SYDNEY Want to know how DeLisha Milton figured out she had made it big?
"Now they ask for MY autograph,'' the former TK High School star says.
She doesn't mean fans, but family, the hardest group there is to impress having now joined her quickly expanding admirers.
And that says something. Because it wasn't always the case.
Within her extended family, Milton was like any child of talent -- special in her own way, but still one of their own. She was never above basic chores and not immune from the biting wisecracks that go around a table at family picnics.
So, when she left Riceboro to follow major women's basketball wherever it would take her, the little cousins she left behind weren't thinking that she would return as one of the most recognizable women athletes in the country, that she would become an emblem of the modern female sports figure. She was just "Leeshie,'' still the tall kid who was never too big to play with anyone.
And whether it was as a Division-I all-American at Florida or as a member of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, she was still the same girl who learned basketball on a hoop in the backyard and who was never too big to be taught a lesson by the older cousins.
"I'd call home, and the little ones would be like, "ooh, you know Lisa Leslie? Get me her autograph,' '' says Milton, who has played with one the league's most prominent stars for two seasons. "I would be like, hey, what about me?''
And what it is about Milton is that she no longer has to ask anyone to recognize her.
She has become one of the WNBA's foundation players, the league's ninth-leading scorer and perhaps its best example that women can play a physical game. At 6-foot-1she is among the league's shortest centers, but is also one of its most aggressive rebounders.
She has also shown one of the league's best cross-over moves, appearing last month in Esquire magazine as one of the 10 sexiest female athletes in America.
And now her image takes another leap forward, as a member of the United States women's basketball team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
"I always felt I was going to be in the Olympics one day,'' says Milton, who has been the first player off the bench in its first two U.S. games in the Olympic tournament. "I would watch track and field on television, and I would be in awe of how smooth they made themselves look. They made it look so easy.
"I told myself I was going to do that. It didn't matter what sport it was.''
And, crazy as it seems now, basketball didn't always appear to be the Milton's path from South Georgia to Southern California to Sydney.
She had played the sport since she was about 12 years old, but for a long time, it was more a way to measure herself against the older neighborhood kids than a means of leaving her little town. It wasn't until high school, when tk coach Janet Reddick taught Milton there was more to basketball than being tall, that she started to appreciate the game. And that she started excelling in it.
"She really pushed me hard and challenged me to get better,'' says Milton. "That taught me to be confident and instilled in me the qualities it took for me to get where I am.
" She wasn't like a lot of girls high school coaches at the time. A lot of them, if you lost, would be like, oh well, better luck next time. But coach Reddick pushed you. She was a rebel.''
That's kind of Milton's image in the WNBA now.
She is one of the league's true intimidators, as much for her aggressive attitude as her ability to block shots. During a nationally televised game late in the season, Milton shoved Michelle Griffiths Phoenix Monarchs and then challenged her face-to-face before both players received technical fouls. It really wasn't anything uncharacteristic for a player who likes to let opponents know about it when che blocks one of their shots.
"That's D-Nasty,'' Sparks coach Michael Cooper recently told the Los Angeles Times. "She has the killer instinct.''
And she has that other side, the one that caught Esquire's eye along with those of most of the WNBA's male fans.
She'll get some mileage out of that, maybe some endorsements and as much broad recognition from one photo shoot as from her first two seasons of playing professionally. She expects to get treated a little differently now, although she says she's still the same.
"When I go home, people look at me to see how I'm going to react,'' says Milton, whose schedule allows only occasional returns to Riceboro. "They want to see if I've changed and I don't think I have.''
The next time she goes home, it could be with a gold medal around her neck.
The U.S. is favored to win the women's tournament in Sydney, just as it has in all but one Olympics it has played. If it does, Milton will likely be a big part of that, her rebounding, her defense and her intensity all valuable to a team that has its share of scorers. But that shouldn't change her, either, just the way she's looked at.
"Now my mom tells me when I call that my little cousins are always asking about me,'' says Milton. "They say they want to be in the WNBA. That makes me feel good.''.
Everywhere she's gone, she has stayed the same. She's always been a big-time player, always been a star. It's only now that some people are starting to figure that out.
Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352 after Oct. 8.
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