May 26, 2023 

Inside the Connecticut Sun’s celebration of legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin

Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s legacy for growing the game outlasts a playing career that spanned more than 20 years

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Taj McWilliams Franklin — “Mama Taj, Grandma Taj,” as she was commonly known to hall of famer Lindsay Whalen and countless other players who crossed paths with McWilliams-Franklin — stared into the rafters of Mohegan Sun Arena last Sunday afternoon. She watched as the Connecticut Sun slowly unveiled a fresh new Sun Legends banner including her No. 11 jersey.

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McWilliams-Franklin, who was joined by Sun President, Jen Rizzotti; Mystics general manager and former Sun head coach, Mike Thibault; and two members of the Mohegan Tribal Council at center court, tried to hold back tears as she stood at a podium in an arena where she spent the majority of her WNBA playing career. She stepped back and took a deep breath as she soaked up the moment and what it meant to her.

“I never thought I would be here,” McWilliams-Franklin told the Sun faithful who stayed after the game to watch the ceremony. “You belong here!” a fan from across the court interjected loud enough to kickstart another eruption of applause from the crowd. “I just wanted to be part of something special,” McWilliams-Franklin continued. “And I found that here in Connecticut.”

McWilliams-Franklin was drafted by the Orlando Miracle in the third round of the 1999 draft and spent eight years with the franchise (four years with Orlando and four years in Connecticut) before playing into her 40s for various other WNBA teams.

She helped guide the Sun to two WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, won a championship with the Detroit Shock in 2008 and was part of the starting lineup that helped push the Minnesota Lynx to their first WNBA title in 2011.

During her time with the franchise, McWilliams-Franklin earned five All-Star appearances (1999-2001, 2005, 2006), made the All-Defensive Second Team in 2005, earned All-WNBA Second Team honors in 2005 and 2006, and won the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award in 2005.

In eight seasons with Orlando and Connecticut, McWilliams-Franklin averaged 12.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks in 32 minutes per game. She holds the all-time franchise record in rebounds (1,814) and offensive rebounds (649), is second in defensive rebounds (1,165) and blocks (267), and third in franchise history in points (3,019) and double-doubles (50).

“What she’s done in her career — to be a leader, to be a mom, to be a great professional, we should all be so lucky to have been around that,” Thibault said during his ceremony remarks. “What she brought to the organization here and to you fans to get us started off on the right foot in Connecticut … I’ll be forever grateful.”

Washington Mystics General Manager Mike Thibault embraces <a rel=
Washington Mystics General Manager Mike Thibault embraces Taj McWilliams-Franklin at the ceremony celebrating WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 21, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Searching for a “long-term solution” in the early years of the WNBA

McWilliams-Franklin was a few weeks removed from giving birth to her daughter in January 2003 when she first found out the Orlando Miracle were purchased by the Mohegan Tribe and on the move to Uncasville, Connecticut.

McWilliams-Franklin, a 6’2 post player who excelled on defense and had a knack for coming up clutch in the fourth quarter, spent the four previous seasons in Orlando but was a seasoned pro with six years of professional experience overseas and in the American Basketball League before joining the WNBA.

What were first feelings of sadness from leaving Orlando and the team they built there behind, McWilliams-Franklin also felt hopeful. She had the opportunity to find stability with a franchise in the WNBA rather than being part of a team that just folded. She wouldn’t have to leave her future in the hands of an expansion draft.

Uncasville is a tiny town near the southeast shoreline of Connecticut, but the UConn fanbase about 45 minutes away gave everyone hope that the excitement for women’s basketball would translate. “It was kind of like an expectation that this was going to be a great space,” McWilliams-Franklin told reporters before Sunday’s game. “And hopefully I was going to stay. Because that was a big deal, too. I was on a year-by-year [contract] at the time with Orlando because we came from the ABL.”

By the Sun’s second season in Connecticut, McWilliams-Franklin had jumpstarted an era of success that included back-to-back Eastern Conference championships and was looked to as the leader on a team that included Sun Legends Nykesha Sales, Katie Douglas, Lindsay Whalen, Asjha Jones and later on Margo Dydek.

Whalen, who played with McWilliams-Franklin in Connecticut and Minnesota, said that as a young point guard, she looked to McWilliams-Franklin for leadership, but also learned about the extra little things that make a big impact in building a pro career, like taking care of your body or being accountable. Whalen was one of five rookies when the Sun made their first-ever Finals in 2004, and she said McWilliams-Franklin was at the forefront of teaching everyone what it took to get there.

“She wasn’t scared,” Whalen said. “She had this aura about her. That when it was game time, it was Taj time.”

Basketball Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen speaks at the ceremony celebrating WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin at Mohegan Sun Arena
Basketball Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen speaks at the ceremony celebrating WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 21, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Thibault said out of all the men’s and women’s players he’s known throughout his career, McWilliams-Franklin might be one of the best fourth quarter players he’s ever coached. She didn’t get sped up and instead played the game at her pace. They won playoff games through McWilliams-Franklin faking a handoff with poise and then getting a score “going at the speed of a snail to the basket.”

Mystics head coach Eric Thibault grew up around Mohegan Sun Arena as a teenager and said McWilliams-Franklin had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether it was grabbing an offensive rebound, tipping the ball in at the front of the rim or being available on a roll.

“There were some great plays over the years with her and Lindsay, where Lindsay would just find her on a little drop off pass late in the game,” Eric Thibault said before the game on Sunday. “[McWilliams-Franklin] could sell a fake handoff like nobody else. We won a couple games with that.”

