After dropping a “why don’t you cover the W we’re in playoff time” email to WNYC/NPR’s show The Takeaway, they actually responded and asked for input. So, Mechelle Voepel and I woke up early to talk Championships and the W.
Archive for the WNBA/Olympics Category
As the WNBA moves into its thirteenth year, the growth and evolution of the league is reflected as much in the coaches patrolling the sideline as it is in the players playing the games. When the league started in 1997, there were seven female coaches and one male. Almost five years later, the numbers had all but flipped. Now, in 2009, the pendulum seems to be swinging back.
“You are seeing a shift,” agreed Patty Coyle, now in her fifth full year as head coach of the New York Liberty. “When Richie (Adubato) came into the league (1999), Ronnie Rothstein (2000), and Bill Laimbeer (2002), I thought they were great for our game. Here were guys who — with the exception of Laimbeer – had coached in the NBA for a long time. That helped shape this league, in the sense that they had coached at the pro level and there weren’t any women, at the time this league started, who had.”
“Now you see the people who were their longtime assistants — me, Julie Plank (Washington Mystics), Jenny Boucek (Sacramento Monarchs), and Jennifer Gillom (Minnesota Lynx), who was an assistant just recently — that have put in their time and now are getting a chance. I think it’s great and well deserved.”
THE RISE OF THE “NEW” GUARD
Boucek started in the WNBA as an unpaid assistant for Nancy Darsch and the Washington Mystics in 1999. She’s spent her career coaching in the WNBA because, she said, “It captured my heart.” After four years starting for Debbie Ryan’s Virginia Cavaliers, graduation in 1997 found her back on the court, this time wearing a Cleveland Rockers WNBA uniform.
“Just being part of the inaugural season and seeing the potential of this league to impact the country culturally really hit home with me as a young lady. Grown women were crying at our games,” remembered Boucek. “Little girls, who were wide-eyed, now have a different perception of themselves and their potential, their dreams and their opportunities, not just in sports. They see women getting opportunities that they only knew men to have.”
“And now we have a whole generation of guys who grew up with the WNBA that now have a completely different view of women, too,” she continued. “They grew up looking up to women, respecting women, coming to the games, putting on the jerseys, painting their faces. Now they have a different respect for women that, I pray, will affect their relationships as husbands as fathers. It’s a different generation coming up now with a different view of women.”
Gillom was also a member of the WNBA’s inaugural season, but the journey to top position in Minnesota was not as direct. The two-time All-Star ended her career in 2003 at the age of 39, then coached the girls high school team at Xavier College Preparatory (Phoenix, AZ) for four years. She joined the Lynx staff as an assistant last year, but after Don Zierden unexpectedly resigned, she was elevated to the head position days before the 2009 season opened.
“When I was playing in the WNBA I used to think that I would coach someday. I always had that thought, even as young as sixth grade,” said Gillom, “But man, I did not in my wildest dreams expect to be a head coach this fast,” she laughed. “Seriously, I thought I still had more to learn before I got to this level. I even thought that I had to put in my time at the college level in order to get to the WNBA as a head coach.” Fortunately she discovered that, when thrust into the role, “I actually I knew more than I thought I did. But, had I not been one of the elite players in the league, I don’t know, would it have happened? It’s hard to say. It makes you wonder. It makes you wonder a lot.”
In contrast to Gillom’s experience, Plank’s move into the ranks of professional basketball and up to the head coach position in Washington seemed to have been a smooth series of steps. “I had been in the college game for a long time (1984) and I was interested in having a different challenge,” explained the first-year head coach. “I’ve always been intrigued by working with the very best players and coaching at the highest level and I had great opportunities in college both at Stanford and Vanderbilt.” Then, in 1999, Plank had the chance to serve as assistant coach with Nell Fortner and go to the 2000 Olympics. “With her going to the WNBA with the Fever [in 2001], I just thought it was a natural progression to continue to coach those players who were going from the Olympics to the WNBA. I have been here ever since.”
THE “CHANGING” OF THE “OLD” GUARD
Currently head coach of the Dream, Meadors established the basketball program at Tennessee Tech, and has helped start three WNBA franchises – Charlotte (’97), Miami (’99) and Atlanta (’08). “I think that that has been my call of duty,” she quipped, “to be a starter person.”
