New York center Tari Phillips made a triumphant return to her hometown Monday as a starter in the All-Star Game at the TD Waterhouse Centre.
"It's a great honor to be back in my hometown and to be able to be in the All-Star environment," said Phillips, who played at Central Florida. "This is where I was born and raised. I got hundreds of calls of congratulations."
Several friends and family members attended the game, including her mother, who has been ill.
"I'm so proud," said Doris Phillips, who used a wheelchair to reach the arena and an oxygen tank to help her breathe. "She paid her dues. She deserves this. And I wanted to see it."
Phillips, 32, was the Orlando Miracle's first-ever draft pick in 1999 but was released after an unproductive season. Rejuvenated in New York, Phillips was the league's most improved player and an all-star reserve in 2000. Fans voted her to the Eastern Conference's starting lineup this season.
"Right now, I have to say she is one of the top 10 players in the league," New York coach Richie Adubato said.
"She plays center, but she's only 6-1, so she is out-heighted most evenings. But she's very versatile, very athletic and she's a fierce competitor."
Phillips got the evening startedby bringing down the house with a rousing and soulful rendition of the national anthem. She scored the East's first basket on an offensive rebound.
HOMETOWN HERO, PART II: Miracle forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a three-time all-star, replaced top vote-getter Chamique Holdsclaw of Washington in the East starting lineup.
Holdsclaw injured her foot a week before the game and is expected to miss at least one more week.
POWER OUTAGE: West forward Natalie Williams of Utah did not play because of a left-ankle strain sustained against Sacramento on Friday. Her absence left the West with 10 players to the East's 11.
NEXT-GENERATION MARKETING: Believing today's 10-year-old is tomorrow's season-ticket holder, the WNBA is hoping to build lifelong fans among children. Kids were involved in many ways Monday night, including player introductions and TV-timeout dance parties on the court.
"We really are at the beginning stages of that process," league president Val Ackerman said.
"It will take a couple of decades to unfold, but we believe it will happen. That's why young fans are so important to the development of a new sports league."
_ JOANNE KORTH