Utah Starzz Coach Frank Layden did not necessarily want to be in this position, holding the third overall pick in the 1999 WNBA draft.
"You know, in order to get there," Layden said, "you've got to lose a lot of games."
Twenty-two games to be exact. The Starzz struggled on the court and putting fans in the stands in their inaugural season, but that figures to change this summer, thanks to that No. 3 pick. Utah selected forward Natalie Williams, whose combination of talent (she was the 1998 ABL most valuable player) and hometown appeal (she grew up outside of Salt Lake City) has Layden and the Starzz excited.
"New York might be able to get a New York player from St. John's or something, but it's very unusual for us," Layden said. "Usually when you take a local player, you're doing it as a favor. For us to all of a sudden come up with a local player who is also a legitimate star -- well, that's just perfect."
In 1998, Williams averaged 21.9 points and 11.5 rebounds for the ABL's Portland Power and also was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. world championship team. In Utah, she joins a team that tied for last place in the Western Conference with an 8-22 record. The Starzz were eighth in the 10-team league in attendance and were one of four teams that drew bigger crowds on the road (an average of 11,187) than at home (8,104).
"My mother probably got more calls than anyone else after I was drafted," said Williams, who estimates she has close to 150 family members living in the Salt Lake City area. "Everyone was real excited that I was picked. My family has already bought 20 season tickets."
Her family and fans can watch her team with 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek, 6-5 Elena Baranova and 6-2 Wendy Palmer to form one of the league's most imposing front courts. Palmer (13.5 points), Dydek (12.9) and Baranova (12.9) were the team's leading scorers last season and will only benefit from the 6-2 Williams's presence.
Although Williams earned her national reputation while competing outside of Utah, she remains popular in her home state. Williams attended Taylorsville High, located 15 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, and graduated in 1989 after leading the Warriors to state volleyball and basketball titles as a senior.
She left Utah for UCLA, where she became an all-American in volleyball and basketball and was named the Pac-10's athlete of the decade in both sports. On the UCLA athletics Internet site, the 1994 graduate can still be found on the list of "UCLA's Fabulous Alumni," along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carol Burnett and James Dean.
In 1996, she and NFL Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen were named Utah's athletes of the century, based on fan voting. Layden said Williams's presence has increased local interest in the Starzz, and Utah's Palmer has noticed the increased attention.
"People are definitely excited. Any time you have a player coming home, people get excited," said Palmer, a North Carolina native who went on to star at the University of Virginia. "The fans have someone to relate to now. A lot of us [players] are imported in; [the fans] didn't watch us in college. With Natalie, they watched her growing up, and they followed her when she went away to college and the national team."
In a 76-71 preseason loss at Washington on May 22, Williams scored Utah's first seven points and finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. She was virtually unstoppable inside, using her 200-pound frame to muscle to the basket.
Williams also showed some of the physical play that will inevitably lead to comparisons with another MVP playing in Utah, the Jazz's Karl Malone (who, incidentally, has Starzz season tickets). At one point in the first half against the Mystics, Williams grabbed a rebound and as she turned to make the outlet pass, she sent Washington's Rhonda Blades, a 5-7, 137-pound guard, tumbling to the floor.
"Karl has always been someone I've looked up to. I've been watching him since I was 15 years old," said Williams, who first met Malone when she attended one of his public appearances while she was in high school. Three months ago, she ran into him again, while working out after the ABL had folded.
"He said he hoped that Utah got me because they needed a powerful player in the post," she said. "That really made me feel good; it was a big compliment, coming from `The Man.' I like to be very aggressive in the post area; he's the same way."