Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, 37, does not whimper from describing herself as sexy.
The frequently used adjective carries no linear definition among the public, but for those who question how a 6-foot-1 veteran with an 84-inch wingspan (typical for a seven-foot tall person) would match the description, Milton-Jones uses the term to reflect her strong self-esteem.
“No one can tell me that I’m not beautiful in my own right, that I’m not sexy in my own right,” she said. “I’m very confident in myself, but not to the extent where it’s uncomfortable for others to be around me.”
The newest member of the WNBA 5,000 point club accepted her body image early in her youth, when she resided in Riceboro, Ga., a small town about 40 miles south of Savannah.
Her path to affirmation required a navigation through a near-death experience. At the age of 11, Milton-Jones nearly drowned in a public pool. Understanding her mortality, concerns about being normal sunk after she was saved.
“It really opened my eyes to embrace every day with an open arm. It allowed me to have a certain level of maturity of life. You learn how to not take everything so seriously. At the end of it all, you’re alive and you’re experiencing life,” Milton-Jones said.
As her mind grew, so did her height and wingspan to rare levels for the early 1990s at Bradwell Institute in Hinesville, Ga., where Milton-Jones attended high school.
“I was a piece of two-by-four wood that was cut six-feet tall. Imagine how I would look walking through the hallways with high-warded jeans on, long, gangly arms and legs. I was just very awkward looking,” she said.
The current average height for an American female is 5-feet-4-inches, well below where Milton-Jones stands before she laces up her basketball shoes. The disproportionate ratio of her torso and legs meant she had to wear jeans designed for women at least five inches shorter than her.
Milton-Jones’ body type was perfect for dominating high school basketball, but also aligned for people determined to point out her very unique physique. Avoiding an early fatality resulted in a personal lesson whose value exceeded what most mentors could offer.
“You’re a walking target for bullies to confront you on a daily basis with negative things,” said Milton-Jones, “I was able to shake all of that off and even learn how to laugh at myself. They probably were a lot sadder on the inside about themselves and it was projecting through their words about what they were saying about me. I accept my differences as being something uniquely beautiful.”
Combining her merriment with attending “The Sunshine State” on a basketball scholarship (University of Florida) could make a plausible origin for her “Sunshine” nickname. Reaching a scientific conclusion is impossible, but the Florida Gators archives can confirm Milton-Jones first met Carol Ross there. The two revived their dynamic when Ross was hired as Sparks head coach in 2012.
Although she never advanced beyond the Elite Eight in any of her NCAA tournament appearances, Milton-Jones received the Wade Trophy award in 1997, which honors the top Division One college basketball player.
From there, Milton-Jones participated in the American Basketball League until its 1998 folding. The Sparks added to her professional resumé when they drafted her in 1999 with the fourth overall pick.
Despite crossing over to what is now the longest-tenured professional women’s league, Milton-Jones virtually ignored her previous credentials.
“I still was very undeveloped as a player, just a lot of raw, natural ability,” she said.
With Lisa Leslie anchoring the center position, Milton-Jones took the power forward slot. She often lounged in the high or low post to set up the high-low play in her first stint with the Sparks.
A year after Milton-Jones was drafted, the Sparks hired Los Angeles Lakers legend Michael Cooper as head coach. Together with Leslie and soon-to-be husband Roland Jones, they trained Milton-Jones to embrace the spirit of “new wave” post players who could thrive in the paint and with a jumper.
“I was able to develop a jump shot from the 15-foot range that moved into a pull-up jumper, which went into me being able to penetrate from the free throw line to get to the basket on one dribble,” she said.
Developing those crafts helped her earn her first All-Star berth in 2000 along with her first Olympic gold medal at Sydney, playing for the United States.
Three-point shooting would follow. Making only one attempt in 1999, which missed, Milton-Jones increased her frequency dramatically in 2001, which coincided with the first WNBA championship for the Sparks.
As she picked up a second consecutive title in 2002, Milton-Jones trained with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, another pair from the Lakers dynasty of the 1980s.
“I got the hook shot in my game, the 15-foot range face-up, the jab like Worthy would do a lot,” she said.
Milton-Jones was traded to the Washington Mystics in 2005. They did not have a potent center like Leslie, but she was still a “sidekick” with Alana Beard considered their franchise player (ironically, Beard would rejoin Milton-Jones with the Sparks in 2012 after she was released by the Mystics).
Milton-Jones was not an under-appreciated figure during her time in Washington, D.C. Her numbers were consistent with what she was recording at Los Angeles, and she earned her second All-Star berth in 2007.
