by Ben York

“I have a lot of love for Phoenix,” Willingham said over a phone interview from Spain last week. “I love the fans, the players, and the organization from top to bottom.”

When it was announced recently that veteran forward Le’coe Willingham would be leaving the Phoenix Mercury to sign with the Seattle Storm, Mercury fans weren’t necessarily surprised…but they were certainly saddened. Willingham was a key factor in the Mercury’s 2009 championship run, and has made a continual effort to grow and expand her game in her six years in the WNBA.

The tight salary cap situation in Phoenix led to Willingham exploring othLe'coe Willinghamer options since the Mercury wasn’t in a position to pay her the salary she would receive on other teams.

Though, all Le’coe wanted was an opportunity; and this was exactly what head coach Corey Gaines communicated to Le’coe when she first signed with Phoenix in 2008.

“I told Le’coe when she first came here that I would give her the opportunity to really play and showcase her skills,” Gaines said in a phone interview with SLAMonline. “That’s exactly what she did. I’m happy for her, I really am. She was great for us and she’ll be great on the Storm.”

For Le’coe, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave the Mercury after what she and her teammates accomplished together. In the end, she did what she felt best for her and her family.

“It was tough,” Willingham said. “I love the girls. But I felt that Seattle was the best place for my family and me in the long run.”

Willingham provided a much-needed toughness for the Mercury in her two years with Phoenix. Le’coe averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds a game for the Mercury while shooting over 53 percent from the floor both seasons. More importantly she gave Phoenix an increased stability in the paint, a tough inside presence on the offensive and defensive end, and was a consistent force on the glass. Those unteachable assets will be vital for the Storm’s depth in 2010 and beyond.

“Being in the league for six years, it took a long time for me to stand out,” Le’coe said. “But I just kept working hard and doing the little things. I’m thankful that Corey and the Mercury gave me the opportunity to shine.”

Willingham helped the Mercury capture their second WNBA Championship in 2009 starting in all 11 playoff games for Phoenix. Willingham fit the Mercury’s fast-paced system perfectly, but she has always been one to adapt to whatever type of offensive or defensive scheme her coach believes in.

“What we did in Phoenix was special,” Willingham said. “I was able to grow as a player. In Seattle, I have always had a respect for their organization and believe I did what was best for my family and my son and I. I felt it was the best opportunity.”

Willingham’s addition to the Storm makes the Western Conference playoff race much more interesting. While much of the attention during the off-season has been centered on Minnesota and Lindsay Whalen, Willingham is easily the biggest and most renowned free agent pick-up to date.

“I’m excited,” Willingham said about joining the Storm. “The West is going to be tough. It seems like every team is stacked. I’m just going to come and work hard and do whatever they need me to do to help the team.”

The Storm now has another player with a WNBA Championship to their name to accompany superstars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. With the West as difficult as it has ever been, Willingham will be an invaluable addition to a legitimate title contender in Seattle.