Minnesota Lynx forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin answers some viewer questions and shares her knowledge as a mom and veteran player of the WNBA.
When you mention the name “Mama Taj” to players and coaches in the WNBA, the immediate response is a big smile that reflects friendship, admiration and respect. The smile is followed by statements like, “Ah yes, Mama Taj, she’s one of the best -- you gotta love her.”
In case you’re completely out of the loop, “Mama Taj” is 14-year WNBA veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who has played on seven different WNBA teams: Orlando, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, New York and currently plays for the Minnesota Lynx. But she hasn't just played for those teams -- she's won with them. The 41-year-old center has won two WNBA championships and is a six-time WNBA All-Star and currently is the WNBA’s all-time leader in defensive rebounds with 1,951 and counting and for her career has averaged 12 points and 7 rebounds per game.
But we’re not here to talk about the stats; we’re here to tell you what people say after they smile at the mention of “Mama Taj." Everyone we talked with mentions how Taj has helped them out in their careers, how thoughtful and kind she is, and how she’s been a role model to a group of women who are already role models.
“The first time I came in the league she was known as 'Mama Taj' to me, “ said Temeka Johnson, who currently plays for the Tulsa Shock. In 2005 as a rookie for Washington, Johnson cramped up during a game against Connecticut and despite several attempts, was unable to return to the game.
“After the game Taj grabbed me and said, ‘Little mama, are you eating right?' The next time you come to Connecticut I am going to have some food for you,’” recalls Johnson. A week later when Washington played at Connecticut; Johnson found a plate of chicken, macaroni and greens prepared by the veteran in her locker. Taj followed up with Johnson after the game and shared how her longevity in the league was due to proper diet, something Temeka has taken into careful consideration ever since.
Katie Smith first played USA basketball with McWilliams-Franklin more than a decade ago and more recently for two seasons in Detroit. “She’s always looking out for people, she’s a real thoughtful person. She’ll make you dinner; she’ll remember your birthday, your favorite restaurant. She would even have dog treats for our dogs when we walked by her apartment.”
We asked Taj about the nickname and she just shook her head, “People I don’t even know call me Mama Taj -- fans, strangers on the street, everyone is saying it. It’s getting a little ridiculous.”
The nickname has become so iconic even President Obama referred to her as “Mama Taj” when the Lynx visited the White House last week to be honored for winning the 2011 WNBA Championship and in the spirit of in-depth investigative reporting, we talked to over a dozen players and coaches to try and find out who first coined the “Mama Taj” nickname.
“I don’t know who started 'Mama Taj'," said Lindsey Whalen, who has been her teammate in both Connecticut and Minnesota and considers Taj a close friend, "but it’s really caught on and stuck. People love it.”
“I’m sure she got the Mama Taj name because she is the oldest player in the league, and the next thing you know it’s going to be grandmama Taj,” laughed Indiana Fever coach Lynn Dunn.
Jennifer Gillom was known as “grandmama” when she retired from the WNBA at the age of 38 in 2002. Gillom who is now an assistant coach for Washington, says Taj is one of the best she’s ever played against and is equally amazing off the court.
“On the court Taj is a player you admire a lot as a teammate especially because she does all the dirty work that no one likes to do,” says Gillom. “Taj is a great person, forget basketball, she’s such a great human being. She’s fun and loving and is someone you always want to be around.“
“I don’t know where 'Mama Taj' came from, but she’s a great example to the younger players,” said Mike Thibault, who coached Taj for five seasons in Connecticut. “I think that she’s good about taking the young players and telling them what it's like to be part of the league, that this is a profession, it’s not a hobby and there is a way you handle yourself every day.”
Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve says the acquisition of McWilliams-Franklin was the X-factor in the Lynx winning their first championship in 2011. “People want to evaluate Taj on how she moves physically or where she’s at at the age of 41, but the value of Taj is what’s up here." [Reeve taps her forehead]. "She’s just so incredibly smart, and she has the respect of every single player and the coaching staff. I think she’s just amazing.”
