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Bales back and in best shape of career

Alison Bales knows that if she eventually follows her mother into a career in medicine, she'll be answering the "Did you used to play basketball?" question endlessly by patients.

But perhaps she won't mind so much if she's able to answer, "Yes -- and I won a WNBA championship."

Bales -- who at 6-foot-7 is used to hearing the hoops question all the time anyway -- rejoined Atlanta this season after a year away from the WNBA. Now the Dream -- which went 4-30 in 2008, Bales' previous season in Atlanta -- will face Seattle in the league finals, which open Sunday in Seattle (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).

A year ago at this time, Bales was working out with a personal trainer and looking for pickup games with the best players she could find in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

Initially drafted out of Duke in 2007 by Indiana, Bales was traded to the Dream during the 2008 season. Then in January 2009, she was dealt to Phoenix. At the time, she was in Turkey, where she played for seven months. Shortly after she came back to the United States that spring, she headed to Arizona, only to be let go by the Mercury.

"I was a little bit discouraged after I got cut last year," Bales said. "I went back to school last summer. I took chemistry, and I was doing really well. But I thought, 'I do want to do medicine, but I'm not in a hurry to give up basketball yet.'

"I like the lifestyle, the traveling, being on the court, being with my team and having all these different experiences. It's such a good opportunity here."

It has turned out to be good for the Dream, too.

"We wanted a trail person that could come down and hit the 3-pointer. She's filled in and done that well," Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said of Bales. "I think she loves the game, and 6-foot-7 centers are hard to come by. Plus, she can play the 4 position and face up. She had the qualities that we were looking for.

"After sitting out the 2009 season, she worked extremely hard. She lost about 18 pounds and got a personal trainer so she'd be ready. I don't think she realized how much she would miss playing basketball until she was not on a team. So I really think that basketball is a big part of her life."

But Bales' hopes for medical school are important, too. Her mother, Dr. Mary McCarthy, is director of trauma services at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton and a professor of surgery at Wright State.

At Duke, Bales began the process of readying herself for a medical career, but by her senior year her basketball development had made her a first-round WNBA draft pick. Former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said Bales improved more in her four years in college than almost any other player she'd ever coached.

But the disappointment with the Mercury did make Bales question whether, at age 24, she was finished with competitive hoops. However, once she decided she wanted to give it another try, she knew the first step was to get in the best shape possible.

"I found a good trainer in my hometown, and I worked out with him three days a week, for two hours, lifting and running," she said. "I trained with all guys, pretty much. He had a couple of arena football players and some college football players. And I played one-on-one with guys to make sure I could play as physical and athletic as I would need to prepare for being in the WNBA.

"Then I thought I needed the right fit for a team, and I talked with my agent about that. Atlanta decided to give me a chance. They offered me a training-camp contract, and I jumped at it. I went to lunch with [Dream assistant] Carol Ross and got excited about camp. Luckily it worked out, and I made the team."

Ross, formerly the head coach at Florida and Old Miss, said Bales is as smart a defensive player as she has ever had. That's something Bales takes a lot of pride in, as she does her ability to come into a game -- even if only briefly -- and give the Dream a spark.

Bales averaged 3.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 15.6 minutes during the regular season. During the Dream's four playoff contests, she has played just under than 10 minutes per game, averaging 2.0 points and 2.3 rebounds. But Meadors said that's been exactly what Atlanta has needed from Bales.

"When she comes in, it may be 3 minutes, it may be 5 minutes, it may be 15," Meadors said. "But she goes out there and plays hard, and she's so productive. I knew what she could do from her time here in 2008, but her game has improved so much. The maturity level that she has in approaching the game is so different than it was then."

Like her former Tobacco Road rival Camille Little of Seattle, Bales got to the Final Four in college but didn't win a championship. Little has said her almost-but-not-quite quest at North Carolina motivates her in the WNBA. Bales doesn't seem quite as fueled by what happened -- or didn't happen -- at Duke, but it does have some impact.

"I mean, of course I wish we would have won the championship in college," Bales said of the overtime loss to Maryland in the 2006 NCAA title game. "It doesn't affect me on a daily basis, but … I won championships in high school and AAU. And you remember what that feels like, and that's what you're always striving for. It was frustrating not to get that in college, but we accomplished a lot at the same time.

"I think here [in Atlanta], we have the best of everything, really talented players who all work well together. We trust each other; it's all about the teamwork."

Being back on a team has meant a lot to Bales. Enough to get her to recommit and find her path back to the WNBA.

"When I step away again, it will have to be for real," Bales said. "I can't go to med school for a couple of years, then leave and try to come back. Once I do that, I'll have to be really done with basketball."

That, though, actually might not be for a while. The Dream are glad to have her back.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.