“I was able to strengthen my body to have the leg and core strength to guard guards consistently. That’s when I made a transition to the three position (small forward). That in itself allowed me to be attractive in the eyes of Michael Cooper once again,” she said.
So Milton-Jones would be traded back to her original team for the 2008 season as the Sparks were looking for a versatile option; Leslie was nearing retirement, and the team began her transition phase after drafting Candace Parker.
“I could play inside and outside, stretch the defense with my shooting ability. It all came full circle for me, that’s when my complete game came together,” Milton-Jones said.
As her talent reached full power, she picked up her second gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Now at 37, the athletic mixture has yet to unravel. Playing 14 seasons without officially earning a franchise player designation, Milton-Jones cemented her evolutionary success on June 26 of this year, when she became the ninth player in WNBA history to cross the 5,000 career mark.
Unfortunately, that moment was spoiled in a blowout loss to the Tulsa Shock. Losses hardly impact an “ageless wonder” who has played 422 career games. Milton-Jones simply views such an adversity as a motivational tool.
“A lot of the things she does, you don’t notice on the stat sheet,” Parker said. “She always has something inspirational for you. She does a good job firing our team up.”
Even in the twilight stage of her career, Milton-Jones can be detected rather easily on a statistical level. She ranks eighth in career scoring, seventh in total rebounds, and is well within the top 10 in career steals.
Her residence on multiple statistical lists may explain why she is often referred by her second alias “D-Nasty.” Ross assumes some credit behind the birth of that nickname, and Milton-Jones is fine with its use; Sparks play-by-play man Larry Burnett occasionally inserts her on-court label during broadcasts.
As aggressive as Milton-Jones may appear when she plays, her training routine is a true testament to the subliminal definition of nasty.
“I don’t feel 37. I feel like I’m 27 or 28. Every season, I know I’m a year older, but I try to make sure that I look a year or two younger,” she said.
Despite chronological evidence to the contrary, the rigorous schedule has proven effective at reducing her perceived age.
“The things I do sometimes makes me tired when I look at my regimen,” she said. “I’ll get up at seven in the morning and do yoga. We’ll have practice at 10:00 in the morning. After practice, I’ll get up an hour’s worth of shots, come home, eat a quick lunch, lift weights, maybe take an hour nap before the evening practice starts at 6:00 or 7:00. Then I come home, do my little stretching routine, take my vitamins and all my supplements. I do a lot of things to give my body everything that it possibly could need to recover and recuperate so I can tax it once again to the max the next day.”
Her physical stamina is at maximum capacity, but her spiritual acuity got a boost thanks to an assist from Leslie.
Without Leslie’s “dish,” Milton-Jones may have never annexed her last name when she married Roland Jones in June 2003.
“I was talking with Leslie about a letter from this guy I had supposedly met before. She called him acting like she was me, asking him all kinds of questions, then finally him and I got on the phone and we just hit it off. Ever since that moment, we’ve been inseparable.”
The two have pushed to strengthen each other’s athletic abilities throughout their marriage. Jones relayed his wisdom of the guard position to add a complexity with a player who specialized at power forward. When Milton-Jones took a head coaching job with the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association, she called out her husband, a member at the time, for not being in shape.
Animosity will not follow such moments, thanks to a code of communication the two established to achieve balance.
“He’ll come to me and be like ‘Can I talk to you as a friend right now? Can I talk to you as your husband? Can I talk to you as your coach? Can I talk to you as your trainer?’ We set the tone for our conversation. It’s been working well for us,” Milton-Jones said.
Opening herself to multiple iterations of her husband’s personality perhaps allowed Milton-Jones to accept any assignment when attempting to outwit opponents. At the very least, their code may have left some beneficial side effects among Milton-Jones’ current teammates.
“Some people get older and you can’t tell them anything. She’s always looking for little tips that I have and vice-versa,” Parker said.
Parker does not want to speculate how she will continue when she looks to her left and sees someone else in Milton-Jones’ position. Chances are the farewell will be as sentimental as Leslie’s final game in 2009, whether or not Milton-Jones ends her career with a third WNBA championship or more.
Her timeline is defined by getting another chance. If Cooper passed her up for a second shift with the Sparks, if she had not explored the attraction of a man who would become her husband, if she had not been rescued in time when her life was fading in a public pool in Georgia, so many stories documenting her contributions to basketball would never be outlined.
Milton-Jones aims to transmit the concept to her fans through her periodic columns to SLAM Online, where she has touched on subjects like depression and giving gratitude. Gauging how many tries are remaining in her career would be foolish, but just like a losing streak, Milton-Jones will always emphasize the response to an event’s occurrence.
“Sometimes we’re awarded second chances. What we do with it is really going to tell us how appreciative we are, being able to have life,” she said.