Willingham: A winner at every stop

Seattle's Le'Coe Willingham (34) boxes out Connecticut's Kalana Greene during Friday's game at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Willingham, who began her career with the Sun, has played for WNBA championship teams in Phoenix (2009) and Seattle (2010) each of the last two seasons.
Seattle's Le'Coe Willingham (34) boxes out Connecticut's Kalana Greene during Friday's game at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Willingham, who began her career with the Sun, has played for WNBA championship teams in Phoenix (2009) and Seattle (2010) each of the last two seasons. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Mohegan - Le'coe Willingham has gotten used to hanging out at the White House.

Willingham visited the White House last Wednesday when the 2010 WNBA champion Seattle Storm were honored by President Obama. She had been there the year before when with the 2009 WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury.

"Each time was special, but this one actually took the cake," Willingham said of her most recent visit. "We got to go into the Oval Office and chat with him a little more. Last year, when I was with Phoenix, we didn't get to do any of that. The presentation, I think, was in the state dining room.

"This time we shook his hand individually, said a few words, went to the Oval Office and chatted for about five or seven minutes before we did the ceremony. That was a great experience."

Willingham laughed and added, "I'm seasoned at the White House tour."

There haven't been many WNBA players who have enjoyed as much success as Willingham has the last seven years. The former Connecticut Sun forward has shown an uncanny knack for joining winning teams. She was part of Connecticut's 2004 and 2005 Eastern Conference championship teams in addition to the WNBA titles she earned in Phoenix and Seattle.

"I get a feeling from being around a team," Willingham said. "Being (in Connecticut), being a part of two special runs, back-to-back (years) going to the championship, you get a feeling for when a team is really tuned in and ready to go. That was the feeling in 2009 with Phoenix.

"When I decided to come to Seattle, I wanted to win. I felt like it was a great chance for me to win again. It ended up being pretty darn good for me."

Willingham's journey is more notable because she was an undrafted rookie free agent from Auburn when the Sun invited her to tryout at their 2004 training camp. She's also unique because, at six feet, she's an undersized post player.

"It's been a ride, but it's definitely been hard work," Willingham said. "Nothing was given. . I was very motivated coming out of college. It was a disappointment that I didn't get drafted, but looking back it now, that was the biggest blessing ever because I got to chance to choose where I thought I could go and possibly make a team. And it came down to the last day (of training camp).

"I still remember it like it was yesterday. It came down to me and Courtney Coleman (Connecticut's 2003 second-round pick). We were roommates, we became friends, and it came down to us. I remember getting the phone call from (Sun coach Mike Thibault) and coming downstairs to the casino. My stomach was knotted up. He told me that I made it. It was a sigh of relief, and I just called everybody at home. 'I made it.' It was four great years here with a great organization and great coaches."

Willingham signed with Phoenix after the 2007 season and was a valuable reserve for two seasons.

The Mercury didn't have the salary cap space to resign her after 2009, so she moved on to Seattle.

"Anytime you try to find a free agent, it's usually that they played well in the past against you," Storm coach and general manager Brian Agler said. "She was difficult for us to defend at times. I always liked her versatility. She's competitive. Good rebounder. She's improved defensively. . We're real happy that we've got her here.

"She's one of the smartest players I've been around."

Willingham was a top reserve last year for one of the successful teams in WNBA history. Seattle finished 28-6 during the regular season and won all seven of its playoff games for the franchise's second world title.

"I've been very blessed to be with three quality organizations," Willingham said. "I've been with a different group of women at each stop and I've learned from each group. Here in Connecticut, we had people my age, Asjha (Jones), and learning from Taj (McWilliams-Franklin) and people like that.

"Phoenix was a fun group of girls. We had a good time. Quite the group of people. Different, but we meshed. Seattle, we're different also, but it's a more calm and laid back business. Everybody supports each other. A great group of women. It's been a great place for me."

n.griffen@theday.com

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