WNBA rookies get ready

Alexis Hornbuckle (Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images)

WNBA training camps open Sunday so the rookies spent three days in Chicago learning what they need to know to adjust to pro basketball. Former Lady Vol Sidney Spencer talked to the assembled newcomers – all five Tennessee draftees were present – and Alexis Hornbuckle said they enjoyed the last get-together before they scatter to their new teams.

"We're getting an eye-opening experience as to what the league is about and how it's a business and how it's run," said Alexis Hornbuckle, the fourth pick in the WNBA draft and one of five Tennessee starters selected April 9. "Everything is beneficial. All you have to do is be open-minded. Just taking notes and being attentive and listening you can actually come away with a lot of information."

The league, entering its 12th year, organized the rookie orientation sessions in Chicago as it has done for the previous 11 classes. The topics included financial planning, fitness, hydration, nutrition, fashion, hair and makeup, security and image building.

Some of the topics overlap with instruction that the Lady Vols have heard throughout their tenure in Knoxville.

"Even though you change from high school to college and college to the pros, everything carries over," Hornbuckle said in a phone interview from Chicago. "We have media training and etiquette, and luckily we were able to have that at Tennessee. A lot of things carry over and some things we might not have had to a certain extent, but everything is beneficial."

One of the biggest adjustments for players making the move from college to pro ball is how many decisions they will now make on their own. When Tennessee traveled, the players had hour-by-hour itineraries that mapped out when they ate, studied and turned out the lights. Now, they will make their own food choices on the road and at home and they will be under much less daily supervision.

The other big change is they are now being paid to play ball. Rookie salaries vary from $34,500 to $44,064, depending on where a player was selected in the draft – Hornbuckle and Candace Parker are at the highest end of the first-year scale – for a summer's worth of work. Players can supplement the WNBA income through endorsements and playing overseas in the fall and winter, where salaries can reach six figures to a couple of million, depending on star power.

So the players, like any graduating student, must learn to manage money that exceeds college wages and scholarships.

"It's very nice to get paid to do it and what makes it even better is they're providing us with the opportunity to learn how to handle our money and what options are out there," Hornbuckle said.

The financial adviser, Geri Pell of Ameriprise, also warned the players about scams.

"If it sounds too good to be true then it is," Hornbuckle said of Pell's advice. "You have to be careful and if you decide to go with a financial adviser make sure it's with someone you trust."

The WNBA's players' relations division and the players' union work in conjunction to offer the rookie seminar "to help transition the players, especially in our situation where we have players get drafted one week, they sign contracts the next week and the following week they're off to training camp," said Carolyn Jenkins, the director of player personnel for the WNBA.

It was a whirlwind 10 days for Hornbuckle; Parker, who was selected first by the Los Angeles Sparks; and Nicky Anosike, the second pick in the second round by the Minnesota Lynx. Those three players went from winning the national title on Tuesday, April 8, to being present at the draft on April 9. Two teammates, Shannon Bobbitt, first pick of the second round by the Sparks, and Alberta Auguste, taken in the third round by the New York Liberty, had just returned to Knoxville when they learned of their selections.

"Let's see, we won Tuesday, got drafted Wednesday, came back Wednesday night and left Friday for Detroit, came back Sunday and left again on Wednesday (for Chicago)," Hornbuckle said.

The five Lady Vol teammates were able to reunite in Chicago for the last time before they report to training camps today. Their next encounters, except for Parker and Bobbitt, will be as opponents.

"Just glad that we got to see each other," Hornbuckle said. "Big Nick got her license. She's ready."

Anosike did not get a driver's license when she grew up in New York – she never needed one with the city's mass transit system – and since she lived on campus in Knoxville, she never got one in Tennessee, either.

Anosike likely was the only one of the 43 drafted rookies in Chicago who did not have a driver's license. But all of them will undergo significant changes from college to pros and that is what the WNBA hoped to prepare them for at orientation.

"We try to expose them to internal departments that we have but also we bring in external presenters like the Ameriprise financial presenter that we brought in," said Jenkins, who also cited the specialists in fitness, nutrition and fashion. "We also have media training for them and about being under the microscope. … It at least gives them an introduction into the different areas and hopefully it will help them in their development as a professional athlete."

Former Lady Vol Sidney Spencer flew to Chicago at the league's request to speak to the players. Spencer was a rookie last year for the Sparks and remembered getting much-needed guidance from a veteran player.

"Our player personnel manager, Bonnie Thurston, she called me and asked me if I would be willing to do it and I said sure," Spencer said. "There's so much that you can cover and there's so much to know as a rookie as far as the business part of the sport – now I'm getting paid to play, knowing about the players' union, the traveling, the dress code, the rules, the fines, all that kind of stuff.

"And then you talk about the difference when you go from college to the league, what training camp is going to be about, just to try to answer questions or calm any nerves they may have going into it. Just to let them know that all the rookies from last year were totally overwhelmed with all the information and weren't really sure what was going on. I definitely wanted to give back because I was given so much last year."

Spencer said issues for rookies are the schedule and the freedom between games and practices. They no longer have classes or study hall or anyone checking curfew times at home.

"We tell them to take care of their bodies and you get to make your own rules as far as once we travel to a city or what you do when you get to a city," Spencer said. "You have to be responsible. Encourage them not to get overwhelmed. They'll figure it out."

