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Q & A : Jennifer Azzi

Point guard speaks out about Starzz, WNBA and the ABL

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From Day 1, 1997, the WNBA's Utah Starzz have had a crying need for a point guard.

They've had very popular, very enthusiastic players at the point, but they didn't get the ball to Elena Baranova, Wendy Palmer, Margo Dydek or Natalie Williams. They've had good defenders at the point, but they didn't translate into offense. They've had very young players at the point, and that's worked toward the future.

But a team that has averaged 18.2 turnovers a game in its 105-game existence (through June 26) obviously needs the organization of an experienced point guard.

The Starzz addressed that need with an April 24 trade with the Detroit Shock to obtain Jennifer Azzi, a 31-year-old former ABL all-star, Olympic gold medalist, three-time member of the U.S. World Championships teams that won gold in 1990 and 1998 and a pioneer of Stanford University basketball who won both the Wade Trophy and Naismith Player of the Year awards, symbolic of the best the NCAA had to offer in 1990.

But Azzi fell on a layup and broke the third metacarpal of her shooting hand at Portland during the second Starzz exhibition game, the same place where she'd torn up a shoulder three years earlier. The spiral fracture later displaced, and she had surgery May 25 in California.

Azzi is expected to make her Starzz regular-season debut in the next week or so, possibly Friday night against Detroit, the team that traded her to Utah after Azzi had briefly retired from professional ball in February.

Following are excerpts of a question-and-answer session between Azzi and Deseret News sports writer Linda Hamilton.

Deseret News: Can your skills put the Starzz on track?

Jennifer Azzi: It's a little bit of a big deal coming here. I'm sort of what they wanted as far as an experienced guard. But I don't think I'm the answer for our team. I think it's going to take all of us together to kind of turn it around and start winning games. You know, I don't think that we're a .500 team. I think we're a lot better than that, and we have a lot of talent. Sometimes when you have a lot of talent, we're almost not sure who has the responsibility.

Deseret News: What do you think you can bring that's been lacking?

Azzi: First of all, I think Dalma (Ivanyi) and Stacy (Frese) are doing a good job, and I think what I can bring is more experience, maybe. I've played with Natalie (Williams) before. I've played with Adrienne (Goodson). I've played with Katryna (Gaither) and 'Bird (Kate Starbird) and Naomi (Mulitauaopele). So, I know the players, and I think that will help a lot. I think definitely experience.

Deseret News: Talk about the recovery process from the injury, physically and mentally it's such a challenge.

Azzi: Well, yeah, I think mentally is the worst, always. But it's given me a chance to see the game from a different perspective. Sitting, not being able to play, watching and learning little things — I always tend to go 90 miles an hour and don't take time to stop, look and listen, so that's been good — on the positive side. But I think it's more hard now just because of what I went through just to be here, going through all the personal things about whether I still had it in me and was motivated enough to play, where the game is today. And having decided that this is what I wanted — I was loving it. I really like this team a lot and the staff, and it's such a positive environment here. People respect each other. And for me playing the point guard position, getting to play with Natalie, Adrienne and Margo, Korie (Hlede), down the line, 'Bird, T.J. (LaTonya Johnson) and everybody — it seems like the ideal job, I think, for me. It made it all that much harder to get hurt. And, because I really like everybody, it hurt. The more mature you get in anything you're doing, it's got to be a good experience. If it's not, I don't want to do it. I have to enjoy the people I'm around every day.

Deseret News: What's it like to play with Natalie and Margo?

Azzi: Well, I haven't gotten to do it for that long, but it's great. Nat, I think, is one of the hardest-working post players in the league and extremely talented, and combine that with Margo — I don't even look at her size, she's got talent. To play with two post players who kind of have opposite games, in a way, is great.

Deseret News: After you retired, what was the thing that brought you back?

Azzi: I think my love for the game and that it had to be my decision. It couldn't be, 'Oh, this is what people think I should do.' It's funny, I always think about when I graduated from college and went overseas for a year, and I came back to Stanford, and we played, like, an exhibition game, and we had 4,000 people there. So many people commented that I was better than I was in college, that I hadn't lost a step and all these things — like, you graduate from college and you're old and you can't play anymore. And then here I am at 31, and everyone's going, 'You can't stop playing, you're at the top of your game,' and all these things, and it's like kind of a weird transition. It always has to be me though. It has to be my decision and what I want to do, not that people expect me not to be playing anymore or that people expect me to be playing.

It has to be something that I really want. But in life in general, if you let something go, then it comes back.

Deseret News: How did it feel to get hurt before you actually made your debut here?

Azzi: Oh, it was killer feeling regardless of whether I started here. I was happy to get into a couple of (exhibition) games and be in the flow. The game against Portland, I think we were up 15-2, and it was great. T.J. hit a three, I hit a three, Nat was scoring inside, Margo was scoring, we were clicking. So, I've seen a glimpse of what we can do, and I'm just excited to come back to that.

Deseret News: Do you think the WNBA expanded too fast?

Azzi: No, because people don't realize how much talent there is in this country, and so I think it's a matter of not so much the expansion but of teams having more time to build and work together because the talent is there.

Deseret News: Compare the play of the ABL and the WNBA.

Azzi: It's different. The ABL teams had a lot more time to play together and to train. But, as far as the level of play, obviously, all of the talent is in one league, so it makes it a really strong league now.

Deseret News: How long do you want to play now? You mentioned in an earlier interview that, 'Next year might be our year.' That indicates you want to play next year.

Azzi: I have no idea. I feel better now than I ever have, so I don't want to limit myself. For me, I think I'll stop when it's mental. I don't think I'll stop when it's physical because I think that could be years from now. I think when I no longer have the desire is when I'll stop.

Deseret News: What is your contract status?

Azzi: Just a year.

Deseret News: When you finally get back on the court and get into your game, would it be fair to compare you and Nat to Stockton and Malone?

Azzi: No, I don't want the comparison at all. I think we need our own identity. I'm not John Stockton. I'm nothing like him. I like his game, but I'm myself.

Deseret News: Your physical conditioning — is that just natural or do you work harder than anybody else in the world?

Azzi: Some of it is genetics. I think I've been lucky with that, but I've definitely worked. I don't think I work harder than a lot of people, but I like it. I like working hard.

Deseret News: How did you get into conditioning? Did you start when you were a little kid?

Azzi: Yeah, from a young age, I've always done things. My sister and I ran track from a really young age and did gymnastics and soccer and a lot of sports, and everything that we did, we were in good shape.

Generally, we could do better than other people. I think it's something you learn when you're younger and then have good influences. We had really good track coaches, and I think track helps a lot just from being disciplined and understanding that the harder you're going to work, the less tired you're going to get.

Deseret News: What's your favorite life experience, favorite athletic experience?

Azzi: I think my favorite life experience is all of it thus far. Anything that's made me grow as a person I do just about every day. Athletically, there's three things I think that really stick out in my mind: One was obviously winning a national championship (Stanford's 1990 NCAA title), winning a gold medal (1996 Olympics) and our opening game of the ABL.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com