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 WNBA
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
“Basketball,” said Anne Donovan, quoting the classic Saturday Night Live skit, “has been very, very good to me.
And she has been very good to basketball.
As a freshman at Old Dominion University, the 6’8” Donovan won the 1980 AIAW national championship. A three-time All-American, in 1983 she was named first women’s winner of the Naismith Award for player of the year. Donovan’s tenure with USA Basketball began in 1977 as a 15-year-old on the inaugural Jones Cup team. Named to the 1980 Olympic team that didn’t play because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, she won Olympic gold in 1984 and in 1988.
Inducted as a player into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, Donovan has found coaching from the sidelines equally successful. An assistant for the 1998 and 2002 World Championship gold medal winning squads, she also served as an assistant coach to Van Chancellor in 2004 as the United States claimed the gold medal in Athens. After the Olympics, she returned to coach the Seattle Storm and made history as the first female coach to win a WNBA championship.
This past August, she achieved another milestone as she guided the USA National team to its fourth consecutive gold medal during the Beijing Olympics.
THEY JUST DON’T HAND THESE THINGS OUT
While many may take US gold as a fait accompli, Donovan knows better. Hers was the team that won bronze in the 2006 World Championships, forcing the US to have to qualify for Beijing. It was a shock to many both in and out of the US. But perhaps not to those who’d been paying close attention.
“I remember with being with Van in 2004 and in 2002,” recalled Donovan, “and I don’t know those scores off the top of my head, but if you look back we barely won the World Championships in 2002 and the Olympics games in 2004. We were close to being exposed, but we weren’t completely exposed until ‘06. On my watch. I knew it was coming. I mean, it was clear it was coming because our training time was going down bit by bit every year.”
Reflecting on that semi-final loss Donovan noted, “I’m not one that believes that you got to lose to get the lesson, to get your players to the ‘next level.’ I don’t like those lessons,” she added dryly. I try to avoid them at all costs. But, when we went to the 2006 [Championships], we lost key players from that team — Yolanda [Griffith] and Lisa [Leslie] — at the last minute. Now, looking back at 2006, Candace Parker being thrown into a major role before she should’ve been that helped her development for us as a national team. But, said Donovan, “We were completely exposed.”
“After giving myself a box of Kleenex to get over the world championship loss,” it was, “All right, let’s figure out we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
PATCHWORK QUILT COACHING
Most coaches would agree that the first step in assuring there was no repeat of the World Championship performance during the Olympics would be to pull the team together and practice for an extended period of time. But the summer season of the WNBA, the “off-season” of more playing overseas, and the need to actually rest one’s body, all pull players away from the long-term commitment USA Basketball demands.
“Everybody wants to go to the Olympics,” said Donovan. “But, once the Olympics are over, it’s really difficult to get players to commit to that next three-year period in the quadrenium.” As a consequence, every time Donovan and her coaching staff would think they would have a full unit to train together, something –- professional commitments, injuries, personal commitments — would get in the way.
“You couldn’t think about what you didn’t have,” she explained. “You had to really focus on who was there. You had to keep in mind that, ‘Of this group of eight players or nine players who’s really going to be with us in Beijing and let’s really concentrate on how we can make them better.’ There was a resilience there that I had to have, and we had to have as a staff.” And, added Donovan, “It was a matter really of keeping our thinking looking forward thinking and not being so concerned with the loss we were facing or the lack of players.”
THE WHOLE GREATER THAN THE PARTS
What’s is intriguing about being a USA Basketball is that the players are chosen by the Selection Committee, not the coach. “It can be frustrating to not have complete control, but having 30 years of being associated with USA basketball, I know why those rules are place,” said Donovan. “But, this is the first time that I’ve been confronted with, you know, just wanting more control. Every coach wants control right?” she laughed.
“But I have to say, the mentoring that went on. I talked with Tara [VanDerveer] about it. And Pat [Summitt] and Van. Just good conversations about what to think about and what to look for and how to approach a delicate situation with the committee. About having conversations with committee members outside of committee meetings just to make sure they understood why my needs were what they were. And then feeling like I had to let it go.”
