Kennewick's Mitchell back in the Big Apple for WNBA

By Jeff Morrow, Herald sports editor June 9, 2009 

Back when she was a young teen, Leilani Mitchell always thought she might be a teacher.

She never thought the sport she loved, basketball -- the sport she played in the driveway of her Kennewick home against her five brothers -- would take her around the country and to Europe.

But that's what has happened, as Mitchell has just begun her second season with the New York Liberty in the WNBA.

"I didn't really watch the WNBA when I was younger," she said last week in a phone interview. "Being an elementary teacher was always something that I wanted to do."

Things change, especially when you're a cat-quick point guard who can shoot and pass with ease.

Mitchell's early career has been well-documented. She helped lead Kennewick High to an undefeated season and a state title in 2000 when she was a freshman. She helped lead the Lions back to state each of the next three years and was an all-state selection her junior and senior seasons.

She selected the University of Idaho to play college basketball, where her Kennewick coach, Debbie Roueche, was now an assistant, and three of her teammates -- Heather Thoelke, Autumn Fielding and Emily Faurholt -- were also there.

Mitchell played well at Idaho for three seasons, becoming the school's career leader in steals.

But Roueche and her teammates were all gone by then, either by resignation, graduation or transfer. So with the Vandals not getting close to an NCAA berth in those years, Mitchell wanted a better shot.

She transferred to the University of Utah in 2006, sat out that season because of transfer rules, then embarked on her final college season in 2007-08.

Always a good player, Mitchell's life has gone on a wild ride these last 18 months that has catapulted her among the best women's basketball players in the world. Along the way there have been many highlights, and some tragedy.

At Utah, she helped lead the Utes to the NCAA tournament's second round. She was named firt-team All-Mountain West Conference. She was the league's Newcomer of the Year.

At that point, the chances of playing pro started to look better.

"I always have dreamed of playing professionally, but I guess I didn't know it could happen until my senior year at Utah when other people started talking about it," Mitchell said.

On April 9, 2008, Mitchell was drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Mercury. She couldn't have been happier.

"It was somewhat close to home. I'd been there almost a couple weeks, and I loved it there," she said.

But it didn't look like she would make the team. New York Liberty coach Pat Coyle was aware of this, liked what she saw in Mitchell, and traded for her.

"New York was so far away," Mitchell said. "It was scary a little bit. I'd never been that far from home."

But everyone was telling her the Liberty's system was better for Mitchell.

"I came out here; the city is great," Mitchell said. "It's fun to compete here."

Her ah-ha moment came last June when she made her first start after regular starter Loree Moore was sidelined with back spasms.

Mitchell scored 18 points and had seven assists in an 81-73 win over the Houston Comets.

"She takes very good care of the basketball, she reads defenses really well and she basically picked apart their team tonight," Moore told the New York Daily News. "It didn't surprise me at all. I see it every day in practice."

The game did wonders for Mitchell.

"It gave me confidence that I could do well at that level," she said.

But Mitchell's adjustment to the pro game still wasn't easy.

"You definitely need to be stronger, bigger and faster," said Mitchell, who at 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds is one of the smaller players in the league. "You definitely need to lift more weights, but not as much during the season. The toughest thing is the athleticism and size. Everyone is so fast and can jump. You definitely have to work hard on defense. It was an adjustment last year."

And she found out the WNBA was more serious.

"It's definitely a lot more businesslike. I found that out when I got traded," Mitchell said. "One day you can be here, and the next you're gone if they don't like you."

But the Liberty loves her.

"Leilani has been a great addition to the New York Liberty," Coyle said. "Last year, she gave us great minutes, and I expect the same and even more from her this season. As far as training camp goes, she had a very productive camp. She has done a great job running this team."

Mitchell finished 2008 averaging 3.9 points, 2.9 assists and 1.7 rebounds while becoming a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden for her all-out hustle.

After the WNBA season ended, Mitchell moved to France to play for Arras Pays D'Artois, a team north of Paris in the countryside.

"France was amazing," Mitchell said. "I'm going back there next season to play again."

Her season was broken up, however, when her mother, Ellie Majid, was dying with breast cancer.

"She got diagnosed just two years ago," Mitchell said. "She started to do better, then took a turn for the worse around Christmas time. I left France and visited her (in Australia) for almost two weeks in January."

Majid later passed away.

Mitchell went back to France and finished the season, then got ready for this WNBA season.

She rarely gets back to the Tri-Cities anymore. Maybe two or three times a year.

"When I go home, I love to go boating on the river," she said.

In New York, her favorite pastimes are going bowling or to the movies with her teammates -- not very exciting when you play in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

"Well, we don't live in the city," Mitchell said. "We live north in Westchester County, where our training center is. We actually stay in a hotel out here, and go into the city to play our games."

The young girl who thought she was going to be a teacher has found her niche in the world of professional basketball. And she plans to be there awhile.

"My goals for this season are being more consistent, playing hard," she said. "My shooting needs to get more consistent. And I'm going to keep pushing our starting point guard. And while I can travel and use basketball to do it, I will."

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