That, as well as being an assistant with several of the league’s teams, has given Meadors plenty of opportunity to see how coaching has changed at the professional level. “When we first started this league, we were all college coaches and we ran the college plays,” she explained. “None of us do that anymore. We’re all running sets. We’re always trying to get the ball to the people that we know that can hit the shot.”
“It’s more sophisticated,” added Dunn who, after a long career in the college ranks, has been coaching professionals since 1997. “In college you’re going to defend the two-man game maybe two ways. We’re going to defend it six ways. We’re going to have a counter to every play that we have. We don’t have two offenses, we have 15. It’s like the difference between Basketball 101 and Basketball 505. These players are sophisticated, smart and intelligent, so they grow their knowledge of the game. It’s just more. Much more.”
The WNBA’s compact schedule is also incredibly demanding on coaches. “Where the college games are played over a six-month period, we are putting them in a four-month period,” explained Plank. “In college you have a six-week training camp and here it’s a three-week period. In terms of the scouting of teams, you play two games a week in college. In the pros, we may play 3 or 4. It’s that same pressure to prepare, only speeded up. You need to be very organized. You have to be able to go from one thing to another quickly. You have to be very concise and precise in your planning. And I don’t want to say it isn’t teaching, because it’s very much teaching. But it’s also more strategy and tweaking. What you do game to game, how you’re going to adjust and how you are going to change things.”
“With Richie, when I first came into this league I thought, as a college coach, I had a pretty good grasp of the game,” said Coyle. “With his knowledge and just his whole way of doing things, what I learned was I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. That really opened my eyes. I think when I was back in college, not that I was ‘stagnant,’ but I was stagnant. Or maybe I’ve matured and opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different ways to do things. I look back to a year ago and I’m a different coach. Five years ago? Forget about it. Coming into this league? It’s like night and day. My coaching style, being around people that I’ve been around, it’s just constantly evolving and for the better, in my opinion. For the better.”
“I know that there are college coaches that would love the challenge of coaching in the WNBA,” noted Dunn. “Who would love the challenge of coaching the very best players. You know, those plays that you run? They work a lot better when talented players execute them. Trust me,” she laughed. “But, not only are you leaving one style of the game to move up to another one, but taking the risk of doing it with limited security. In the WNBA, you win or you leave. You win or you get fired. You get better or you get fired. That’s just the way it is. In college, you play hard, you go to class, you go 0-and-3, you’re not going to be fired. In the pros you might. Men or women, that just the way it is.”
PLAYER TO PLAYER DISCONNECT
Something that has surprised Boucek is how unfamiliar many of the newly drafted college players are with the league’s players. “I have a few that were fans growing up and they love talking about old players that played in college or the WNBA,” said Boucek. “But most of them have never even heard of stars that have been through this league. They don’t know them. And it never even occurred to them that they should know them.”
Her solution? “We have named our post moves after older [female] post players. One of our moves is Katrina [McClain] and one of them is Lucy Harris. I make them Google the names of the players and learn their women’s basketball history.”
“They have great players to look up to,” she added. “You don’t make it to the top 11 players on 13 teams and not be elite in every way. Not just talent. You have got to have great character, great perseverance, great work ethic. These are incredible women. They are great role models for college kids, for high school kids. They play hard, they play the right way. There’s no margin of error. If they don’t, they are not going to stay in the league.”
“I don’t know where the disconnect is, but it could only help the college game if college players were watching these players.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
“I think initially people wondered if a women’s professional league would last,” said Dunn. “Now everyone at all levels — family friends, college coaches, high school coaches, everybody that has any interest in women’s basketball — has seen the positive impact that the women’s professional game has had on our sport.” That, of course, won’t guarantee the continued existence of the league – a league that has lost it marquee franchise in the Houston Comets and reduced rosters to 11 to address the current economic challenges.
“I think everybody that is in there now, we all have passion for the game and we have passion for the WNBA,” said Meadors. “That’s why we’re trying to make sure that it’s still around 20 years from now. I know the WNBA is going through some growing pains just like the NBA did when they first started. I think it’s just a matter of staying after it, staying the course and keep trying to make a better.”
But, added Dunn, “I sometimes don’t think that the college coaches realize how fortunate they are to have a women’s professional league and how that motivates young girls, motivates high school players, motivates their players to continue to continue to get better, to continue to strive for the next level.” Those same coaches, she’s noticed, are recognizing the cachet of having a player enter the WNBA. “Let’s take a Kristi Cirone at Illinois State,” she posited. “How did that impact that team and that league, that she was striving for the next level? Megan Frazee at Liberty. How did it affect her team, her conference?”
