Napheesa Collier was matched up against the Atlanta Dream's Maya Caldwell on the left wing late in the third quarter Sunday in a must-win game for the Minnesota Lynx. Caldwell attempted to throw the ball to a teammate in the paint, but Collier was there. She raised her hands above her head, stopping the ball in its tracks where it bounced lightly off her forehead. Collier collected it and was gone, speeding across half court and into the paint before kicking the ball out to a teammate for a 3-point attempt.
"That's Phee," Lynx coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve said about her budding franchise cornerstone. "That's the kind of stuff that we missed."
Collier, 25, admits she still can't do all the things she's used to just yet, but the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year reminds herself that she's better than she was the week before, and hopes to be better next week than she is now. After all, just 74 days prior to the game, an 81-71 Lynx win, Collier had given birth to her first child, daughter Mila Sarah Bazzell. Sunday marked Collier's first appearance of the 2022 season.
Well before Mila's arrival, Collier knew she wanted to return to the WNBA this summer so that she could play one last time with teammate and future Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, who will retire at the end of the season. Collier achieved that goal last weekend less than three months after bringing Mila into the world, following in the footsteps of women's pro basketball stars such as Sheryl Swoopes and Candace Parker -- in 1997 and 2009, respectively -- who returned to the WNBA hardwood within months of giving birth.
Even Collier took her re-emergence a bit for granted.
"For some reason, I had this really unrealistic expectation that I would just be fine. And that's not what happened," Collier told ESPN on Wednesday from Phoenix prior to the Lynx's meeting against the Mercury. "Obviously, I knew my body had to go through all of this, but I'm like, 'Oh, it'll bounce back fast. I'm young, I'm an athlete, it'll be fine.'"
But in practice? "It's just not the reality of how that works," Collier said. "It's definitely been harder than I thought it was going to be."
Following nearly four months of limited or no physical activity -- the two months before Mila's birth and the six weeks after -- Collier went from light bike work to playing in a WNBA game in less than five weeks, all while continuing to learn the demands and nuances of being a mother. But the team's last-minute push for her to suit up Sunday with teammate Aerial Powers injured was the ripping-the-Band-Aid-off moment Collier needed to get back out there and play alongside Fowles.
If all goes to plan, Collier can help the Lynx (14-20) triumph in a year that, from the jump, never went to plan by securing a postseason berth that extends Fowles' career into the playoffs -- the cherry on top to Collier's remarkable personal and professional comeback.
ABOUT A WEEK after the 2021 season concluded, Collier took a pregnancy test when her period was late, and it was positive. She couldn't wait for fiancé Alex Bazzell to return home the following day to tell him they would be parents. But she couldn't even wait for him to arrive at his apartment and blurted out the news on the phone while he was in an Uber.
Collier said she has always loved kids, and looked forward to being a mother one day. Her mom, Sarah Collier, had Napheesa and her brother in her early 20s, prompting Napheesa to consider starting a family when she was young too. Even from a young age, Sarah said, Collier gravitated toward children and would want to hold babies at functions.
So while the fact that Collier was going to be a mom imminently came as a shock and initially was a lot to process, it still was "the best surprise," she said.
Collier, whom the Lynx drafted No. 6 overall out of UConn in 2019, called Reeve the day after she found out she was pregnant to give her as much time as possible to plan for Collier's absence. At that point, Collier assumed she'd miss the entire 2022 season.
When Fowles announced she would retire following this season, Collier was disappointed that she wouldn't play alongside her one more time. But then she thought, "Why can't I?" At the very least, she'd try, especially for Fowles, who took Collier under her wing when she first arrived in Minnesota and has been a close friend ever since. They also were teammates on the United States' gold-medal-winning 2020 Tokyo Olympics team.
"Syl's done so much for the team, for the league, and for me, and I just want to play with her one last time because I love her so much and I love being around her," Collier said. "She's so genuine, and not only is she an All-Star and Hall of Famer and all those things on the basketball court, she really is an even better person. That's why I wanted to do this."
Even as Fowles tried to talk her out of it.
