WNBA veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones wants to go out on own terms

DeLisha Milton-Jones, who has played in the WNBA since 1999, says she dropped 25 pounds to prepare for the 2016 season. Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

DeLisha Milton-Jones isn't despairing about life after playing basketball. She is looking forward to a coaching career, which will be a very natural transition. She's long been an "older vet" in the WNBA, dispensing encouragement and the wisdom that comes from two decades as a professional athlete.

So this isn't about her not being sure what comes next. It's about just a little unfinished business.

Among her many achievements are two WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals and two World Championship golds. No one has played as many WNBA games as Milton-Jones: 499 in the regular season and 50 in the playoffs. But at 41, she'd like one more chance to add to that total.

Milton-Jones did not make Atlanta's opening day roster, but she's still working out and staying in shape just in case the phone rings. If some team needs an experienced player who can step in right away, Milton-Jones hopes she gets the call.

"I'm still an asset. Whether it's in a limited role -- as a kind of den mother, being that professional vet in the locker room and on the bench to mentor the younger players -- or whatever they need." DeLisha Milton-Jones

"I wish things had panned out differently, but I thank them for the opportunity," Milton-Jones said of the Dream, who traded for her in 2014. "I'm moving full speed ahead and allowing other teams to see I'm still an asset. Whether it's in a limited role -- as a kind of den mother, being that professional vet in the locker room and on the bench to mentor the younger players -- or whatever they need.

"When you've played as long as I have, you have relationships with other coaches and GMs, so it's a matter of letting them know you still have the ability and desire to play."

You can understand why Milton-Jones would like to go out more on her own terms. And even why she might feel her career has been underappreciated.

Milton-Jones was an outstanding collegian at Florida, winning the 1997 Wade Trophy and then opting to play in the ABL. After that league folded, she was picked fourth in the 1999 WNBA draft by Los Angeles and helped the Sparks win back-to-back championships in 2001-02.

After three seasons in Washington (2005-07), she returned to the Sparks for five seasons. Milton-Jones started 2013 in San Antonio before going to New York, then went from the Liberty to the Dream in a 2014 trade after 19 games that year with the Liberty.

Her ruptured Achilles tendon after two games with Atlanta ended her 2014 season, and many might have thought Milton-Jones would call it a career then. She acknowledges she was in a "dark place" for a while after that injury, but then she did what she does best: went back to work.

She rehabbed and played again last year for the Dream. But another injury -- this time a concussion -- cut short her 2015 season. Again, you might have figured Milton-Jones would say farewell.

But she really believed she still had something to contribute to the Dream in 2016. She also wanted to be a part of the league's 20th anniversary season, just as she has been for so much of the WNBA's development.

"She guided me in the right direction. She was very helpful on the court and off the court. ... You want to soak up as much experience as you can from veteran players like that." Shoni Schimmel on former teammate DeLisha Milton-Jones

"I decided, 'I'm throwing caution to the wind, and I'm coming back next season looking like I did when I was a rookie,'" Milton-Jones said of this past winter. "I dropped 25 pounds because I wanted to 'lean' out. When you're an older vet, the leaner you are, the better it is for your joints and your mobility. The first thing people judge you on is how you look and how you move.

"I was very strategic in my plan of attack, and I felt I did everything I needed to do to make sure I passed the eye test when anyone saw me. It was an uphill journey; it was tumultuous at some points, but in the end it was rewarding. It showed me just what I am made of and how strong I am."

Then she added with a laugh, "Or maybe even how stubborn I am. To not give up when most people would count you out at that point in your career."

When she didn't make the final cut at Atlanta, she was initially very disappointed. But if you know anything about Milton-Jones, you know that her resolve is legendary.

Los Angeles is where she and her husband, Roland, make their home, and she's back there now. She knows a lot of things can happen during a WNBA season, and the situation might still arise that a team would reach out to her. She wants to be ready to go if that happens.

If it doesn't, it won't diminish what's been a terrific career. Milton-Jones has WNBA averages of 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds over 17 seasons. Along with being the leader in games played, she's in the WNBA's all-time top 10 in multiple categories, including points (5,571), field goals (2,083), rebounds (2,574) and steals (619). She's also in the top 15 in blocked shots (339).

Her versatility on the defensive end of the court was valuable in the WNBA and international competition -- even if, somehow, she never was named to the league's all-defensive team (that honor began in 2005, so it wasn't awarded the first six seasons of her WNBA career).

She's one of those rare players who have been active so long that she bridges distinctly different generations of women's basketball. Milton-Jones has played with and against players whose birth dates range from the 1960s to the 1990s. She was one of the American trailblazers of competing overseas in Russia, including winning a EuroLeague championship with UMMC Ekaterinburg in the 2002-03 season.

She knows how far the WNBA has come but also what it still needs to accomplish. And Milton-Jones understands that mentoring younger players is about both words and deeds.

"Last year, she guided me in the right direction," said New York guard Shoni Schimmel, who played in Atlanta in 2015. "She was very helpful on the court and off the court. She has all those years to back up what she's saying because she understands the game and is a great player.

"It goes beyond just basketball but the rest of your life. DeLisha and I would have conversations about a lot of things. You want to soak up as much experience as you can from veteran players like that."

Milton-Jones knows it's particularly important to be dedicated to the far less glamorous parts of being a pro athlete: eating right, training properly and resting enough.

"The No. 1 way I help younger players is by being a great example," Milton-Jones said. "I always present myself as an open book to teammates. They can ask me anything. Need tips on nutrition? Come eat dinner with me. I'll cook.

"Some of the best advice I was given was to watch, listen and then speak. With young players nowadays, they are still trying to find themselves and fit into being a professional athlete. I've learned to pick my moments of when to give them tidbits here and there. And then, after a while, they'll come to me. I care. I have a lot of compassion and a lot of passion for the game."

What she still hopes to have in 2016, though, is a WNBA roster spot.