McWiliams-Franklin left the franchise in 2007, spending time in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, before finishing the last two years of her playing career in Minnesota while she was in her 40s. She reunited with a veteran Whalen and played alongside a young superstar in Seimone Augustus and a generational rookie in Maya Moore. The Lynx won their first championship with McWilliams-Franklin in the starting lineup in 2011 and followed up with another Finals appearance in her final season in 2012.

“The second part of my career when she came to Minnesota, she took us again, another group of younger players, maybe a little bit more into our careers, and led us again,” Whalen said. “I’m not a champion without Taj McWilliams-Franklin, that’s for sure. She’s a champion in every sense of the word.”

“She is Mama Taj for a reason”

Sun head coach Stephanie White told reporters after the game on Sunday that her “welcome to the WNBA moment” came at the hands of McWilliams-Franklin. White was playing on the road in Orlando as a rookie for the Charlotte Sting in 1999. She said McWilliams-Franklin tried to drive down the middle of the lane and noted “Taj put me on my butt.”

White added that McWilliams-Franklin has been the example of work, grit, toughness and grace for the WNBA for a long time. “She is Mama Taj for a reason. She’s been around. She’s grown this game. She’s led young players in understanding, not just what it means to be able to play in this league, but what it takes to be a pro,” White said. “She just continues to lead by example. She continues to lead all of us really, in what this opportunity is that we have and how we continue to grow and be better in it.”

McWilliams-Franklin said she spent a lot of time with the Minnesota coaching staff during her last two seasons, and Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve convinced McWilliams-Franklin to try coaching after she retired from playing. She started her coaching career on the staff of Greg Williams at Rice University and Bill Laimbeer at the New York Liberty. Her other stops included time at Boston University, Post University and with the Dallas Wings.

Because most WNBA head coaches at the time also held general manager responsibilities, she joined an NBA program in 2018 for former players to work in the NBA league office and learn the business side of basketball. Today she has a role in the WNBA league office that was literally made for her — one that combines leadership, basketball, player relationships and development, and business. As Player Relations & Development Manager, McWilliams-Franklin helps current and former players figure out what they want to do after they retire from playing.

She said when she was done playing basketball there was no blueprint for what to do in your second career. “The old school players stopped because all we did was ball. So Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl [Swoopes], Lisa [Leslie], we all just balled,” McWilliams-Franklin said. “So when you’re finished with your career you have an aha moment. Like ‘ah, wait, what am I gonna do now? I’ve only been a basketball player.’”

WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Connecticut Sun forward <a rel=
WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas during the ceremony celebrating McWilliams-Franklin’s career at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 21, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Despite finishing her playing career outside of Connecticut, McWilliams-Franklin’s presence and impact on the franchise has never wavered over the years.

Both Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas, who both made sure to give McWilliams-Franklin huge hugs before and after her Sun Legend ceremony, said that McWilliams-Franklin has supported their careers since they first arrived in Connecticut as rookies and has always encouraged their growth. Now that McWilliams-Franklin works in the league office, they see her around even more often.

McWilliams-Franklin’s jersey retirement was long overdue to Thomas, who had been advocating to the organization and McWillams-Franklin for years that No. 11 belonged in the rafters. “I just knew the history of the Connecticut Sun and how pivotal she’s been for this organization, and I was kind of dumbfounded that she wasn’t up there sooner,” Thomas said.

“She’s always instilled confidence in me and I’ve seen how hard she’s worked throughout her career,” Thomas continued. “The Sun have meant so much to her and she gives back each and every day. So what better way to give back to her?”

The Sun Legends banner during the ceremony celebrating WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin, including her newly revealed jersey
The Sun Legends banner during the ceremony celebrating WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin, including her newly revealed jersey at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 21, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

McWilliams-Franklin’s jersey retirement ceremony and her return to Connecticut represent somewhat of a full-circle moment of her journey. Her return to the team and her current career path coincide with a new era of Connecticut Sun basketball that has made a conscious effort to employ multiple former WNBA players on the sideline and in the front office. She said the team’s work ethic and collaboration also mirror the team she led in Connecticut 20 years ago.

“It was a really special time for myself, Lindsay, Nykesha, Katie, Brooke Wyckoff, all of us that were here. I think for us, it was the coming together and the understanding of team first — how to actually subvert your tendencies, your ego and all of that to put the team first,” McWilliams-Franklin said.

“That’s a blueprint you continue to see as you go on to what you see now,” she went on to say. “There’s an accountability level. There’s a team atmosphere. There’s a space where, yes, you could score 50 on another team, but you take less to be part of this team because all those things are present. I think you see that with Brionna Jones, I think you see that with [Alyssa Thomas]. DeWanna [Bonner] came here for a reason. She could have chosen any franchise, but she chose to come to Connecticut and be part of what’s going on here. So I think those are the things that have stood the test of time.”

The league has also evolved to be more inclusive and embracing of motherhood. Bonner famously gave birth to twins while she was still in Phoenix, and then put up three All-Star seasons after her return. She is only one person on the growing list of WNBA moms who are balancing both family and an active playing career.

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McWilliams-Franklin balanced motherhood with playing throughout her entire college and professional careers but played during a time when she had to hide her pregnancy out of fear of being cut. When she played for the Miracle and found out she was pregnant, the team waited to notify the league so she could keep her contract. At one point she lost her Nike contract because of pregnancy.

“Now to celebrate women, who are for lack of a better term kick-ass moms too, and to put them in a position of being able to take care of their family and not worry about losing their job is, for me, the top in all the work and effort that you put in to get to this space. It’s really deserving of its own banner,” she said. “Just knowing that I was part of that movement, and I am being honored in this way has been sobering.”

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

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