COMETS COACH REMAINS PERFECT IN WNBA
By Lina Balciunas
Wearing the suit instead of the uniform, Cynthia Cooper understands more and more each day. She understands that as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, she can only influence the game so much and ultimately it is the players who determine victory or defeat. Her stature, her will, her desire can't go beyond the sidelines. It is only now that she beginning to understand the accomplishments of her former team and the tremendous success of her former coach, Van Chancellor.
Despite the short history of the WNBA, Chancellor already ranks among the most successful coaches in any professional sport. In the four years of the league's existence, Chancellor has guided the Houston Comets to four WNBA championships. And Monday, he will take the helm of his third All-Star team in as many years as the game has been played.
The only "blemish" on Chancellor's record seems to be in the Coach of the Year category, which he won the first three years before they gave it to the Sparks' Michael Cooper last season. It was no big deal for Chancellor, whose Comets ripped through the Sparks in the Western Conference Finals with a two-game sweep.
"He's a players' coach," Cooper said. "He kind of allows you to showcase your talents and doesn't bog you down with a lot of different offenses. He pretty much lets you have your freedom within his offense."
"Being a college coach and entering the WNBA, sometimes coaches are set in their systems and their ways and how they coach the game," Thompson said. "I think that when you then move on to professional basketball you definitely have to be a lot more open to the personalities and characteristics of your team.
"If you focus on their individual abilities and bring it all together to make the team itself, I think that you can get positive things out of it. I think that's something that Coach Chancellor has done or tried to do -- to not necessarily make his players fit into his system, but he created a system from his players."
Chancellor came to the WNBA in 1997 after 19 years as head coach at Mississippi, where he led the Lady Rebels to 14 NCAA Tournament appearances. He left as the 16th all-time winningest women's college basketball coach. It was a leap of faith to jump from the security of such a successful program to the uncertainty of a start-up league, but one for which Chancellor didn't even bother closing his eyes.
"I'm the kind of guy who likes new challenges and this was a tremendous challenge," Chancellor said. "But I believed in it from day one. I could not believe that the commissioner of the NBA and 29 powerful owners were going to allow anything to fail that they put their stamp on. I came in with a tremendous amount of excitement and never looked back. I never dreamed we'd do anything but succeed."
By "we," Chancellor is referring to the WNBA, not necessarily the Comets. He was as surprised as anyone at the team's success in the inaugural season, especially since Swoopes -- Houston's marquee player -- couldn't play because of her pregnancy.
"I was just trying to survive as a coach," Chancellor remembered. "Getting us to become the best team we could be. We didn't start out trying to -- although we wanted to -- win a championship; we were just trying to get in the playoffs. Then all of a sudden we woke up in August and we were right there."
Chancellor certainly wasn't prepared for the emergence of Cooper as the WNBA's most dominant player. She won league MVP honors the first two seasons and is the only championship MVP the WNBA has known. Of course, she was a successful player before the Comets, with two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal, but she knows Chancellor helped make her WNBA reputation as much as she's helped make his.
"More than anything, I had the confidence that he believed in my talents and he believed in me," Cooper said. "That allowed me to perform better."
After the Comets defended their title in 1998, they were faced with a challenge bigger than any opponent on the court. Kim Perrot, their starting point guard, was diagnosed with lung cancer in January of 1999 and died on Aug. 19, just as the team was preparing for playoffs. It was a situation that rocked the entire Houston franchise and Chancellor found himself outside the X's and O's having to be a steadying presence for his emotionally-shaken Comets.
But true to his nature, Chancellor doesn't talk about his role, only the way his team responded.
"To go back-to-back is really difficult and to three-peat I thought was unbelievable," Chancellor said. "And to go through (Perrot's illness), our team showed so much character. To this day, we still miss Kim Perrot -- her wonderful personality, leadership, everything.
"What we had to do then was always remember what a wonderful person she was. One of the good things that it did was we got to realize at that time that basketball is not the ultimate -- to have a friend and to enjoy life was also an important lesson. It was special that we won the championship in memory of a wonderful person."
The Comets then went on to win their fourth straight championship in 2000 amid what could have been the distraction of Cooper's impending retirement. The adjustment was originally lessened by the fact that Houston would still have two of its "Big Three" in All-Star MVP Thompson and league MVP Swoopes.
But in a portent of things to come, Chancellor had his playbook stolen -- along with his rental car -- when he attended the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio to see Mississippi's men play. Turns out it didn't matter. The strategy, geared towards Swoopes, changed with a snap of her ACL in April. Her 2001 season ended before it began, forcing Chancellor back to the drawing board.
Instead of rebuilding, the Comets have seen continued success. Thompson easily stepped into a starring role and the team has a chemistry that Thompson believes is unmatched by the previous Houston squads with more star power. Again, Chancellor refuses to take credit.
"We came together really well because we have great leadership in Tina Thompson, Janeth Arcain, Coquese Washington and Tammy Jackson," he said. "This has been a terrific adjustment. We have got a really young team and at times we have struggled because we've got to learn what we're doing. We're in a learning process every day."
But arguably it's Chancellor's system that helps new stars step up in place of the injured or departed.
"I think it's the fact that we have opportunity to grow as individuals within our team and within his system," Thompson said. "I've learned a lot in that I've continued to grow in my versatility and I've had the opportunity to do a lot of things that I probably would not have done on another team that had an extreme structure. So for that, I think that my growth process in the WNBA has been pretty rapid."
Of course, nothing lasts forever. One of these days, the Comets will be forced to relinquish their title and Chancellor will no longer retain his perfect streak. He couldn't be less concerned.
"My feeling is I've got to take it one day at a time," Chancellor said. "I don't worry about that stuff. When it passes, it will pass. Fame is an awfully fleeting thing. I just want to enjoy coaching my team."
In Orlando on Monday, Chancellor will enjoy coaching his third All-Star team before returning to the Comets' pursuit of an unprecedented fifth championship. It's just one more shining moment for a man who has spent his entire coaching career basking in the sun.