WASHINGTON - The question posed to Vicky Bullett by Washington Mystics general manager Melissa McFerrin after a recent practice seemed simple enough: Just how old are you?
But, in keeping with what has become a remarkably complicated season, Bullett fired back with a joking, but telling response.
"I'm too old to be right at this point playing this damn game. Does that answer your question?" replied Bullett with a weary grin.
Just about everything about this 2000 Women's National Basketball Association season has been downright weary and far more complicated than it was supposed to be for Bullett, Maryland's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and a two-time Olympian who came to Washington from the Charlotte Sting in an off-season trade.
Bullett, 32, a 6-foot-3 forward, spent seven years playing professionally in Italy and the past three in Brazil, but is back in the area where she first gained fame, 90 minutes from her hometown of Martinsville, W.Va.
"I've traveled all over the world, and I've seen a lot and I've sacrificed. I am homesick," Bullett said. "But you have to do those things to be able to get what you want. Basketball gave me the opportunity to see the world and be able to speak two languages [Portuguese and Italian]. It's been great, and I'm happy to be in Washington because of it."
Since Maryland fans last saw Bullett play locally, she has made the transformation from youthful athlete to wily veteran largely by out-thinking and out-working the opposition.
"We're considered dinosaurs in this league," said Orlando reserve center Carla McGhee, 32, who played against Bullett in the 1989 Final Four. "When you get to be our age, you're smarter. You've been around so many aspects of the game, and different coaches and philosophies that you have to absorb it. If anything, women are more prone to work hard because we have all these obstacles to overcome."
Indeed, for Washington, the theory in trading for Bullett was that her wisdom would be the missing puzzle piece for getting the young and talented Mystics, who have no other players over 30, into the playoffs, a place the underachieving team has not been in three previous seasons.
"Whenever you bring a player in with her experience, all the younger players are going to look up to her because she's been there and we're trying to get to where she's been," said center Murriel Page. "When we're her age, we want to still be playing."
Bullett, who reached the playoffs in all three seasons with Charlotte, and has never missed a start in four WNBA campaigns, arrived in Washington late in training camp after finishing a season in Brazil.
She got off to a slow start, but picked up the pace in late June. Bullett is averaging 10.5 points and ranks in the top 20 in six league categories, including rebounds (5.9), steals (1.81), blocks (1.48) and double doubles (two). She has also become the team's best clutch three-point shooter.
"Vicky brings to us a tremendous defensive presence," McFerrin said. "We can count on Vicky every night to give us some great defense. She may not get a rebound, but, by golly, her player's not going to get a rebound. She takes great pride in that."
But the Mystics, who have Nikki McCray and Chamique Holdsclaw, two members of the 2000 U.S. Olympic basketball team, haven't always learned from Bullett's example.
With a lineup that was picked in some corners to win the Eastern Conference regular season, Washington instead has had a messy coaching change and goes into tonight's road game with Orlando fighting for the final playoff spot.
The culprit has mostly been inconsistent and, at times, selfish play, and while Bullett picks her words carefully, it is clear that she does not think her talents are being properly used.
"I don't know if they [her teammates] want me to be a part of this team. I don't know if they're looking for me. I mean, Vicky's useful. Look for it," Bullett said. "I don't think we have that. They don't see that. I'm not saying that they need to create things to get me the ball, but they should because I do it."
"If I know we need a shot, and it's close [to the basket], I'm going to find 'Mique [Holdsclaw]. If we need a three-pointer, I'm going to find Nikki. That's my mentality. I'm at the point where I'm just letting the game come to me. If they see me, they see me. If they don't, they don't. I'm doing what I can."
If Bullett, who has always been a carefree sort, is frustrated these days, she hasn't let it affect her preparation, which is legendary in women's basketball circles.
"As long as I've known her, she's always been one of the first ones out for practice and one of the last ones off the floor," said Charlotte assistant coach Sue Panek, a teammate of Bullett's on the 1989 Maryland team that reached the Final Four.
Bullett says she'll pursue her master's degree in sociology, probably at West Virginia, in the off-season and will pass up playing overseas for the first time in four years. Playing year-round, she says, has certainly contributed to the lethargy she is feeling this season. As she is winding up her career, Bullett says, she wants to savor the time she has left in basketball.
Bullett is vague about how much longer she will continue to play, but she is certain that she wants to coach, but only on the high school level.
"I'm not the kind of person who has the patience to deal with people's attitudes. High school kids don't have much attitude. They just want to have fun and enjoy the game. I'd like to be at that level," Bullett said.
It's a place she's always been, no matter what age.