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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    McWilliams-Franklin’s No. 11 raised to the rafters at Mohegan Sun

    Taj McWilliams-Franklin of the Connecticut Sun is guarded by DeLisha Milton-Jones of the Washington Mystics in a game on Aug. 20, 2006. McWilliams-Franklin, a six-time WNBA all-star who ranks first in franchise history in rebounding, had her No. 11 retired by the Sun on Sunday in an emotional postgame ceremony at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Jessica Hill/AP File Photo)

    Mohegan — Taj McWilliams-Franklin gave birth to her daughter Maia on Jan. 15, 2003. Less than two weeks later, the WNBA franchise for which she played, the Orlando Miracle, announced its move to Mohegan Sun Arena as the Connecticut Sun.

    McWilliams-Franklin jokes that since it was the days prior to a dependence on Instagram or Twitter, someone actually had to pick up a telephone and call to inform her of the news.

    “Sadness,” McWilliams-Franklin said of her initial reaction. “It was a sadness because the team that we had started with all together was gone but also a hopefulness that the long-term solution was going to be something of strength.

    “Just me with a six-month-old (at the time she arrived in Connecticut) and my husband who was in the military and couldn’t come so everything was like a shock to me. It’s kind of cold. I got off the plane in shorts because I lived in Texas. It was shocking and then it was like, ‘Hmmm.’ Everyone was so nice.”

    One of the pillars of the Connecticut Sun franchise and its all-time leading rebounder, McWilliams-Franklin had her No. 11 raised to the rafters at Mohegan Sun following Sunday’s Connecticut victory over the Washington Mystics.

    McWilliams-Franklin was hailed Sunday for her work, grit, class, toughness and grace by head coaches from both teams.

    A postgame ceremony was then marked by words from Sun president Jennifer Rizzotti, former head coach Mike Thibault and McWilliams-Franklin’s former Sun teammate Lindsay Whalen. McWilliams-Franklin, who tearfully addressed the crowd, including her husband Reggie, was also bestowed gifts from the Mohegan Tribe.

    “It’s an amazing day for me. It just feels surreal,” McWilliams-Franklin said prior to the game. “Seeing all the fans that were here from Day 1, it’s a little overwhelming to know that it’s been 20 years since we came to Connecticut and the fans, everyone has just been amazing and embraced us.”

    McWilliams-Franklin, originally drafted by the Miracle in 1999, spent eight seasons with the franchise, sitting third in scoring, first in rebounding and second in blocked shots in team history. She was a member of Sun teams which made the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005.

    A 6-foot-2 post player, McWilliams-Franklin played for seven franchises over her 14-year career, going on to win WNBA titles in 2008 with the Detroit Shock and in 2011 as a member of the Minnesota Lynx. She retired following the 2012 season at the age of 41.

    McWilliams-Franklin is currently the WNBA’s Player Relations and Development Director.

    Sun coach Stephanie White recalled Sunday that McWilliams-Franklin, or “Mama Taj,” as she became known, knocked her down during her rookie season in the WNBA, what White called a “welcome to the WNBA” moment.

    “Taj is one of the all-time greats and not just one of the all-time great players but one of the all-time great people,” White said. “She’s ‘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.

    “She continues to lead by example. She continues to lead us all, really, in what this opportunity is that we have.”

    McWilliams-Franklin said that at the time she was pregnant with Maia, it was so frowned upon to be a pregnant woman in the WNBA that the Miracle hid her pregnancy so she could retain her contract.

    “You got cut when you were pregnant when I was in the W,” she said. “I lost my Nike contract, all of that. 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 being worried about losing their job ...

    “Just knowing I was part of that movement and I’m being honored in this way has been sobering.”

    Mystics head coach Eric Thibault was around the Sun growing up, when his father Mike was the Sun’s head coach. He described Sunday a McWilliams-Franklin that was especially effective in the clutch.

    “She just had an unbelievable knack in her brain for the game,” Eric Thibault said. “She was fearless.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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