“That brings you additional media attention, gives value to your program, and you use it in your recruiting,” noted Dunn. “I walk into your locker room and there’s a huge photo of the player that got drafted. Now my question to you is, ‘What are you doing to make sure we’re around 10 years from now?’ We are helping you. You must help us. You must support us. You must invest in our future.”
“I want them to come to the games,” said Dunn. “I want them to buy season tickets. I want them to talk about the women’s professional game anytime they can. Talk about the positive impact it’s having on our game. Share that with corporate sponsors. The last thing we need is a college coach saying, ‘Well I can’t stand the WNBA. I don’t go to the games.’ How does that help? I would never say that about a college game because I love women’s basketball.”
“They stand to lose enormously if this league doesn’t make it. If I were them, I would be doing everything within my power to make sure we make it. And you can quote me on that.”
After getting cranky with Dave Zirin because of an article he wrote about Geno Auriemma after the 2009 championship, we engaged in an interesting (and civil) email dialogue and I was impressed that he displayed none of the defensiveness I would probably have demonstrated had the situation been reversed.
Of course, he later got his revenge on me by inviting me on his “Edge of Sports” show to talk a little Candace Parker/ESPN, the future of the WNBA, the W’s hit and miss advertising, some basketball history and other stuff.
Here’s the July 3, 2009 audio link
A response to Christian Science Monitor’s Ross Atkin
Readers hardly accept every word inscribed in this space as the sports gospel, so their comments are always welcome, especially ones as insightful as those from Helen Wheelock of N.Y. Helen wrote in about a “We’re Just Fans” blog that carried the headline “WNBA reaches double digits, but where are the women coaches?”
Ms. Wheelock calls herself a fan of and writer about women’s basketball. As such, she applauded the coverage of the women’s game, which she contributes greatly to by maintaining Women’s Basketball Online (“the most comprehensive women’s basketball site on the net”).
Still, she wished I’d dug deeper into why only three of this season’s 14 WNBA head coaches are women. She said that I’d touched on a “very complicated and rich issue.” I invited her to elaborate, and here’s her response:
In 1997, seven of the eight teams participating in the WNBA’s inaugural season had women head coaches, and all of the coaches were drawn from the women’s college basketball coaching ranks. But you didn’t have the elite of the elite – the Pat Summitts, Marsha Sharps, or Jody Conradts – applying for jobs. No surprise, really. Why on earth would they leave the security and stability of their successful fiefdoms for the uncertainty of a pro league?
Even a decade later that question lingers. And as the merry-go-round that is the WNBA head coach position (for both men and women) continues, it is a reflection of the new frontier that is coaching women’s professional basketball.
Elite college coaches can get a hefty, long-term contract with snazzy perks (Kristy Curry, formerly of Purdue, will earn a base salary of $425,000 as Sharp’s successor at Texas Tech). The budget-conscious WNBA can’t come close to matching that. While winning is important to a school, the concept of “building a program for the future” is understood. Like its brother organization, the NBA, there’s little patience for that in the WNBA.
College teams travel across the country in first-class seats, while coaches have all but year-round access to their athletes. In the WNBA, it’s economy class all the way, and a coach is lucky to see all his or her players for the entire two-week preseason camps. The WNBA squeezes 34 games into three months, while the college coach guides teams though a 30-game regular seaon spread over five months. Conference championships and the NCAA provide opportunities for success, as opposed to the WNBA, where the 14-team league can make every game a “must win” situtation.
A college team might survive a player’s injury, but at the pro level, an injury can have seismic implications. Equally unsettling, a pro coach can find her once-promising lineup decimated because a player decides to stay in Europe to earn more money.
Add in all the differences between coaching the college athlete vs. the pro athlete and it becomes clearer why, even though opportunities exist for female coaches in the WNBA, those most suited to the job might be reluctant to step forward.
That being said, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport did give the WNBA top marks in its annual racial and gender diversity report card. Equally significant? The 14 female WNBA assistant coaches who are displaying a commitment to working at the pro level.
The pool of professional female coaches is expanding – too slowly for many tastes – but, as they say, good things come to those who wait. The WNBA doesn’t yet have the money or status of the NBA. But, to be fair, the NBA has a 40-year head start.
