Fire forward sticks to home-court learning

Stacey Thomas could have gone abroad, but she'd rather study

Normally, Stacey Thomas would spend March toiling with other WNBA players in Europe, making money, experiencing another culture and eating funky foods.

But Thomas stayed home this winter Ñ home meaning her second home in Portland Ñ to do public relations work for the Portland Fire and work out under the tutelage of Fire coaches.

Entering her third WNBA season, the 5-10 small forward is expected to make the jump from defensive specialist to all-around player.

'They're trying to pattern me after Ruben Patterson,' Thomas says, referring to the Trail Blazer forward. 'I need to be more aggressive. They're telling me I need to rebound and look to be more of a scorer. I need to get that mentality.'

While Thomas, Vanessa Nygaard and Jackie Stiles have paid extended visits to Portland over the winter Ñ making appearances, mostly at local schools Ñ several other Fire players can be found in countries around the world, supplementing their five-month WNBA income.

'I had been doing it for so long, I didn't want to go overseas this year,' Nygaard says. 'I've played in Germany, Spain and Italy, and it's hard to be away. My agent wanted me to play in Israel.

'Supposedly, you can make a lot of money there right now. They want players. But my mom would probably kill me.'

The Middle East unrest kept Nygaard away, but others on the Fire heard the call for players and decent pay and went overseas: Jenny Mowe (Poland), Tully Bevilaqua (Hungary), Alyssa Burras (Korea), DeMya Walker (Italy) and Kristin Folkl (Switzerland).

Meanwhile, LaQuanda Barksdale went back to school at North Carolina, Sylvia Crawley serves as an assistant coach at North Carolina, and Carolyn Young works as an assistant at Auburn. Tamicha Jackson has been playing for a Houston semipro team and teaching math.

Stiles, recovering from wrist surgery, went back to school at Southwest Missouri State and is vying for a spot on the 2002 USA World Championship team in training March 18-31 in Texas. Sophia Witherspoon has been living in Florida and playing for Athletes in Action.

Thomas, from Flint, Mich., played in Sweden last year and excelled. 'I made pretty decent money,' she says, 'and it put me into position to do everything: score, rebound, assists. I was pretty much the leader of the team. We ended up winning the championship.'

Thomas and other players gather at Club Sport in Tualatin. Recently, Thomas and Stiles took on a team that included former Blazer Antonio Harvey, who has been rehabilitating an injured knee after being released by the Seattle SuperSonics.

'Man, they can really play,' says Harvey, who lives in the Portland area and hopes to sign a 10-day contract with an NBA team.

Thomas also spends time going to movies and Blazer games, watching basketball whenever possible, surfing the Internet, playing video games and reading.

'I keep myself pretty busy,' she says.

NOTES: The Fire missed the playoffs in their first two WNBA seasons. Linda Hargrove, coach and general manager, wants to upgrade the roster with a point guard, a small forward who can score and a big forward or center who can rebound.

She has mentioned Tennessee's Michelle Snow, Connecticut's Sue Bird and Stanford's Lindsey Yamasaki as possible selections with the fifth pick of the WNBA draft. É Four UConn players Ñ Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams Ñ could go high. Hargrove says Husky players could go 1-2-3.

Thomas has watched Oregon's Shaquala Williams and Oregon State's Felicia Ragland and says both have the talent to play in the WNBA (Ragland's a senior, Williams a junior).

'Both are quick, good leaders who can handle the ball well,' Thomas says. 'If anything, they have to learn to be more aggressive. The WNBA is much quicker and more physical.'

On Ragland, Thomas adds: 'If you can rebound and be aggressive and shoot the '3,' there's a place for you.'

Nygaard says the Fire need to make the playoffs. 'This season, it can't be, 'We are happy to be here,' ' she says. 'We have to win this year. Two years is a lot of time with the number of games we play. And the off-season is so long, you can improve a lot.'

The Fire play preseason home games against the Chinese national team (May 15) and Sacramento Monarchs (May 19). They open the 32-game regular season against New York on May 29 at the Rose Garden. É Four Fire games will be televised nationally: June 2 vs. Seattle (ESPN2), June 23 vs. Houston (NBC), July 10 at Minnesota (ESPN) and July 12 vs. Los Angeles (ESPN).

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..