Jenkins also cited the schedule as a major adjustment for college players.

"You're going to be faced with back to backs; you can go seven days and play four games," Jenkins said. "The schedule is definitely something that challenges the rookies, probably more so than anything else and being able to adapt to that. A big part of that is making sure that they're well hydrated and that they're eating well. Now they have to make the choices for themselves. We hope to help them make intelligent choices."

Spencer also used part of her time with the rookies to remind them of what they had already accomplished.

"If doesn't matter what happens after this, it doesn't matter if someone gets cut, they've been drafted," Spencer said. "That's an unbelievable achievement to have. Only 43 girls in the entire world got drafted and to be one of those is just awesome."

She also reminded them of the business side of the WNBA and to be ready to handle being cut from one team and signed by another.

"Just because you get cut by one team it doesn't mean you're not a good player," Spencer said. "It just means you don't fit into what they're looking for that particular year or what that team needs. It's good to have an agent that can get you into the next training camp where you would fit and most likely make that team."

Spencer also was present for the 2008 WNBA draft, during which she answered questions online and made herself available for media interviews, especially after two Lady Vols were picked by her current team.

"I think it's going to be great building blocks," said Spencer, who added all the players need to get to camp to work on team chemistry and to learn teammates' tendencies. "I'm excited to get the season going. It seems like it took forever."

Spencer also was understandably excited when five Tennessee players were drafted – the first time five starters had been taken off one team. Spencer played with all five in 2006-07, when the Lady Vols also won the national title.

"I was so excited," Spencer said. "All of them have come from different stories, their basketball history and just coming through the Tennessee program and I was excited to see all five get drafted. I think that's a great tribute to Pat and what she's done and what they've done with the players. You look at the players and see how hard they've worked, too, to achieve this goal."

One more Lady Vol will be in Los Angeles in Nikki Caldwell, who accepted the head coaching job at UCLA this week after serving as an assistant for Pat Summitt.

"I just found out about that," Spencer said. "I think she'll be a great fit for LA. She's young and energetic. I think she relates very well to players, can motivate them and get the best out of them. I think as far as Xs and Os go, she's brilliant. She's easy to approach. I think she's going to be a great fit for the players and then a Hollywood-type atmosphere off the court as well."

Hornbuckle also was trying to find a free moment to call Caldwell to congratulate her.

"I'm very happy for her," Hornbuckle said. "I think she will do great for that program. I loved her as a coach so I know her team is going to love her. I wish her the best success."

Hornbuckle will join a close friend in Detroit in Tasha Humphrey, who played at Georgia and also was drafted by the Shock. Hornbuckle and Humphrey have been friends since high school when they played together on summer clubs.

"I was excited," Hornbuckle said. "After you get drafted there are interviews and pictures and I was in the back doing a phone interview and I heard, ‘Detroit drafts Tasha Humphrey,' and I got real ecstatic and was yelling, ‘You're going to have to hold on. I've got to celebrate for a second.' "

Hornbuckle also celebrated the announcement of Auguste as that meant every Lady Vol senior was selected by a pro team.

"That was great," Hornbuckle said. "I think that speaks volumes for the program and what type of program that Pat Summitt has produced. It's never been done for all five starters to go."

The hectic time between the Final Four and the opening of training camp meant Hornbuckle had yet to even watch the wins over LSU and Stanford.

"I want to sit down and enjoy it," Hornbuckle said. "I haven't had a chance to do it. I think I left them in Knoxville so I'm going to have to have somebody send them to me."

And although she is not in Knoxville, Hornbuckle is still a student. She is wrapping up work on 16 semester hours and will graduate in May. All five Tennessee players are scheduled to graduate so they had to work out a plan with their professors for the last three weeks of the semester.

"Individually we had to talk to our professors," Hornbuckle said. "I'm doing everything online like essays, finals. I've got a 15-page paper to write so it's a little crazy, but just thankful that they were willing and able to work with us."

Summitt always attends graduation to watch her players at commencement, but Hornbuckle isn't sure if she can make the ceremony. The other four also will have to balance their commitment to their teams with wanting to put on a cap and gown in what is a major rite of passage and a source of considerable pride for the parents.

"We have an exhibition game on May 11 and graduation is May 9," Hornbuckle said. "I want to walk but if I have practice I am going to have to attend that. I've let my parents know to give them a head's up but as long as I get the diploma I'm happy."

It's too soon for any numerical goals for a first-year player, but Hornbuckle does want to set the tone as a rookie for what is to come in her pro career.

"Any playing time that I get I want to be efficient as a player offensively and defensively and be a leader," Hornbuckle said. "I'm not going to be as vocal coming in as a rookie, but being out there and letting my team know that they can count on me for hustle plays and things like that, so setting the example as the type of player that I want to be looked upon as throughout the years."

Hornbuckle has yet to really put into perspective what has happened in the last two weeks – a national title, the end of her college career and the start of her professional one. She expects to take it all in later Sunday night.

"Probably after the first day of training camp," Hornbuckle said. "I'm actually anxious to get that first day of training camp out of the way and that night just be able to lay in my bed and realize, ‘I just took the first step to officially becoming a pro athlete.' "

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