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With WNBA and AFLW, Erin Phillips redefines two-sport stardom

Imagine being an elite professional athlete in your chosen sport and risking it all for the love of another that you hadn't played since childhood.

For two-time WNBA champion Erin Phillips, it was a no-brainer.

Fresh off a season with the Dallas Wings and an Olympic campaign in Rio with the Australian national team, the 31-year-old guard eschewed the thought of more basketball in either Europe or in Australia's WNBL -- common offseason activity for many WNBA stars -- by playing Australian rules football.

As a co-captain for her hometown Adelaide Crows, Phillips has been thriving in the inaugural season of Australian Football League Women's competition, setting a striking example from the front with her fearlessness and perpetual-motion playing style. On Sunday, Phillips kicked a spectacular goal from 60 meters to give the Crows a come-from-behind 17-14 victory over Carlton, leaving Adelaide as one of two unbeaten squads after three weeks of play.

She's certainly not the first Australian female athlete to excel in two vastly different sports. Ellyse Perry's exploits on the national soccer and cricket squads provide the most striking example.

But for Phillips, it's not about being first; it's about being as good as she possibly can, with no regrets. Even if that means risking her pro basketball career -- which includes nine WNBA seasons and championships with the Indiana Fever in 2012 and Phoenix Mercury in 2014 -- in the process.

Phillips initially garnered cautious approval from Dallas general manager Greg Bibb and head coach Fred Williams when she first approached the club about taking up what is a vastly more physical sport.

"It's something we talked about even near the end of last season," Williams said. "Our thoughts on it are, your players go overseas and play [basketball], and things can happen. [Australian rules] football can be a little rougher sport, but if you're tough enough, you can handle it. And I think Erin is one of those people who knows how to push her limits without getting herself hurt.

"With her family ties to football over there in Australia, we felt comfortable that she was making a personal decision to do something she really, really wanted to do, and we supported her on that."

Getting the appropriate medical insurance on her WNBA contract proved impossible, meaning if Phillips gets injured while playing for the Crows, it could potentially end her tenure with the Wings, who acquired Phillips in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks before the 2016 season.

At the beginning of each WNBA season, Phillips, as with any player who competes overseas in the offseason, must undergo a full physical assessment. Fail that, and the club can void her contract. So Phillips is, in her own words, playing football "at my own risk."

"I'm 31; footy is not going to be around for me for 10 years," she said. "It's more about taking my opportunity, giving it a go and having no regrets. It's something that, if I didn't try, I'd always regret it, which is something I've based my whole sporting career on, having no regrets and giving it your best."

And it's not like Phillips is using the AFLW to dramatically inflate her bank account. As a rookie draft pick, she will earn between 8,500 and 12,000 Australian dollars this season (approximately $6,500-$9,200 or around $100,000 less than her annual WNBA salary), making her quest a true labor of love.

Since her teens, Phillips' life has been utterly enveloped by basketball. From junior representative teams to the Australian Institute of Sport, from Australia's WNBL to the WNBA, from European leagues to the Olympics, life was one hoops season rolling into the next. Train, play, recover. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But that cycle has taken on new meaning since the arrival of twins, a boy and a girl. Phillips -- whose wife, fellow basketball player Tracy Gahan, gave birth to Blake and Brooklyn this past November -- readily and happily admits to having a whole new perspective on both her professional and personal life. She describes her athletic life as "fantasy" when compared to the real world of raising children.

My good luck charms!!! #B&B #13

A post shared by Erin Phillips (@erinphillips131) on

"Having them has been amazing, and they've been a really good distraction from all the hype and craziness, so every time I play now, I've got B and B -- Brooklyn and Blake -- written on my shoes," she said. "So that reminds me, every time I go out and play, this is the pathway we'll keep building for this special league, and if they want to play when they're older, that's totally up to them. It's a great reminder that, win, lose or draw, this is why we're here at the end of the day."