In the end, Donavan credits the committee for making sure that the right pieces were on her team. “To me that doesn’t mean the best 12 players in the USA. It means complementary players that understand their roles. And they are hugely important — that role player, number 11 and 12, is probably more important than 2,3, and 4. Kara Lawson (Sacramento/TN) is a great example,” continued Donovan. “So many people questioned her value to our team. We understood that Kara had so many intangible qualities — besides the fact that she is a fantastic ballplayer — but her intangible qualities were something we had to have on the team. She was just one of many quality women on the team. That selection process is more important than anything you do as a coach on the floor. Because you’ve got to have the right pieces that buy in to it the right way.”
The “right way” means they had to buy in to the concept of “team ball.” “It’s hokey. ’Team ball.’ It’s all coach-speak,” admitted Donovan with a grin. But, “in a nutshell, it means the team goals are more important than any individual goals.” No mean feat when you’re working with elite athletes drawn from a pool of players who have healthy egos. “They don’t rise to the top of their profession if they don’t have healthy egos,” said Donovan. “But, you have to devise a team that brings out the best in each other and covers up the weaknesses.”
Asked which is more satisfying, the gold medal earned as a player or as a coach, Donovan was hard-pressed to make a choice. “I was so proud as a player because I had to work hard at my craft,” she explained. “I just wasn’t an Olympian or repeat Olympian. I had to really work to be named in ‘80 and then to maintain that level and be selected for ‘84 and ’88. There was a great amount of satisfaction and pride that went with being on those teams and being part of gold medals.”
“As a coach it’s the same thing,” she continued. “I work hard at my craft and so there is a great amount of satisfaction in achieving the gold medal. I think when push comes to shove, if I had to choose, this experience in 2008 is so satisfying because of what we’ve been through in the last three years. The nature of women’s basketball right now has changed so much. The landscape is night and day from any other period in our history, with players having less time to dedicate to their national teams across the world, and less time to dedicate to building their system and building a real unit.”
Ironically, not having the entire unit together until just before the Games, made the experience even more satisfying. “I think in a lot of subtle ways we were able to develop our team through these three years in very painful ways. And yet, as hard as it was over these last couple of years and losing more games than I’m sure the women’s program has lost a long time, there still was learning going on and we were still adding to the process of putting together the team that showed up in Beijing.”
“I get long-winded about this because for me the most impactful thing about Beijing was the semi-final game against Russia. Here we are in exactly same position that we were in 2006. We had played really well. We had had no problems scoring. We were blowing people out. And here we are playing Russia in the semi-finals for the right to go to the gold-medal game and we can’t throw the ball in the ocean. It’s exactly the same game as 2006. Exactly.”
“Except for we could defend. Those players got down, locked down, and defended.”
“And that was to me even more significant than the gold medal win. We had come 360. All we’d talked about nonstop from before the world championships was basically, ‘What happens when we can’t score? What happens? You got to be able to get the stops.’ It sounds very elementary, but never before had we seen it and done it. So for me, those were the lessons: Your core beliefs of what your philosophy is as a coach, you stick with them. Even in the hard times, you’re going to get reinforced if you truly stick to what you believe in.”
QUIETING THE NAYSAYERS
Anyone following USA Basketball knows that those “hard times” were not just about the losses or missing players. Donovan was well aware that there was steady commentary of naysayers and doubters who questioned coaching abilities and questioned the ability of the team to succeed under her leadership. “I learned a long time ago to stop worrying about ‘them,’” she said. “They do hurt though. Their criticism and their judgment — most times completely unfounded judgment — is difficult. Anybody that lives in any semblance of a spotlight, as all of us coaches understand, we have to learn early to deal with criticism.”
“But there is a sense of relief that it went…not only went beautifully, but that it went as well as it did. There is tremendous satisfaction in what we were able to do. And again, it’s just the way it happened. To play Russia in the semi-finals, that was almost a gold medal experience just there — just seeing how we’d grown in two years. And then getting the opportunity to really beat Australia in a big way…. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“So for me there’s tremendous satisfaction, for my own self, for my own self worth and belief in myself. It’s another reinforcement that I’m on the right track.”