– Helen Wheelock
Helen Wheelock’s website can be found athttp://womensbasketballonline.com.
Question: Who scored the first-ever basket in Olympic women’s basketball competition?
Answer: Lusia Harris-Stewart, USA, 1976.
It would come as no surprise Harris-Stewart’s name didn’t leap to mind. Since she’s a quiet and self-effacing woman, teammate Ann Meyers had to point out the historical significance of her basket.
The 6’3” Harris-Stewart is considered by many to be the prototypical modern center. Born February 10, 1955, in Minter City, Miss., she grew up watching her equally tall older sister win high school championships. “Most people don’t realize how organized [girls’] basketball was in Mississippi during that time,” she explained. “In my area, it was a money-drawing event.”
“I used to love watching her play,” said Harris-Stewart of her sister. “She could really handle that ball. When I went to Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, we had the same coach, Conway Stewart. That was so awesome, to be able to play for someone who loved the game.” Harris-Stewart remembers coach Stewart talking about the game and keeping a cool head. “He talked to me a whole lot about keeping my composure and not to do things to be thrown out of a game. Because,” she admitted with a sly smile, “even though I was a shy person, I would get you back on the court.”
During high school, Harris-Stewart was honored as a three-time all-conference and all-region player (1971-1973) and a two-time all-state selection (1972-73), and she once scored a school record 46 points in one game. Though her team didn’t win a high school championship, the trip to play in the state tournament in Jackson made an indelible impression. “Never having the chance to leave Greenwood, it was a big thing to travel two hours away and stay in a hotel for the first time. That was real nice.”
Harris-Stewart understood that with her graduation in 1973, her competitive basketball days were over. She intended to get her degree at Alcorn State when opportunity, nudged by the passage of Title IX, came knocking. Nearby Delta State University, had just lured legendary high school coach Margaret Wade out of retirement to resurrect a basketball program shut down since the 1920s. They were looking for players and, said Harris-Stewart, “the recruiter, Melvin Hemphill came to my school and said, ‘We’re starting a women’s basketball team, and we want you to play on that team.’”
The invitation was significant not simply because it offered her an opportunity to continue playing but, as Pam Grundy and Susan Shackelford point out in their book “Shattering the Glass,” because Harris-Stewart was black, Delta State was a white school and Mississippi had been a fierce battleground during the Civil Rights era. In keeping with her character, Harris-Stewart doesn’t make much of being the only black player on the team. “Sometimes the fans would say, you know, things in the stands,” she told Grundy and Shackelford, “but my focus was to score that basket. And sometimes it got to be pretty rough in the games… Everybody said that I did a lot of smiling, but I had a few to say that I was pretty physical under the boards.”
Delta State lost only three games that first year, but the last loss prevented them from participating in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament. “Oh, wow,” Harris-Stewart remembers thinking. “’We just missed out on another trip!’ I was so upset. I said, ‘I bet we won’t miss out on it next year!’”
Harris made good on her prediction.
In the second year of the program’s existence, Delta State traveled to Harrisonburg, Va., for the tournament, advancing to the finals where they met the three-time defending champions, the Mighty Macs of Immaculata. “Everyone was talking about the Mighty Macs. And those nuns were beating on those buckets,” laughed Harris-Stewart, recalling the famous galvanized buckets Immaculata fans would bang as noisemakers. “We said, ‘Okay, this is our time to shine.’ Everybody kept asking each other, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Yeah, I’m ready. You?’”
Delta State defeated Immaculata 94-78, repeated the win in 1976, and in 1977 defeated Louisiana State University for a third consecutive championship. Harris-Stewart was MVP of the tournament each of those years and finished her collegiate career with 2,981 points (25.9 ppg) and 1,662 rebounds (14.4 rpg). A three-time Kodak All-American, she helped lead the Lady Statesmen to an overall record of 109-6. In her final season, she won the inaugural Broderick Award as the nation’s outstanding female collegiate basketball player as well the Honda Broderick Cup as the best collegiate athlete in any sport.
