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Full of fire: Former Lewis and Clark star Briann January out to prove she’s still among WNBA elites

UPDATED: Wed., May 6, 2020

By Dave Trimmer For The Spokesman-Review

Briann January was one of the best high school athletes in Spokane history and is one of the most accomplished as a professional.

That explains why she has blown up what seemed to be an idyllic life in the past year.

You don’t earn All-Greater Spokane League honors four times in basketball and win a state high jump title without being talented. You don’t have a decorated and record-breaking basketball career at Arizona State without being driven. And you certainly don’t play in the WNBA 11 seasons and win a championship without the focus to put those two things together.

But January is 33 now, so she made some hard decisions.

The result is she is stuck at home in Phoenix, but that’s the coronavirus part of the story.

January poses while on a recent bike ride in Arizona. She was traded from the Phoenix Mercury to the Connecticut Sun in February. (Briann January / Courtesy)
January poses while on a recent bike ride in Arizona. She was traded from the Phoenix Mercury to the Connecticut Sun in February. (Briann January / Courtesy)

Under normal circumstances, she would be at training camp – with the Connecticut Sun. Yes, January is moving across the country to play, which seems odd, considering that she was an assistant coach at Arizona State. But she gave that up, too, before last season, because her competitive fire still burns.

“You only have one chance to play at the highest level and I wanted to give it my all,” January said. “It came to point, I only have so many years left to play.”

There was quite a build up to that decision, beginning when January was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft following her stellar career with ASU’s Sun Devils.

In nine seasons with the Indiana Fever, January was named to the all-defensive first or second teams six consecutive seasons starting in 2012, the year the Fever won their championship. Indiana made the playoffs eight times with two other trips to the finals.

In the offseason, January played in Turkey, Israel or Brazil until head coach Charlie Turner Thorne added her to the Arizona State staff in 2017.

She played that summer with the Fever and then joined the Sun Devils. The timing was perfect. She had a serious shoulder injury and her time on campus allowed her to rehab after surgery.

In the spring, Indiana traded January to Phoenix. With her name prominent in the Fever record book, including second in games played (250) and assists (909) and third in points (2,244) and steals (285), it’s no surprise the Mercury gave up the eighth pick in the draft for the veteran point guard.

Success followed January. In 2018, she led the WNBA in 3-point shooting (47%) and the Mercury made it to the fifth and deciding game of the Western Conference finals, losing to the Seattle Storm.

January’s second season with the Sun Devils was difficult.

“Being a player, you know how much work it it is to coach, how much work the coaches put in. It’s a lot of work. Although I loved it, it wasn’t … it wasn’t a great place for me to be if I wanted to continue playing.”

Her days were 12 hours long serving the Sun Devils and Mercury.

“That second year, I thought it held me back a little,” she said. “I couldn’t get on court to work on my game, couldn’t work on my strength.”

It was difficult to leave the program that had won a school-record 104 games with two Elite Eight appearances during her career. The All-American and two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year left as the Sun Devils’ record holder in assists and free-throw percentage, was second in steals, fifth in 3-pointers and seventh in points.

“Those two years were great. I learned a ton,” January said. “It was hard to tell the girls and to tell Charlie. Like always she supported me 100%. She understood where I was coming from. She’s always been a mentor.”

The second season with the Mercury was also a struggle. Superstar Diana Taurasi missed all but six games with a back injury and Phoenix was bounced out of the playoffs in one game.

In February, January was part of a three-team trade that landed her in Connecticut, which lost to Washington in the finals last summer.

“I had a hand in that. At the end of the season … something inside of me … I wasn’t happy with my performance, I kind of lost my joy for the game,” she said. “Inside, I thought maybe I needed to start fresh. Wanted to be in place where I could play my own game.”

There is a great aside to her two seasons with Phoenix. She played along Leilani Mitchell, who was two years older and a star at Kennewick while January was at Lewis and Clark. January recalled that her freshman season the Tigers lost a winner-to-state regional game to Mitchell’s Lions 45-40.

“She’s been one of my favorite point guards since she beat us that day in high school,” January said. “She’s so smart, so crafty, super talented. If she had more height, she’s be unbelievable. I’m glad I got to play with her a little bit.”

Mitchell, who at 5-foot-5 is 3 inches shorter than January, was an All-American at Idaho before transferring to Utah for her senior season. She signed a free-agent contract with WNBA champion Washington for this season.

To prepare for this season, January went to Hungary. Sopron Basket was leading the domestic league and on the verge of making the EuroLeague playoffs before forfeiting a game against an Italian team because of COVID-19.

Shortly after, everything was canceled and January headed for home, booking travel from Vienna to Phoenix via London.

“I really had no trouble getting home, but the initial fear of not being able to get home was crazy,” she said.

The confusion in London forced her to fly into Los Angeles, which clustered her with about 400 people for close to four hours to go through customs and the CDC checkpoint.

“They weren’t taking temperatures unless you were coming from Asia,” January said. “If I didn’t have corona before I left, I would now.”

Home in Phoenix, she is working out in her garage and riding a bicycle.

“Every day is a Wednesday,” she said on a recent Tuesday. “Not much is changing week to week. We are hearing worst-case scenarios, best-case scenario, ways the season could happen. Some ideas are far-fetched.

“I do think it’s a long shot we have a season, but everyone’s optimistic. … It’s hard for me to see everything coming together.”

Eventually she will coach, buoyed by her contemporaries now on NBA benches. There is a lure to coach in the WNBA and she always liked the idea of being a Division I coach.

But until then, everything will be focused on the court as a player.

“I’m really excited. (Connecticut is) full of young talent,” January said. “They’re right on the verge of doing something special. I’m excited to see what we can do there.

“I have two more years left on my contract. Then I’ll see after that. I have a few more miles left on these legs. I still love playing, love competing.”

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