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Back to the future: Loking back at special WNBA draft

Tanisha Wright
A three-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Tanisha Wright takes her cutting and slashing game to the WNBA.
PITTSBURGH – Former Penn State women’s basketball players Tanisha Wright and Jess Strom have had their lives have parallel each other for many years and in many ways.

Both players came up through the high school ranks just miles away from each other. Wright playing for West Mifflin High School and Strom at Steel Valley High. Both decided on Penn State, and both played important roles of leading the Lady Lions to two Big Ten Championships, three Sweet Sixteen appearances and one Elite Eight finish during the course of their four years in the blue and white. Teamed up with standouts Kelly Mazzante and Jess Brungo, the Lions dropped many an opponent.

Wright and Strom also reached the 1,000 point career scoring mark while at Penn State. Both have received numerous awards for their contributions on and off the court.

The two attended this year’s WNBA combine, where potential WNBA players go to show off their talents in front of the WNBA coaches and scouts. Unfortunately for Strom, she sprained her ankle and had to sit out for most of it – an unfortunate setback for the 5-7 point guard. Their lives brought them both to the pinnacle of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s 2005 draft. The two friends both had hopes of continuing their basketball careers and a chance to play with the elite athletes in their sport.

At home in Pittsburgh, the two watched the draft at Dave & Busters, a sports bar, restaurant and arcade all in one. A group of friends and family were on hand to witness the grand event. The group nestled in a quiet, secluded part of the building. Their table faced a group of eight televisions. In the middle was the WNBA draft’s pregame show, the day’s main attraction.

Neither player seemed nervous, or at least they didn’t show it. Wright was calm for someone who was about to be drafted higher than all the former Lady Lions.

“I am not as nervous as my aunt,” Wright joked, pointing across the table. “I’m excited, but I am just going to wait and see what’s going to go on.”

Wright never thought of taking the next step until late in her basketball ventures.

“I never thought at a young age that it would be a possibility,” Wright said. “I didn’t realize it until I was in college. When I saw Kelly (Mazzante) and Jess (Brungo) be selected, I tohught it might be a possibility for me.”

When asked what team she was hoping to get selected by, Wright said, “I’ll play for anybody who wants me. There’s no real particular team.”

Strom sat quietly as the festivities got underway. When asked if she was nervous, responded, “I’m okay.”

Asked if she had a preference where she would like to go, her response was identical to Wright’s. “I would play on any team’s that’s interested in me,” Strom said.

As the clock struck noon, it was time for the selection show to begin. Both women seemed excitedly took in the whole event. Both were ready for what was about to take place, good or bad. All eyes were focused on the screen as WNBA commissioner Donna Render came out to deliver the Charlotte Sting’s first pick. As the commissioner announced the first selection, everyone’s attention focused in on the television screen.

Tanisha Wright
“It’s really exciting to get to play for the defending national champions,” said Wright.
After the second, third and fourth picks were announced, Wright remained as cool as could be, talking on her cell phone to other players also waiting to have their names called. Wright stayed calm as the draft count advanced. When it was time for the 12th pick, an eerie silence overtook the table and spread through most of the building. Everyone seemed to hold their breath in anticipation.

Then Render announced the Seattle’s Storm’s selection – Tanisha Wright.

The 30 people at the table erupted like a crowd of 1,000. Wright smiled and calmly hugged her family, and found herself getting calls from new coach Anne Donovan, Penn State coach Rene Portland and others.

Strom was just as excited for her teammate as she watched Wright “It was real exciting,” Wright said. “It’s really exciting to play for the defending national champions.

“I know I am going to have to step up my game and there is going to be a lot of pressure on me. It should be very exciting.”

The wait was over for one.

Now Strom was the focus of attention. Into the third round, the group that cheered for Wright was still waiting for Strom’s magical moment.

The group thought that she was selected as they heard the announcement of the 24th pick. But it was not to be. As the 34th and final selection was announced, Strom showed no signs of sadness.

“We are proud of her for a lot of things, not just basketball,” said her father, John Strom. “With Jess she’s always been the kind of person who when you say you can’t do something, she will quietly prove you wrong. She will always go out to prove you wrong.”

Though the WNBA draft didn’t include the Munhall native, all hope is not lost. Even at the very end Strom showed her integrity and maturity.

“To even be considered is a big compliment,” Strom said. “Teams can still call you and you can go to the training camps.” With the heart and soul of a true champion, it should be no surprise to see Strom once again on the court, in a WNBA jersey.

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