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.
Since being drafted by the Charlotte Sting in 1998, Pollyanna Johns had never started in the WNBA, averaging a slim 7 minutes a game. So last season, when a trade from Cleveland (via Phoenix) sent her to Miami, the 6’3″ center understood her role: back up all-star Elena Baranova and 2001 first-round draft pick Ruth Riley. “I didn’t expect much playing time,” Johns says with a grin.
But when Baranova stayed home to play for Russian National team and Riley injured her hand in preseason, Johns was unexpectedly thrust into the starting line-up. To the surprise of many, she thrived. Playing over 25 minutes a game, she shot over 52%, averaging 7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
“Going from not playing at all to actually starting,” admits Johns, “was a lot to handle. I had some great teammates helping me just to be calm – to just relax and play.” Johns also credits Coach Ron Rothstein for his support. “He’s a teacher. It was a new situation for me, and he took the time to encourage and motivate me.”
During her four-year, three-team journey, Johns always believed her time would come. “Everybody fits someone’s team,” says Johns. “It takes patience and persistence.” Johns knew there were plenty of experienced veterans in front of her who’d paid their dues and deserved to play. “You have to get bounced around, and eventually you find your comfort spot,” explains Johns. “Hopefully it’s here in Miami for me.”
Johns’ voice is tinged with regret when she reflects back on the season. Nagged by the injury bug all season, the Sol struggled to integrate new talent with the old. “On paper we’re very good,” says Johns. “We ran out of time. I’m disappointed we fell short one game [of the playoffs],” But, she adds, “that’s just a little taste. I have high hopes for next season. Now we know what to expect — what to aim for. It’s going to be interesting next year, when everyone’s healthy.”
To that end, Johns is busy in Miami rehabbing a recently scope knee and making appearances in the community. “Talking to kids, making them aware of the Sol,” says Johns, “supporting whatever’s going on in their lives. That’s what it’s all about. They’re the ones that come to watch and support us. If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be any Sol.”
During their careers at the University of Connecticut, Asjha Jones and her fellow classmates Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Tamika Williams were all but inseparable. Even in last year’s WNBA draft, their four names were called within the top six slots, with Jones going to the Washington Mystics as the fourth pick. But this past off-season, while her former classmates stayed stateside, Jones chose to test the waters of basketball in Samara, Russia.
“The first month was really tough,” admitted Jones, “[being] out of the country for so long, away from my family and friends.” Though she’d spoken with veterans like Mystics teammate Vicky Bullett about what she might encounter abroad, “it was my first time,” Jones said, “and nothing can prepare you for your first time.” Fortunately, fellow WNBAers Tammy Sutton-Brown of the Sting and the Sparks’ Mwadi Mabika were teammates and, she added with a laugh, “lifesavers.”
Playing in Russia gave Jones a chance to face a high level of competition every game – something she didn’t always encounter during her college career. “Every team was loaded with talent,” said Jones. “Night after night, you’d had no idea what would happen.” While she averaged close to 20 minutes a game, similar to her WNBA rookie year, Jones’ field goal percentage improved significantly from 33% to 46%, something she hopes to carry into her second WNBA season. “Scoring in the lane is a lot more difficult,” observed Jones of the pro game. “You have to face up more. I’m not going to be able to just back people down.”
On the defensive end, Jones knows that with Bullett’s retirement, the Mystics find themselves undersized. “I’m considered one of the more physical defenders,” said the 6’2″ forward. “I think [Coach Stanley] is going to look to me to protect the lane a lot more than I did last year.”
One thing Jones knows she must improve on is her relationship with the referees. “Last year I would get in foul trouble just about every game,” recalled Jones. “As a rookie you’re not going to get away with everything,” she said with a grin. “They caught me on a lot of little things. This year I hopefully won’t make the same mistakes.”