Cash guides Sky into first playoffs

Swin Cash is trying to become the first WNBA player to win titles with three different teams. Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Swin Cash fondly recalls her grandmother pleading with and scolding the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"She used to scream at Barry Bonds and all those guys," Cash said, laughing, of the Pirates of her youth. "I have great memories of my Grandma and watching baseball back then. I actually played baseball when I was younger, and it was my first sport."

This season, the Pirates are closing in on their first playoff appearance since 1992, when Cash was 13. She will turn 34 on Sunday, the same day her Chicago Sky compete in their second WNBA playoff game in franchise history.

The Sky didn't have nearly as long a postseason drought as the Pirates; the WNBA franchise has only been in existence since 2006. But Cash, who was born in the "We Are Family" year of 1979 -- when the Bucs last won the World Series -- can't help but see a bit of symmetry between the Sky and the Pirates.

"There were so many years when the Pirates were terrible," said Cash, who is from McKeesport, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh. "It just really makes me proud and happy for them this season.

"One thing that is similar with Chicago and Pittsburgh is they are such intense sports towns," she said. "With the Pirates, it's been 20-plus years of struggling, trying to get back to the playoffs. I think for the city, it's a great time."

And for Sky, it's a pretty neat time, too. Chicago will host its first WNBA playoff game Friday night at Allstate Arena. Meanwhile, the visiting Indiana franchise has been in the playoffs nine years in a row and is the defending WNBA champion. The postseason experience factor is with the Fever by a landslide.

However, Cash gives the Sky her own experience factor. She has three WNBA championships in her career: in 2003 and '06 with Detroit and 2010 with Seattle.

Cash is trying to join the likes of Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Janeth Arcain with four WNBA titles; those players all won their rings with Houston from 1997-2000. (Thompson is the only one of those ex-Comets still active; she and the Seattle Storm have their playoff opener against Minnesota on Friday.)

Cash could be the first player to win a WNBA championship with three different franchises. Considering the Sky have yet to even win a playoff game, Cash is certainly not thinking that far ahead. But the fact that she's in position to do it is a point of pride for her.

"That means so much to me, because everyone wants to be known as a winner," Cash said. "I remember having a conversation with Sue [Bird] once, about how people can critique your game in different ways, but no one can take away winning and being a champion.

"To have that type of presence on the teams I've played for and be able to contribute to that success means I've not only reached my goals, but I've helped others achieve things. That shows what a team sport is truly about."

This season, Cash has had a big impact on Sky rookie Elena Delle Donne. Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said it has been a key part of why Delle Donne has transitioned to the WNBA at such a high level.

"Swin has exceeded my expectations; she's been our X factor," Chatman said. "She has that fighter's mentality. She's very versatile in a way that doesn't often get talked about, because she doesn't put up the flashy offensive numbers. But she's been what we envisioned when we made the trade for her.

"This team hadn't been there and done that, but Swin had done the things we wanted to do. So it's been great. From Day 1, she took Elena under her wing and got her through things and helped her, because we threw a lot at Elena."

Cash is averaging 9.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists. She has started every game for the Sky, who finished the regular season 24-10.

"Swin, first and foremost, is a great competitor and I'm not surprised that she has had such a tremendous impact on the Sky this season," said Geno Auriemma, Cash's coach at UConn and on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. "Swin, at her age, is in the perfect frame of mind to play the role of the veteran who has won titles and now can help the young players."

Cash was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 WNBA draft behind her UConn teammate Bird. Cash recalls that early on in Detroit, she didn't always feel particularly welcomed by some veteran players. She says she has been determined to help younger players as she has gotten older, and definitely reached out to Delle Donne from the start of this season.

Despite the two championships in Detroit, Cash had some tough times there. She suffered an ACL injury at the end of the 2004 season. In 2005, still recovering from the knee injury and experiencing back problems, she was limited to 21 games in the regular season and a career-low average of 5.7 points.

Cash continued to play despite back pain -- helping Detroit to its second title in 2006 -- until finally having surgery in 2008. She was traded in February of that year to Seattle, where she joined Bird in a WNBA championship run in 2010.

Storm coach Brian Agler said it was a hard choice to deal Cash before the 2012 season, but he felt Seattle really needed a lottery draft pick, which Chicago had. And the Sky really needed a veteran post presence with championship experience.

Cash has been durable throughout her career; the 2005 season was the only one where she missed a significant amount of time. For the fourth WNBA season in a row, she has played every game.

"It really comes down to be disciplined," Cash said of staying in great shape. "I don't need somebody to push me. But I give a lot of credit to Andrea Hudy, who's now the strength and conditioning coach at Kansas. When I came into UConn and she was there, I didn't really know what work was. But by the time I was a senior, I understood what it meant.

"I always stress to my teammates and younger players, 'You are the CEO of your body, and it's your business. You need to know what nutrition works for you, what exercises are best, where you get your power from.' And if you're not asking questions, trying to figure those things out, how can you have true success?"