Nicky Anosike gets All-Star nod

Nicky Anosike, Charde Houston (David Sherman/NBA)

Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston, the Lynx's representatives in the 2009 WNBA All-Star game this weekend, consider the selection to be the result of a pact they made April 21, 2008 – the day they reported to camp for Minnesota after being drafted in later rounds – to prove themselves as players at the pro level.

The news of their selection by the league coaches – fans voted online for the starters – reached Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston on Monday morning.

"For me I was just so excited," Anosike said. "I know how hard I've been working in the past six seasons just to get my name out there. I know in college I wasn't necessarily the superstar or one of the superstars on the team, so I knew that I just needed to work hard and prove myself. I always say from April 21st, the first day of training camp, until now it's been nothing but a grind and nothing but working hard to get here. So it was nice that it finally paid off."

"For me, just to reiterate what Nicky said, ever since April 21st, 2008, I've been on a mission and the mission was to prove myself and become the player that I know I could be – just to live up to my potential and not let my talent go to waste," Houston said. "So hearing that news this morning I was just filled with joy, excitement, tears, you name it, I felt it.

"It's still surreal to me; I can't believe it. But I'm also happy that it's here. I'm very humble to even be named to the All-Star team in such a short period of time. But at the same time I set goals for myself, I know what it takes to achieve those goals, and I put myself in the right situation to obtain my goals."

Anosike was drafted by Minnesota in the second round out of Tennessee, and Houston was taken in the third round out of Connecticut. The two programs may have been rivals in college, but the two players have forged a close friendship.

Their low draft positions seemed to unite them, but they also likely share the bond of survivors. Houston emerged from a tough childhood in San Diego – she briefly lived in a car after her mother lost their home – and Anosike was raised by a single mother of eight in the inner city of New York.

"I think me and Charde have always had a special relationship from the time that we got drafted together because we knew," Anosike said. "Charde knows she's a great player, and I knew I was a great player in college, but we didn't really get to showcase that. That was evident in the draft with me going second round and Charde going third round. So we had that special relationship coming into training camp.

"We always talk about April 21st because it was the first day that we all started. We always made a pact with each other, that training camp and this past training camp that we would work hard and we wouldn't let anyone outwork us. We stuck with that, and it's really been effective for us. We have a special relationship because we know that we might not have started going top five picks, which is where we belong, but we're right there with the top players in the world in the All-Star game."

"A lot of people don't know that I was very fortunate to have a friend in Nicky that I could have fun with, and somebody that you could talk to," Houston said. "Nicky is someone that will never, ever tell you anything that isn't true. She's always been truthful, and that is someone that you need in your corner. Ever since April 21st, we set out to prove something. We wanted to prove that, although Nicky went second round and I went third round, that we never forgot where we came from. We never doubted our abilities.

"In order for us to become great players, we made a pact to support one another. Even if she's having a bad game, or even if I'm having a bad game, we were going to stay there and stick it out through thick and thin. I think that it goes far beyond on-court experiences; it's the off-court experiences, too. I think that's also what makes us gel together so well."

Of the 14 players taken in the second round in the 2008 draft, only four remain in the league in Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt, Olayinka Sanni and Leilani Mitchell. Of the 15 players taken in the third round, only two remain in the league in Houston and Crystal Kelly.

A lot of teams passed over two players who would become All-Stars – with the votes of coaches, the ultimate arbiter of talent – in just their second year, but both players have chosen to focus on how fortuitous it was to land in Minneapolis.

"To be honest, I don't even look at it that way," Houston said. "I look at it as an opportunity to play for one of the best up-and-coming teams in the league. I feel like everything happens for a reason, and me coming to Minnesota was not a coincidence. I thank the Lynx for giving me the opportunity to have a second chance. To be able to do this in a Lynx uniform I'm so grateful for that."

"At first I was kind of upset that I didn't go higher, but then I looked at the players who went before me and the situations they were going into," Anosike said. "They were going to teams that already had established post players, whereas I went to a team where I had the opportunity to step into that role. It's a blessing. I just got lucky. I was able to get into the right situation."

