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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Four years ago, DeLisha Milton-Jones sat on her couch late into the night and early into the morning in tears.

The former UF women's basketball All-American shed tears of elation as she saw her USA teammates win the gold medal - again - in Athens. She shed had tears of languish because she wasn't there.

After being named to the 2004 Olympic team, Milton-Jones tore her ACL and was left behind in the States, forced to sit couch-side with her husband.

"It was a rather sickening feeling," she said. "All the work you put in was in vain."

That sickening feeling was nothing more than a quick head cold, though. Soon Milton-Jones took out a piece of paper and pen and started writing down goals she wanted to accomplish for her rehab. One by one, she scratched them off.

Last week, she got to scratch off one near the bottom of the list. While driving, she got a call that caused her to look bug-eyed at her husband and forced her to pull the car over. She had earned one of the three remaining Olympic roster spots and is headed to Beijing.

"Probably one of the biggest things for me was my sights were set on being on this team," Milton-Jones said. "I had to work 10 times harder than the average person to make this team. The players now are coming out pro-ready. This is a goal I really wanted to achieve, and I had to put some work in."

While USA's roster is cluttered with young players who have little - if any - international experience, Milton-Jones offers some rare veteran knowledge. The first-ever UF basketball All-American won gold in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and also won gold at the 1998 and 2002 FIBA World Championships.

"DeLisha, specifically through her experience, through her desire, all (of that) played heavily in her favor," USA coach Anne Donovan said. "On the floor, she can play in the post or on the perimeter. Her versatility goes a long way. The committee and all of us wanted to get players who'd help us defensively."

The Gators certainly remember how she helped them - and way more than just defensively.

During her time in Gainesville, Milton-Jones led UF to within one shot of the Final Four, the furthest the Gators have ever made it. In 1997, her senior year, she won the Wade Trophy, which is given to the top player in the nation, and left the program in the top five in 10 statistical categories. Then she was the No. 2 overall pick by the Portland Power in the now-defunct American Basketball League.

"Her passion is so inspiring to everyone around her, and that's what makes her such a great player and teammate," said UF coach Amanda Butler, who played with Milton-Jones during the 1993-94 season, in a statement.

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Milton-Jones - currently a forward with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks - has a soft, sweet voice, but that voice's owner can turn into a rough and tough player on the court. And she showed some of that toughness when rehabbing through the ACL injury. She's averaging just 13 points and 6.2 rebounds a game this season, but having Candace Parker (18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds) and Lisa Leslie (16 points, 9.3 rebounds) with you in the frontcourt doesn't provide many opportunities.

When you're averaging only about 3 points a game less than Leslie - who once scored 101 points in a half during one of her high school games - you're doing pretty well.

Now she'll get a chance to add to her basketball résumé again in Beijing. Unless she gets into a time machine, it'll be her last shot at an Olympic medal before handing the baton completely over to Parker and the younger generation.

Milton-Jones said she didn't want to have her last Olympic memory be sitting there on the couch with tears in her eyes. Now it won't be.

"It's not something you just train for for a year," Milton-Jones said. "It's something you commit to for four years. Those four years leading up to those games, there was a lot of sacrifice that needed to be made."

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