"She told me not to," Collier said. "She obviously understands it's really hard, and Syl's super humble. She never wants anyone to do anything for her. So she's like, 'You just take care of you and that baby.'"
Collier tried to stay in shape as best she could during her pregnancy. She did workouts with Alex, who's a high-profile basketball trainer, and played pickup, even practicing with the Huskies in Storrs, Connecticut, in December. Her doctor advised her to dial it back when she started cramping at around five months, at which point she stuck to the treadmill and weights. Even that got to be too much for her back, so she spent the last two months of her pregnancy mostly walking outside, a bit of a foreign concept after years of pushing herself as a pro athlete.
"I think she was not as happy with herself not being able to do some of the things that she wanted to do. But I keep reassuring her, 'You're growing a whole human being in there,'" Sarah Collier said. "'Your pregnancy, the baby, that's the most important thing.'"
For as relatively easy as her pregnancy was, Collier's labor was a different story. In late May, she got induced at 39 weeks and spent 36 hours in labor. After two hours of pushing -- at which point she said her epidural had worn off -- an exasperated Collier uttered, "I can't do this anymore." With Bazzell and Sarah, a nurse, on either side of her, they responded, "Yes, you can, Napheesa. Some way, somehow, you figure a way to do it."
"She gave one more push, and there she [Mila] came," Sarah said.
"It was amazing," Collier said. "She came out and she was a full human -- wrapping my mind around that was so crazy to me. Like, she was [just] in my stomach, that was something that was just running through my mind over and over again. But it was so cool to see her and she's so beautiful."
THE NEW PARENTS had never really been around newborns, and had questions about everything: how the baby was supposed to sleep, how much she was supposed to eat, how she's supposed to burp. Sarah said when they weren't together, Collier would call her 10-20 times a day.
"The scariest thing as a new mom is this is all new to you," Sarah said. "You don't have any experience. They can't tell you what's wrong. You're trying to guess and you're guessing from a perspective that you have no context."
Napheesa Collier didn't know you shouldn't get a baby's belly wet before the umbilical cord falls off. One time, Collier blew on Mila's face when she was crying to see if she would stop, not realizing until her mom told her that it prevents them from breathing.
Two weeks in, Mila still had her days and nights mixed up and cried a lot. Collier didn't know what Mila wanted or how to help.
"She was like, 'They're, like, letting me go home with a whole human,'" Sarah said. "I told her, 'This happens every day in the world, baby. You will figure it out.' And she has. The growth just in the last 11 weeks with her and Mila is just amazing."
But Collier and Bazzell eventually found their groove, becoming more comfortable with parenthood and settling into a routine. She tried to get cleared early for physical activity, but her doctor said to wait for her six-week postpartum mark, and didn't even allow Collier to walk for exercise for the first four weeks. Listening to her body and trying not to take things too fast was more important than ever, something Parker -- the WNBA player and mom Collier talks with the most -- advised her.
Collier started working out with the Lynx's trainer when she rejoined the team right after the Fourth of July, first on the stationary bike, then doing some exercises here and there, gradually adding more each day.
"I knew I had a lot of work to do, but I was just excited to be working out again," Collier said. "If I knew what I knew now then, it would be a little daunting because I didn't understand how hard it would be."
The first few weeks were easy. Then the intensity amped up. And just 2½ weeks ago, as Collier made her way through a round of six passes up and down the court, setting a screen and then flashing to the ball to shoot, it crystallized for Collier that this wasn't going to be as seamless as she thought. But it wasn't just her lungs. Her body had to catch up.
"Your bones spread apart for you to have the baby, and there's a hormone your body releases to make everything really loose," Collier said. "So those quick, jerky movements that you need [in basketball], you don't have that. I'm carrying baby weight that I had to lose. So my bones aren't where they used to be, my ligaments are really stretched, I can't move as fast as I did before, I'm heavier than I was. I don't have a lot of muscle because I couldn't work out for two months before I had the baby, and I couldn't work out for another month and a half after the baby -- that's almost four months of not lifting.
"You're working to get your bones back, you're working to tighten up your muscles, you're working to build muscle, working to lose weight. It's just a lot going on."
It was an unexpected sensation for the WNBA leader in minutes per game each of the previous three seasons.
