Napheesa Collier's daughter, Mila, was being charmingly stubborn.
The two were on a plush rug in the corner of Collier's apartment building near northeast Minneapolis where Lynx players stay during the season.
"Do you want to throw the ball?'' Collier asked. Mila dropped it.
"Can you say Mama?" Collier asked. Mila, grinning: "Dadda."
"We're only a year in,'' Collier said, hugging Mila. "And she's really strong-willed already. But you have to appreciate she's a baby, and it's her world we're living in.''
Collier, always a natural leader, was called Mama Phee in her college days at UConn. When she came to the Lynx in 2019 she learned at the heels of Sylvia Fowles — Mama Syl — developing a bond so tight she pushed herself to return to action just six weeks after Mila's birth to play a handful of games in Fowles' final season last August.
Now, her body back to 100%, Collier is the player Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is building the team's future around. Everything, from personnel decisions to scheme, is geared for a former Olympian, who is about to jump into her first full season since 2021. Collier is the team's sole captain, a duty no Lynx player has had since Reeve took over in 2010.
"We call her Mama Phee now,'' Kayla McBride said. "And we're excited for Mama Phee to really make her appearance this year.''
Collier can't wait, either.
The Lynx open their season Friday night against Chicago at Target Center. For the first time in years, Reeve — also president of basketball operations — is looking to the future rather than the past or present. She tried to keep the juggernaut that won four WNBA titles going and would assemble teams that would give Fowles the best chance at winning with her Hall of Fame career winding down.
Ask Reeve about goals and she talks about development, getting better every day. Giving young players like Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász time and space to develop.
"We're not concentrating on outcome," Reeve said. "We're focused on how we're doing things.''
Leading the way: Collier. All she has to do is return to All-Star form after basically missing a year, help usher a young team into a new Lynx era while at the same time raising Mila with husband Alex Bazzell.
No problem, right?
"This has been my first training camp since my rookie year,'' Collier said. "Going through this process is important, for the team to bond is important. I feel I'm ready to hit the ground running. I feel good. I've worked on my game. Now it's time for the games to start.''
An early alarm
Here's how a typical day worked during training camp: With luck, Mila will sleep until about 5 a.m.
For a couple of hours, Collier and her daughter play. At about 7:30 Collier's father, Gamal — who is staying in a studio in the same building — comes down. They get Mila ready for day care. Gamal takes Mila there while Collier heads to work.
After practice, Collier and her dad go pick Mila up. Then it's a walk to the park, then it's hanging around the apartment until Mila's ready for bed.
George, the son of Lynx General Manager Clare Duwelius, attends the same day care, which sends out pictures and videos of the kids throughout the day. Collier shares with her teammates incessantly.
"When I'm not with her I miss her so much,'' Collier said. "But the day care sends those updates. I love them. I live and die by those.''
Now, Collier has always been something of a homebody. So that really hasn't changed. But her priorities have. Bazzell, an entrepreneur and WNBA/NBA skills coach, is there most of the time, but his work will take him on the road.
But this is Mila's world.
"I feel a lot more mature already,'' Collier said. "There is a much bigger responsibility in my life that just basketball now. Basketball was my whole life before. This has given me perspective.''
Because she's now playing for somebody else, she feels she will play better.
"She knows, even more, who she is now,'' McBride said. "that bond, that relationship, it changes you. She has a daughter at home, a daughter that is watching her. She feels she has to hold that standard up.''
Reeve has a son, so she knows about the process.
"When you have this little one, everything is about the child first,'' Reeve said.
Getting back on track
Collier was nowhere near 100% when she returned to play in a handful of games last August. It wasn't until at least January that her recovery was complete and she could start working to improve.
But it won't be easy, Reeve cautioned. In the WNBA it's hard to lose a year. It might not be fair to assume Collier will step on the court and resume her path to the league's elite.
"Each year the acceleration of the improvement in the league is constant,'' Reeve said. "It's not the same as when you left. You're going to have to do different things. It's not going to be easy for her to just resume where she was. There will be an evolution back to it.''
Collier is undaunted. She is in terrific shape. She said she has felt great in practices, and in the one preseason game she played in.
So much will be asked of her. The "five-out'' offense is designed to give her room to work inside and out. Anyone who watched the Lynx last year knows how important she is to the defense. With Fowles gone, Collier and others will have to rebound.
"I hope there's not rust like that,'' Collier said. "I'll have to see how it goes on Friday. I'll have to pivot accordingly.''
A cerebral game
And what about Mama Phee at work? She said she believes being a mom has made her a more patient teammate and leader. Already empathetic, Reeve said she has seen even more growth in that area.
As a player, Collier is convinced her focus will never be better. All the intensity will be there, the focus, but her new perspective will allow her to not to dwell on things during difficult times.
"The mental game is a huge part of this,'' she said. "I think it's 80-20 mental and talent. Because there are things that are more important that what happens on a basketball court, it will be easier not to get in those mental slumps. Because you have someone who pulls you out of it.''
And there could be some trying times with a young team.
But Collier seems ready. She was trained to do this, she said, by both Reeve and Fowles.
"I don't have time to wallow [in difficult times],'' she said. "The team needs me to push past that. We'll have losses, bad games. But you have to figure out how to be a leader through that.''
And then, at the end of the day, it's Mila time.
Collier said she's not going to be a helicopter parent; she wants her daughter to grow and be OK on her own. But she worries. On the first day of day care she fretted about whether Mila would make friends. At age 26 she has already taken steps to ensure Mila's well-being no matter what happens.
"It's like your heart is outside your body,'' she said. "It's a vital organ, you're worried about it all the time. You want to make sure it's safe.''