Taj the Mother
The truth is, McWilliams-Franklin was the mothering type before she ever picked up a basketball. “I was a southern girl who went home and cooked and cleaned and took care of my brother,” explained McWilliams-Franklin. “I even did my homework on the bus so I could help clean and wash clothes as soon as I got home.”
That all changed when she began attending T.W. Josey High School in Augusta GA. Girls basketball coach Lynn Brantley approached the 6-2 15-year-old and asked if she wanted a college scholarship. “I wanted to go to college,” said Taj about the proposition. “We didn’t have money, my dad worked two jobs, so for a kid like me, there really wasn’t any other way. It’s funny, my coach actually had to go to my house and convince my dad.”
After Taj promised to maintain straight A’s, Mr. Williams agreed to let her play -- and play was an understatement. Taj became a four-sport athlete, excelling in track, softball and cross country but most of all in basketball. She averaged 24 points and 12 rebounds a game and led the Eagles deep into the state playoffs. Along with the success came scholarship offers from dozens of top Division I schools, everything was happening just as coach Brantley predicted.
That’s when life threw her a curve ball. Midway through her senior year in high school, Taj discovered she was pregnant -- soon after the scholarship offers dried up.The only school that didn’t retract their offer was Georgia State and so Taj attended GSU her freshman year, but when the head coach was fired, her scholarship was pulled.
Taj then found out she was pregnant with her second child. Overwhelmed by the responsibility of her first daughter Michelle, Taj made the gut-wrenching decision to give her second daughter, Schera, up for adoption.
Thinking her basketball career was over; she moved to Texas to live with her mother and began working a part-time job at an ice-cream shop. It was one of the lowest points in her life. That’s when a friend from church encouraged her to check out St. Edwards College, a small NAIA school in Austin (now Division II). Not long after, Taj had an informal tryout and was offered a partial scholarship.
But more importantly, the small Catholic University was able to meet her needs as a young mother. They helped her with transportation and clothes. Professors allowed her to bring her daughter to class and people in the athletic department would often help out with childcare during practice. The school treated her like family and became her support system.
Taj knew this was the second chance she needed in life, and poured all her energy into being the best mother, student and teammate she could be. Her first year at St. Edwards she was so successful, Division I programs began making offers again, but Taj turned them down.
For the first time she found balance in her life and basketball became her passion, not just a means to an end. “At St. Edwards, I learned to love the game of basketball,” says Taj about her experience with the Hilltoppers. “I started studying and watching the game. I used to watch the NBA finals on VHS tape. I watched the Lakers and the Pistons and all those old school players like Moses Malone and Dr J.”
Taj would work out for hours in the gym, trying to perfect the moves she learned from the NBA greats. The extra work paid off, as she led St. Edwards to the Final Four twice, and in 1993 was named a Kodak All-American and the NAIA Player of the Year. Later that year she scored an overseas contract in Germany making $11,000 a month.
In 1996 she came back to the United States to join the American Basketball League, where she played three seasons with the Richmond Rage and made the All-ABL team in 1997. When the ABL folded, she was drafted in 1999 by the Orlando Miracle, which began her 14-year run in the WNBA.
During the offseason, Taj continued to play basketball overseas, which is where she met her husband Reggie, a sergeantin the military. In 2002 the couple had their first child, Maia, together and soon after the family was able to re-unite with Schera.
Now 19 years into her pro basketball career and 41 years into life, all of these experiences have made Taj McWilliams-Franklin the outstanding mother, teammate, role model and woman who embodies the nickname “Mama Taj”.
As far as the future, Taj says she has no idea when she plans to retire; she’s still excited about playing basketball. “I’m just loving it,” says Taj. “I wake up in the morning and I think, how can I devise something that is going to stop whoever I’m playing today. How can I stop Catchings from doing what she’s doing? How do I stop Tammy Sutton Brown or Katie Douglas, what can I do to help my team become better?”
She’s equally passionate about affecting the game off the court.
“I’m always asking myself, ‘What kind of impact can I leave on a game that has given me so much and given me the opportunity to play and to be a better person and to effect change and impact lives?’”
Perhaps Katie Smith summed it up best. “Mama Taj is her persona, but we don’t have to call her that. It’s just who she is.”