By JOSEPH WHITE
The Associated Press
Monday, May 15, 2006; 5:13 PM
WASHINGTON -- Alana Beard is talented and charismatic, a natural leader who just turned 24. She is the only Duke women's basketball player to have her jersey number retired, and in two years she has established herself as the face of the WNBA's Washington Mystics.
But, five months ago, she spent a miserable Christmas in South Korea.
"The hardest thing I think I've ever had to deal with," Beard said. "It was even harder than going off to college for four years. It was hard not being with my family. I missed Thanksgiving and I missed Christmas to play basketball and I vowed never to do that again. I cried the whole day."
Not long afterward, she was the toast of Seoul women's basketball, at least for one night, when she recorded the first triple-double in the history of the Korean league: 31 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists for the Shinsegae Coolcat in an 84-80 loss.
"In Korea, it was a huge deal," said Beard, who received a bonus of about $2,500 for the feat.
Beard spends her offseasons in Australia and South Korea to supplement a WNBA contract that will pay her $42,432 this season _ not a great sum for any occupation in the high-cost-of-living area around the nation's capital.
Such is the way of life for most of America's top women players, whose home professional league has a niche audience but has yet to make the kind of mainstream impact that would translate into solid television ratings and salaries to match.
Mystics coach Richie Adubato feels the effect every training camp, when key players are absent because they are finishing their seasons overseas. The team acquired point guard Nikki Teasley in a trade with Los Angeles in March, but she couldn't leave her European club until last week and is having to take a crash course in Adubato's complex offense before the May 23 season opener against New York.
Fortunately, among the coach's returning players is Beard, a 5-11 guard who led the Mystics to the playoffs as a rookie in 2004 and was selected to the All-Star game last year.
"She's a great young player," said forward Crystal Robinson, who joined the Mystics after seven years with the New York Liberty. "She's going to be one of the best players in the league for a while to come. She was thrown in the fire. She learned from playing. You get that much experience under your belt, she's definitely equivalent to a veteran."
Beard likes hearing the word veteran next to her name, and she's come by it almost by necessity. Adubato and general manager Linda Hargrove have overhauled the team extensively during the last two years, leaving Beard with more Mystics starts than any player on the roster except Coco Miller.
"It feels good," Beard said. "It's not anything that I'm turning down. I love it. I think it was like the first or second day here and Richie said, 'Give me the vets out on the court,' and I stepped out on the court. I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm a vet, and it felt so good.' Having that behind my name is something special."
Beard had a twinkle in her eye as she spoke those words, then it quickly faded.
"The only difference," she added, "is I'm still a vet, but I'm still in that rookie salary."
Beard will have to live with her WNBA entry-level contract for two more years. She has a standard three-year deal with a team option for a fourth year, which the Mystics already have exercised. That means more overseas trips next offseason, playing another partial season for the Canberra Capitals in Australia before moving on to South Korea.
But there should be no holiday blues this year. Beard said she's flying home for Christmas.
"Definitely," she said. "I've already put that in my contract."