For Phillips, there's much satisfaction knowing that it's not just her own daughter who stands to benefit from the examples she and her fellow trailblazing footballers are setting.

The first two rounds of the AFLW drew crowds and media interest far beyond all expectations, raising the profile of women's sport exponentially and, in the process, emboldening calls for ever greater resources to be allocated for professional female athletes.

"If they want to pursue a career in footy, they can, and it's another opportunity for women," she said. "I think it's fantastic, not just for AFL football, but for women in sport and all women in general."

Right before her AFLW debut, Phillips had a vivid flashback. Already dressed and excited beyond all anticipation, Phillips was suddenly just a 10-year-old again, the only girl on her junior Aussie rules footy team.

Despite being given a toilet cubicle as a private dressing area, Phillips remembers a feeling of utter belonging, of the camaraderie, and that "the most natural thing in the world" was to be playing football.

Even growing up in an era when girls playing football was either disallowed after a certain age, heavily frowned upon or given much less than scant attention, Phillips has only happy memories of her time playing with the boys at her home club in South Australia.

And she was never just filling out the roster or a charity case, instead dominating the boys to such an extent she won a best player award for her under-11 footballing exploits, an achievement she holds just as dearly as any honors claimed at the elite basketball level.

"Yeah I was the only girl there, but my teammates really respected me," she said. "My coaches did, too, so I just absolutely loved waking up early on a Sunday morning and getting dressed for the game five hours early. Waking Dad up to have warm-up kicks -- those are the special memories I remember most."

For Greg Phillips, watching his daughter star for the Crows has been a conflicted mix of fatherly pride and concern. A standout footballer in his own right, Greg played 343 games for Port Adelaide, was named as an inaugural member of the South Australian Football Hall of Fame and was selected to Port Adelaide's all-time team from the club's first 130 years (1870-2000).

So while he understands his daughter's commitment and effort, he's also mindful of the impact football could have on her basketball career.

"Her being a two-sport player sits really well with me," he said. "[But] Dallas has her on a good contract, and I just don't want her to get injured. I want her to fulfill her dreams, but when she cops a few head-high tackles and goes to ground ..."

Running out for Adelaide earlier this month in her first competitive game of football in two decades, Phillips acquitted herself in more than adequate fashion, garnering 15 disposals, three goals, two marks, one tackle and one inside 50 entry in a comfortable 48-12 win over Greater Western Sydney.

She even matched up against fellow basketballer Jessica Bibby, who played briefly in the WNBA for the New York Liberty before carving out a distinguished and lengthy career in the WNBL.

It was the sheer physicality of the contest that presented the biggest challenges for the 5-foot-8 (173 cm), 165-pound (75 kg) Phillips. Playing elite basketball calls for a high level of aerobic capacity, but Australian rules football goes far beyond that, combining burst running with long-distance coverage, never mind the tackling and bumping aspects of the sport.

The quick hands and decision-making ability Phillips has developed playing basketball has already made her one of the AFLW's best in-close performers. But she maintains that's the only advantage she has.

"I definitely have a new appreciation of just how hard this game is, because I think it's the hardest game to be physically ready for and compete in," she said. "With basketball, we play more than one game a week; in the WNBA we can play up to four games a week. But this is kind of a different soreness. I don't really know how to describe it, but I do know you definitely need the full week to recover!"

With time ticking away on her athletic mortality, Phillips plans on wringing every last drop from her time on both basketball court and football oval. She has indicated that not only will she be suiting up for the Wings again in the 2017 WNBA season, but she has every intention of returning to the Crows next year.

"I don't want to just be a one-season player, but that will depend on how the body holds up," Phillips said. "I'm 31, and 32 in May, and I just don't have the luxury of saying I'll definitely play next year and another five years.

"I love both the sports I play. I love playing basketball in the States, and I really love playing footy, so I'm going to keep playing both for as long as I can."

Mechelle Voepel of espnW.com contributed to this report.