It also speaks to how well the Lynx organization has drafted to place its second and third round choices from 2008 into the All-Star game a year later. Coach Jen Gillom, now the head coach and an assistant when the players arrived, helped both players to develop their games as professionals.

"I think it's definitely a testament to the Lynx, and honestly a testament to Coach Gillom," Anosike said. "She really took both of us under her wing last season and made it her mission to make us the players that she saw in us and to make us great players.

"I always say I'm so lucky just to have had that year last year with her where she devoted so much of her time – after practice, before practice you name it, she was there. She devoted so much of her time to making us better. I think it's definitely a testament to the Lynx and Coach Jen on what she did to make us better."

"Yes, it is a testament to the Minnesota Lynx and knowing who they hired and the people that they brought on board that helped us become a better team, really care about the players individually in developing their skills and making sure they become well rounded players," Houston said.

"Ever since day one Coach Jen has supported me, made sure that I developed my game in the sense that I can become a well-rounded player. Ever since day one she told me that I had the ability to shoot the three and ever since I stepped on the floor in a Minnesota Lynx uniform she's been encouraging me to shoot it. As long as I practice hard and believe in myself it will come, and lo and behold this year I'm able to shoot the three with confidence and just be a confident player all around. Everybody that's a part of the franchise is committed to make sure that we're taken care of and making sure that we are comfortable so that we can work extremely hard and become great basketball players."

Gillom was also prescient in her work with Anosike. She told the 6'3 center that this honor would come.

"You know what, it's so funny because I was working out with Coach Jen last season and she was like, ‘Nicky I'm going to tell you something. You're going to be an All-Star next year,' " Anosike said. "And I thought she was just blowing smoke. I was just like, ‘This woman doesn't know what she's talking about.' And she was right, so yes I think I was definitely surprised. But I think the common thing around the league is that there are not too many people who weren't surprised, but I definitely was."

"I'm actually very, very surprised," said Houston, a 6'0 forward. "I didn't think it could happen this soon, but it did. I'm very, very thankful, and I am very humbled by it. It just goes to show that as long as you believe in yourself, and you never doubt your abilities and what you can do and always believe in yourself, the sky is the limit."

Anosike's rebounding numbers as a pro are about the same as in college – seven to eight boards a game – but her offense has jumped into double figures. She averaged less than eight points a game in college but is averaging nearly 14 points a game for the Lynx.

"People who watched me in high school knew that (offense) was a big part of my game and all that being erased in college was kind of hard for me to deal with," Anosike said. "I wanted to win, and I knew that there were things I had to sacrifice individually in order to get that done. Now being able to go back to that and being a well-rounded player and being able to live up to my potential and being able to showcase my potential is huge for me, because in college I didn't feel like I got to showcase that, and that was really hard for me when you know you're a great player, but you can't show people – people don't know how good you really are – that's really frustrating."

The players joined media from Minnesota, Connecticut, New York and Tennessee on Monday evening on a conference call minutes after landing in Phoenix – the Lynx and the Mercury play Wednesday – and answered questions while negotiating the airport.

It led to some funny exchanges as Anosike lost her cell phone connection and had to rejoin the teleconference.

"Nicky, where are you?" Houston asked.

As Houston, now going solo for the media, was about to answer a question, she realized she had strayed from the group.

"Hold on a minute," Houston said. "Nicky! … Where is the team? I lost the team. … OK, I found them."

With both players back on the line they reiterated their joy at being selected. The game will be played Saturday, July 25, in Connecticut at the Mohegan Sun Arena, and the league has a special website to promote the event – WNBA All-Star Game.

"Granted we may be second-year players, but it just shows that with hard work it doesn't matter," Houston said. "If you're a rookie or a sophomore, if you're committed to working hard and want to become a great player then you have the opportunity to do so. I just thank the Minnesota Lynx for putting not only myself, but also Nicky, in position to become great players. I think everybody that's involved with this franchise has never hindered us from doing anything. They've only encouraged us to expand our game and to become much better players than we were last year."

"I'll never take this opportunity for granted," Anosike said. "I'm just going to keep working hard to prove to people that I'm where I deserve to be. I deserve to be an All-Star. This isn't a coincidence that I made it. I deserve it."

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