Gibson, a 5-9 guard who tore the anterior cruciate ligament on her left knee twice and the right knee once while at Maryland, majored in kiniesiology, but is probably far away from doing anything with her degree.

Gibson landed a spot on the roster of the Houston Comets, the three-time defending league champions, after sitting out a year.

"Yeah, I have to say I'm a little surprised that I'm here, but I did work hard for it and I'm working hard to make sure that I stay," Gibson said after Houston's recent visit to Washington.

Gibson, who is third on Maryland's all-time three-point shooting list, elected not to play overseas last winter after graduating last year, but got noticed in some off-season games with WNBA players by Houston officials and received an invitation to their tryout.

When she arrived at the Houston airport in May for the tryout, Gibson didn't have transportation to the Comets' training facility, but, as luck would have it, Cynthia Cooper, the two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player, was at the airport, and gave her a lift.

The two became fast friends, and Cooper's friendship proved valuable in keeping Gibson around through the preseason, as Houston coach Van Chancellor wanted to cut her, seeing few opportunities for her to play.

"That would have been such a mistake," said Cooper. "That girl has stupid, mad, crazy game. She is going to be so good, and we could not afford to let her go."

Said Chancellor: "I asked her [Gibson] if she could live with playing behind Cooper and Swoopes and [forward Tina] Thompson, and she said yes. I'm glad we did keep her, because she brings an athleticism that we really haven't had here."

Gibson's minutes have been limited to garbage time, and she has scored only five points in six games so far, but the experience has been invaluable, and, for now, she, like Colleton and Ford, can exhale for a while.

"This is such a great opportunity for me. I'm learning so much and I'm on a championship team. I feel really blessed," said Gibson.

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