Renee Montgomery was part of two WNBA championship teams in the three seasons of her second tour with the Minnesota Lynx.
But when she became an unrestricted free agent after 2017 campaign, the former University of Connecticut two-time All-American was looking to move on. That the stop would be the Atlanta Dream, who won just 12 games and missed the playoffs a year ago, seemed unlikely.
"I knew we had talent," Montgomery said. "The main thing for us was putting it together. It takes time. Like when LeBron James went to Miami, everyone thought it would be instantly amazing. It doesn't work like that, no matter how much talent there is.
"Minnesota was a great situation. It was amazing. We won two championships so I can't complain. But I wanted to come back home. My parents have been to more games this year than in the past five years. I've always been somewhere far. Now it's only like a six- or seven-hour drive and it's like they live with me. It all worked out well. The team doing well was a bonus."
Even though a loss to the Washington Mystics Tuesday night ended their eight-game winning streak, the Dream (16-10) hold a one-game lead over Washington and a two-game advantage over the Connecticut Sun in the Eastern Conference race. More important, they trail only the Seattle Storm in the overall standings and have a half-game edge over Minnesota for the No. 2 spot in the league standings. The top two finishers receive byes into the best-of-five semifinal round of the playoffs.
It's been a dream come true, so far.
"We're sharing the ball well and that has been the key to our success," Montgomery said. "We have players who are explosive and can go for 30 at any given moment. You never know whose night it's going to be on our team."
Montgomery, 31, has started all 26 of Atlanta's games and is averaging 9.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in 27.1 minutes.
The 5-foot-7 point guard helped UConn to a 39-0 record and the 2009 national championship as a senior under coach Geno Auriemma. She was the winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation's top point guard and was taken by Minnesota with the No. 4 pick in that year's WNBA Draft.
A year later she returned to Connecticut with the Sun as part of a trade that sent Minnesota native Lindsay Whalen to the Lynx. Under coach Mike Thibault, Montgomery was an Eastern Conference All-Star in 2011 and the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year in 2012.
The Sun traded her to Seattle in January of 2015. But six months later, Minnesota sent Monica Wright to the Storm for Montgomery and a second-round draft pick. Montgomery became a strong backup as the Lynx topped the Indiana Fever for the 2015 title. Last season she stepped in late in the season after Whalen was injured and helped Minnesota to another championship.
When she went on the free-agent market, first-year coach Nicki Collen sold her on the Dream.
"Anything could have happened," Montgomery said. "But Coach Nicki came in very aggressively with how much she wanted me and where she saw me with the team. And she's backed it up 100 percent. Sometimes a coach will try to sell you a dream and she didn't. I liked her concept, what she wanted from me, what she thought that I could be. I'm the captain here. It all worked out better than I could have planned."
Atlanta received a boost with the return of Olympian Angel McCoughtry, who sat out the 2017 season to rest from the grind of playing year-round. She was the Dream's lone representative in last Saturday's All-Star Game in Minneapolis, though many believed that former UConn guard Tiffany Hayes should have also been selected.
Montgomery took part in the 3-point shooting contest at halftime and honored Hayes by wearing her No. 15 jersey during the competition.
Hayes was a freshman during Montgomery's senior season in Storrs.
"She's my Baby Husky," Montgomery said. "To see her maturation ... She brings it night-in and night-out at both ends of the floor. She's a two-way guard. I love playing with her."
This coming season at UConn will mark the 10th anniversary of Montgomery's senior year and the 2009 NCAA title when the Huskies won the first 39 games of what would be a 90-game winning and the first of consecutive unbeaten national championship seasons.
Does it seem like a decade?
"It does. It seems like a long time," Montgomery said with a smile. "Our years are so long because we go overseas for seven months. That makes it go slow. We have long years because we play year-round and we have to grind it out.
"I went to Geno's restaurant (at Mohegan Sun) and did a little video. 'Oh nice, it's good to see I'm still up on the wall.' " she added. "There are so many great players that come through UConn. But it never gets old coming back."
Her picture hangs in Geno's Fastbreak restaurant and her No. 20 hangs on the wall of Gampel Pavilion in the Huskies of Honor.
She believes her winning ways from UConn and from the Lynx came with her to Atlanta.
"That's one thing I can bring," Montgomery said. "I've seen what it takes on a day-to-day basis. You can't buy that experience unless you were there.
"When you're younger you have so many goals and a lot of them are individual. Now I want to be sure that we make the playoffs. I want to get one of those bye spots. So just my approach to the game, controlling the team, is different. My goals are team oriented. I couldn't care less if I score two points. My thing is, 'Let's make sure we got this right.' I want to win."
USA U-18s OPEN TOURNAMENT PLAY
The United States U-18 national team, which includes UConn freshman guard Christyn Williams and freshman forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, begins play in the FIBA U-18 Americas Championship Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. when it takes on Argentina in Group A pool play in Mexico City.
Team USA will continue Group A play Thursday at 3 p.m. against Chile and conclude Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Puerto Rico. Following pool play, the tournament's eight teams will be seeded for Sunday's single-elimination quarterfinals. The semifinals will be played next Monday and the gold-medal and bronze-medal games next Tuesday. The four semifinalists receive bids to the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup.
Williams will be playing for USA Basketball for a fourth time, having won gold at the 2017 FIBA 3x3 U-18 World Cup, silver at the 2017 FIBA U-19 World Cup, and bronze at the 2016 FIBA U-17 world championships. Nelson-Ododa's only previous national team experience is with the 2016 U-17 team. She did not try out for the 2017 U-19 team due to a knee injury.
"It's a great group of girls," Williams said. "We have 2018s on the team that haven't won a gold and we have 2019s who haven't won a gold. So we're on the same page and we have the same goals."
Rounding out the roster are college freshmen Jenna Brown (Stanford), Desiree Caldwell (Southern California), Nazahrah Hillmon-Baker (Michigan), Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Ashley Joens (Iowa State), Sedona Prince (Texas), and NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), and high school seniors Aijha Blackwell, Maori Davenport, and Anaya Peoples (Notre Dame commit).
The team had its first training camp practice in Colorado Springs on July 21. The Americans then made their way to Mexico City and defeated Team Canada in a scrimmage on Monday.
"I thought it was great, some encouraging things," Team USA and University of Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "It was nice to get a chance to compete against another team. I thought we did some really good things, we got better in areas, but we still have some growth to do."
Team USA is 53-2 in FIBA U-18 Americas Championships play.