DeLisha Milton-Jones is stubbornly optimistic, which is a pretty necessary quality for someone to be a professional athlete for two decades.
Milton-Jones hoped for one more opportunity this year in the WNBA -- reached out to teams and stayed in shape -- ready to go if she got the call. She felt she could still be a positive veteran influence for young players. Her optimism extended all the way until mid-September as the regular season came to a close.
"It was like, 'OK, this is it, it's over,'" said Milton-Jones, who officially announced her retirement recently at age 42. "It's sad it had to end that way. It's hard to watch the playoffs, especially a team like Atlanta which was down a veteran post player.
"But I had to come to terms with it. I have to know there's a lesson in this for me. I have to move on to phase two of my life, take all the experiences I've had, and use them for someone else's good."
She will do that right away as an assistant coach for Ryan Weisenberg at Pepperdine. The Waves players likely can't even grasp just how much experience Milton-Jones has: how many games she has played, practices she has taken part in, countries she has competed in. The 1997 Wade Trophy winner for Florida, Milton-Jones started playing professionally before some of today's college freshmen were even born.
Milton-Jones, who began in the ABL, appeared in more games than anyone in WNBA history, with 499 in the regular season -- averaging 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals -- and 50 playoff games, where her numbers were even a little better (11.5, 6.1, 1.5).
She won two WNBA titles with Los Angeles. For USA Basketball, she won two Olympic gold medals, plus two golds and a bronze from the world championship. Her overseas career also was very decorated, as she played for teams in Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, Turkey and Korea.
As the WNBA gets set to start the playoff semifinals, Milton-Jones has an interesting perspective. For one, she was on the last Sparks team to make the WNBA Finals, in 2003. For another, her Los Angeles teams are the last to win back-to-back WNBA championships.
Why has that, in particular, been so tough to do?
"It's very hard, because you have to do everything you did the year before, times two," she said. "Who's really dedicated to go through that? To have the entire group committed to that journey, that's the first thing.
"But also players and other teams get better. And if you don't come back and prove as an individual that you can still add your piece to the puzzle, that's going to make it hard. The dynamic of a team changes from one year to the next, even if it's a lot of the same players. Those are the rigors of the journey you have to make."
Especially considering the league is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it seemed like the right time for the Sparks to honor Milton-Jones this season, which was sure to be her last even if she had gotten a call to play. She spent 11 of her 17 WNBA seasons with the Sparks, playing 344 games in the regular season and 48 in the playoffs for Los Angeles.
But a Sparks spokeswoman said that executive vice president/general manager Penny Toler wanted the organization focused on the current team and the playoffs and would not have a ceremony this year for Milton-Jones.
Seattle (Lauren Jackson), New York (Swin Cash), Phoenix (Penny Taylor) and Indiana (Tamika Catchings) all made the playoffs this season, yet still took time to honor their retiring players.
It seems a shame the Sparks couldn't arrange even a halftime acknowledgement at Friday's playoff game at Staples Center to let fans express their appreciation to Milton-Jones, especially since she and husband, Roland Jones, live in Los Angeles.
Milton-Jones admitted it was a disappointment that didn't happen. But she also knows it's time to move on to the next chapter of her life, while also maintaining her love for the WNBA.
"You have to do everything you did the year before, times two. Who's really dedicated to go through that? To have the entire group committed to that journey ... The dynamic of a team changes from one year to the next, even if it's a lot of the same players." DeLisha Milton-Jones, on how hard it is to win back-to-back titles
Milton-Jones echoed the sentiments of other retiring players in regard to how important it is for former players to stay involved with the league in some capacity -- particularly in mentorship roles, passing on the history of the WNBA and women's basketball in general.
"I hope the current and future players take pride in this product and not take it for granted," she said. "Take care of the league, because it's special. A lot of people fought hard for it, not just for themselves but future generations."
Milton-Jones hopes to add her name to the list of former WNBA players who've become successful college coaches. But she is also from the era long before social media and the ubiquity of cell phones and knows today's players grow up in a different world.
"I've been in the situation where I've been the oldest player in the locker room for many years," Milton-Jones said. "I learned years ago the best way to relate to younger people is to relate on their level.
"They're not going to understand my mentality all the time, because they haven't had the experiences I've had. Look eye to eye with them, listen to what they're saying, break down the barriers. I want them to see me as someone who understands them and can have a conversation with them."
Milton-Jones said because young players in club basketball can go to whichever coach at that level "makes them happiest," they sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the college atmosphere.
"I think kids are more sensitive to how they're talked to, how you look at them, how you make them feel," said Milton-Jones, who adds that she'd love to pick Geno Auriemma's brain on the topic. "I think the 'old-school' style is someone giving us that stern look and knowing, 'If I don't straighten up, my butt's going to be on the line running.'
"I think there has to be a balance with that old-school type of coaching and finding a way to do it with a little of the sting taken out of it. You have to use psychology more."
So this is a new challenge for Milton-Jones, and one she's ready to tackle. Leaving her playing career was brutally hard; there's no sugarcoating that. But when she talks to youngsters about working hard and cherishing every minute on the court, they'll know it comes from someone who excelled a long, long time at both.