Sun's Whitmore rises above challenges

Tamika Whitmore is averaging 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds for the playoff-bound Sun. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Whenever Tamika Whitmore has boarded a plane the past several years to play basketball somewhere around the world -- Russia, France, Spain, the Czech Republic, Japan, China, Israel, the Canary Islands -- she remembers where all her travels started.

Her hometown: Tupelo, Miss. (A place that always makes me think of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe." Recall the line, "Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.")

Whitmore, a 6-foot-2 center/forward, has helped Connecticut wrap up a playoff spot, and you can see what just might be a WNBA Finals preview Sunday when the Sun host San Antonio (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

She was traded to the Sun in February because that franchise opted to fulfill Katie Douglas' wish to go home to Indiana. So Whitmore, 31, joined her fourth team in her 10th season in the WNBA. Once again, she's headed to the postseason -- for the ninth time.

"It's good for what it is, but I'm not satisfied," she said of her playoffs experience. "I want a ring. I want it so bad that every time I see a sports movie where they triumph over whatever adversity they have, I cry. Because I want to know what the feeling is like to win it all, and I've never had that opportunity."

Yet Whitmore's life story is every bit as riveting as the movies that make her misty-eyed, such as "Remember the Titans," "Rudy" and "Invincible."

Hers is about climbing out of poverty and educating herself, then getting the chance to see just about our entire planet. It's about saying exactly what she thinks and believing she can follow a path that doesn't have to be previously well-tread. (For instance, she would like to coach basketball when she's done playing. Men's basketball, that is.)

Her story is about never forgetting Tupelo but never feeling stuck there, either.

"When you grow up without running water and electricity," she said, "having to get your homework done by a coal-oil lamp and bathing in one of those old tin tubs, where your mom has to heat up water on the stove that you bring in with a 5-gallon bucket … I mean, people usually don't know that part about me.

"Sometimes they see me now and think that I've got it made. I've never had it made. Everything I've ever gotten, I've earned. Just to be able to say, 'Hey, I'm going to Spain or Russia to play' -- it never entered my mind when I was a kid that I would be leaving the country and traveling all over the world."

Tupelo is in the northeast corner of Mississippi. According to Census Bureau rankings from 2006, Mississippi remains the poorest state in the United States, with the lowest median household income -- about $34,400 -- of the 50.

This is not meant to be criticism of the state. It's simply the reality that people there have faced for many decades. Whitmore doesn't like euphemisms or circumventing the truth to maintain polite conversation. She prefers to tell it like it is: A lot of people still just scrape by in Mississippi. In some schools, virtually every child would be categorized as "at risk."

But Whitmore early on made the connection between education and moving ahead, and between education and basketball. In high school, she might have chosen to go west to Oxford and attend college at Ole Miss, or south to Starkville, home to Mississippi State. Instead, she went northwest to Memphis, where she was a two-time Conference USA player of the year.

She recalls the home visit when Memphis' coaches, then led by fellow Mississippi native Joye Lee-McNelis, spent hours talking to her mother, Gwendolyn Glover, herself a former basketball player. Whitmore fell asleep before they left, but in her mind, all her questions were answered, too. Besides, there was something else about Memphis.

"I didn't want to go to a school in Mississippi," she said. "I wanted to get out of Mississippi and see what it was like to try to thrive somewhere else."

It might seem as if Whitmore has ventured very far away from hardship, and in the physical sense she has. She's a WNBA veteran, first playing in New York, then Los Angeles, then Indiana and now Connecticut. She has supplemented her income well with all her experience competing overseas.

Whitmore has remained relatively healthy throughout her career. Wherever she has gone, she has figured out how to add value to her team. This season, she's averaging 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds for the Sun, working as an inside tandem with forward Asjha Jones and appreciating the court vision of guard Lindsay Whalen.

"We just read each other really well, and she makes playing easy," Whitmore said of Jones. Of Whalen, she said, "It's kind of brought me back to my New York days when I played with Teresa Weatherspoon. You know, Lindsay just sees things and knows things that are happening everywhere on the court. She always knows how to get you the ball, and that's a post player's dream."

Whitmore fondly remembers the pleasantly "crazy" Liberty fans, and now she appreciates the atmosphere at Connecticut, where women's basketball has a place of solid esteem thanks to UConn's many years of college success.

"I didn't come in here to be a superstar," she said. "I'm here to do what it takes to win a championship. That's what I've done. I've tried to get in where I fit in."

As it turns out, Whitmore has found ways to fit in all over the world. But she still reflects on her past, her childhood and adolescence in Tupelo. It's not really a cross to bear, but more a touchstone to the essence of who she is.

It makes sense to me that Whitmore does this. My mother's youth was spent during the Great Depression, and from my earliest childhood I heard her stories about wandering behind stores to see if, by chance, any food had been thrown away in the dumpsters. And about how her family was evicted from housing five times when she was in the third grade, and at one point slept in a barn because there was nowhere else to go.

By contrast, the only times as a kid I had to deal with something like not having electricity were when we blew a fuse or there was a power-line-damaging storm. Which, I believe, once forced me to endure an agonizing five hours without television.

Now, having just returned from China -- where I toured some of the country outside of Beijing after the Olympics -- the issue of how people withstand poverty has been weighing on my mind.

But I actually wasn't thinking about that when I decided to write about Connecticut this week, and Whitmore specifically. I was familiar with her background, but it was her contributions to the Sun so far that have really intrigued me.

Yet when I asked what has motivated Whitmore throughout her basketball career, that's what she spoke of: the strength she draws from knowing harder times and finding a way out of them.

"There were necessities that people take for granted that I didn't have," she said. "My mom once made $72 a week supporting two kids and herself. Seeing her get through all that and survive it, whatever I have to go through now seems like nothing. She was able to do it, and I'm able to overcome anything, too."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.