"She is not used to not being at 100 percent," Sarah said. "I have to keep reminding her and she gets it intellectually, but emotionally I think she struggles with that sometimes."
Still, Collier made significant week-to-week progress, and combined with some persistent pestering, the Lynx trainer targeted Aug. 7 vs. Atlanta as a potential return date. Last Friday, Collier was tasked to scrimmage with practice players as the Minnesota staff assessed whether she was physically ready for a game. Afterward, they told her they were probably going to delay her new target date to Aug. 10 versus Phoenix.
Collier participated in a full team practice for the first time Saturday, but when it became clear Powers would be out against Atlanta, Reeve approached Collier after shootaround Sunday to see if she would be willing to play that day after all.
Collier feared the game would feel really fast after not playing all year, and didn't want to be the weakest link on the floor. She knew, too, she'd be frustrated by all the things she wouldn't still be able to do.
But thinking of all the reasons she didn't want to play wouldn't ever get her where she wanted to be. And what she was ultimately ready to dive back into.
"Once I kind of embraced that I'm nervous and what I'm nervous about, it kind of let in room for me to be excited too. Like this is also a good thing," Collier said. "I'm back playing. I've achieved the goal that I have set out for for so many months ... so I was really excited by the time the game rolled around."
With Mila (donning a miniature No. 24 Collier jersey), Collier's mom and Bazzell in the stands, Collier started and played 21 minutes against the Dream -- twice as much as she was supposed to play, she said -- including four minutes down the stretch as the Lynx put the game away. She felt really good aside from being "gassed" during that last stint, and did some pool recovery the following day to help with soreness.
Wednesday was another step in the right direction. Collier had 11 points and five rebounds, and she expects to only get more comfortable the more time she's out there and the longer the Lynx are playing. Winners of four of their past five games and 2-0 since Collier returned, Minnesota can clinch a playoff spot Friday in Fowles' final regular-season home game with a win over Seattle (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a loss by the Phoenix Mercury, extending Fowles' career into one last postseason.
As Collier came back for Fowles, Fowles embraced Mila just as her well-known moniker "Mama Syl" suggests.
"Any opportunity that Syl can hold her, she's holding her," said Sarah, holding back tears speaking about how much Fowles means to their family. "She's just so nurturing. The name Mama Syl is the most fitting nickname for her."
For as sweet as a playoff berth would be, it would bring a slight complication for Collier: Sarah, who has traveled with Collier to watch Mila during practices and games, has to return to work. They'll have to find a nanny if the Lynx's season is prolonged.
But if Collier has learned the necessity of thinking through all the details of babysitting and childcare, she has also accepted the futility that often comes from trying to plan out everything. And while many of the head-spinning moments of early motherhood have subsided, the specialness of every moment, every experience is sinking in.
Mila has Collier's face, nose and forehead, but Bazzell's eyes -- "and his flat feet," she laughs. The baby laughs and giggles all the time, and already is showing off her sassy, stubborn personality. Collier loves it when Mila closes her lips really hard when she's done eating and how she loudly grumbles whenever she's moved.
Collier says she doesn't know where Mila's stubbornness came from. Sarah on the other hand?
"Mila is her mother made over," Sarah said. "Mila is nosy. Mila is dramatic. Mila gets hangry. So those three things are her mother, just copy and paste it."
Their midnight feedings, and the bonding that comes from them, Collier loves, which surprised her.
"It's cool because we know her better than anyone in the world," she said. "Just learning that I think is really cool."
If there's one thing that Collier wants people to know about her journey -- with motherhood, with her return to the WNBA -- it's that it's truly her own. That while the timing worked for her to be able to rejoin Fowles, that might not be the path that's best for other mothers, pro athletes or otherwise, to take.
"Whether you're doing what I'm doing, or you're still trying to get to know your baby three months in, everything is OK," Collier said. "So if you're a mother out there, don't compare yourself to anyone. Because I feel like I've been seeing that a lot. And that's definitely not what I'm trying to do, to set an unrealistic expectation where people feel like they're not measuring up. Because it is so hard. And what you're doing is amazing."