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Williams sees gold, not stars at game

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Utah's Natalie Williams dreams so much of Olympic gold that when she takes the floor at America West Arena in Phoenix Monday night at 6 p.m. MDT in the second WNBA All-Star Game, she won't be worrying about trying to get the MVP award that eluded her by an eyelash last year.

"No, not at all," said Williams, who was the leading scorer in the inaugural 1999 All-Star Game at New York City but scored some of her points after MVP ballots were collected with about five minutes left. Los Angeles's Lisa Leslie was the first All-Star Game MVP, and Williams was a bit hurt.

Williams somewhat made up for that in February when she joined with the Jazz's Jeff Hornacek to win the 2Ball championship at the 2000 NBA All-Star Game in Oakland.

But now, there are gold-er things on the Utah Starzz forward's mind, and an All-Star Game scoring or MVP title are less of a goal.

"This time," says Williams, the WNBA rebounding leader at 11.6 a game, double-doubles leader (12) and fifth in scoring (17.7 average) as the season hits the All-Star break, "I'm just excited to go and play with most of my Olympic teammates — we've got six on the West, and it's just going to be fun."

The game will be televised live on ESPN TV.

Other U.S. Olympic teammates on the WNBA West All-Star squad with Williams are Leslie and DeLisha Milton of Los Angeles, Yolanda Griffith of Sacramento, Katie Smith of Minnesota and Sheryl Swoopes of Houston.

Williams said, "I'm just going to go and play hard. There's going to be so many people who are great scorers that I'm just going to go in and do the best at rebounding I can. But if anybody misses?" she warns with a big laugh, "I'll try and get the ball, and if I have an opportunity to shoot, I will, but I'm just going to go and have a good time."

Leslie and Swoopes will be starters, along with Houston's Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson and Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro for the West — voted so by fan balloting. The West coach is Houston's Van Chancellor.

Williams, Griffith, Smith, Milton, Betty Lennox (Minnesota), Mwadi Mabika (Los Angeles) and Brandy Reed (Phoenix) are the West reserves, as voted by WNBA coaches. Reed was specially appointed Friday by league president Val Ackerman after the coaches seemingly forgot her, though most said later that they did vote for her.

Friday evening, Williams had not yet heard that Reed was on the team. When she found out, she said, "OK, so we have 12, and they have 11? Good, the West is going to be even better. She's good. She should have been on the team. She deserves it."

Williams said that Ackerman's unusual intercedence on Reed's part did not set a poor precedent. "No," she said. "An all-star game is for people fans want to see but also for people who deserve it, and I think Reed deserves to be on the team. I don't know if she missed by one vote, or she missed it by two votes; regardless, she should be on it."

Williams and Griffith, close friends and members of what Williams terms her Olympic "posse," along with Smith, Cleveland's Kara Wolters and Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw, who is an East All-Star Monday night, staged a huge battle Saturday night in Sacramento in the last game before the All-Star break. Each scored 29 points, and Griffith grabbed 17 rebounds, while Williams had 14. Utah won the game 75-69 and resumes play after the break at Phoenix on Wednesday.

Williams went from Sacramento to Phoenix on Sunday and immediately joined in the All-Star Game festivities. She'll stay through Wednesday, because the Starzz resume the regular-season schedule after the break at Phoenix against the Mercury. Williams will have to change hotels to rejoin her Utah team Tuesday.

"It won't be an opportunity for me to get any rest, because we have stuff to do all day Sunday, and Monday is the game and the shootaround," said Williams.

"I'm just going to go and have a good time. It's just a fun event. It's fun for the players. It's fun for the fans. That's what it's all about.

"Of course, the West, we want to win again this year, but other than that, it's so much fun to play ball again with Yolanda Griffith and Lisa Leslie instead of playing against them, and playing with Sheryl Swoopes and Katie Smith. It makes you want to pass the ball out," Williams said.

E-MAIL: lham@desnews.com