It was during her collegiate career that she earned a gold medal as a member of the 1975 U.S. Pan American team, and led the United States in both scoring and rebounding as they earned a silver medal in the 1976 Olympic Games. Inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1990), Harris-Stewart was is one of only a handful of women in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1992) and was part of the first class of inductees into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999). This past October, she was honored during the Women’s Sports Foundation dinner as she entered the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“The game has changed so much,” reflected Harris-Stewart, who’s taught and coached at the college and high school level since graduating. “It’s the outlook from the athlete’s point of view. We have scholarships. When you get out of college there are endorsements, there are professional teams. All of that is there. But it wasn’t there [back] then. I think that we played for the love of the game. It really was just for the love of the game. Most people say, ‘Well, why aren’t you rich?’ And I say, ‘How could I be rich?’” she laughed, “I didn’t get paid for playing.”
At her core, it’s the opportunities and experiences of her playing days that Stewart-Harris revels in, not the statistics. “I look back on my career, and I think about all the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met,” she reflected, “and it’s been great; and it’s all been because of basketball.”
This site contains articles I’ve written on women’s basketball.
Also included are some entries from the Women’s Hoops Blog and a link to my 45+page Timeline of Women’s Basketball History, 1892-Present, a beast Kim Callahan has generously hosted, maintained and PDF’d.
I’ve “archived” the articles (also hosted by Kim) in the hope that fans, writers and anyone else interested in women’s basketball and sports will find them informative.
‘Sides, I’ve had a hoot talking to a lot of really cool, smart, committed people about this game I’ve fallen in love with. It seemed a shame to let their words “expire” after publication.
The cool thing about the blog format is you can use the SEARCH feature to find specific people or references (e.g. officiating, Jody Conradt, high school, homophobia, Division III, etc.). I’ve tried to organize the articles in various useful “clumpings” and will also need to review all the pieces for typos, etc. since they’re all in pre-editor version (sorry Sharon, Lois, Tilea and Summer).
The original publishers (each who will be credited in each article) are:
thehoopslink.com gave me my start back in 2000.
Then came Women’s Basketball Magazine, where I learned to write player profiles, Q&A’s and features. In 2004, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association invited me to be a contributing writer to their magazine “Coaching Women’s Basketball,” where I’ve focused on issues surrounding the game.
I’ve also written for the Women’s Sports Foundation and New York SportsScene and produced some “miscellaneous” pieces that appeared on various message boards. Which is what happens when you’re a mouthy fan of the game — and may explain why Ted asked me to join the Women’s Hoops Blog‘s ensemble of writers in 2005.
If you feel the need to know more about me, click here.
The Official Mumbo Jumbo (adapted from Kim Callahan’s mumbo jumbo)
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Reviewing her WNBA career since being drafted by Sacramento in 1998, Adia Barnes is characteristically frank. “A few years later, you wouldn’t think I’d even be in the league.”
Consider, in her first season Barnes played in every game – starting 16. Since then, she’s watched her playing time diminish as she’s been traded or waived by four different teams. Yet the 2002 season found Barnes in the starting lineup for the Seattle Storm.
“[Storm coach] Linn Dunn gave me an opportunity,” explains Barnes, “and it was a good fit. A lot of why people are successful in the WNBA is the situation they’re in,” notes Barnes. “They used me well.”
In Seattle, Barnes became a specialist. “They were expecting me to shut people down on defense,” she explains. “We didn’t need any other scorer because there was Sue (Bird) and Lauren Jackson. And,” Barnes adds dryly, “they did that very well.”
That she’s persisted speaks to Barnes’ ability to transform herself. At Arizona (Tuscon) she played post. Realizing that 5’11’ wouldn’t cut in the pros, she converted to guard. The transition has been challenging, especially considering the WNBA’s preseason is time coaches focus on building chemistry, teaching plays, and integrating new players. “Working on your skills,” Barnes says with a laugh, “is the least of their concerns. I was years behind.”
Months spent overseas developed both her skills and confidence. “It’s a different mind set,” explains Barnes. “Facing the basket you can do a lot more – it’s exciting. I think my attitude this year,” says 25-year old, “has been, ‘Okay, what’s the worst that could happen? Few women in the world are able to be in this situation. What do I have to lose?'”
Nothing, as it turned out. The Storm surprised everyone by reaching the playoffs in only their third year of existence. Barnes acknowledges that, while there was an enormous pressure on first round pick Bird (“All the hype was true,” says Barnes, “She proved it.”), there was little on the team. “We were picked second to last in the west. No one’s expectations were high.”
Barnes anticipates that will change next season – even taking into account the unexpected resignation of Dunn. “We have a great group of girls, great team chemistry. The players — we make it happen,” says Barnes. “We’ve had a taste of what it’s like and we want more.”