Hope Springs Eternal for New Coaches
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This spring, there is plenty of freshness in WNBA training camps, as five new coaches are wiping the slates clean and bringing their own perspectives to new squads.
With Michael Cooper returning to the helm in Los Angeles, Jenny Boucek taking over with the Western Conference champion Monarchs, Karleen Thompson getting a shot in Houston and Don Zierden and Bo Overton hoping to bring about changes of fortune, respectively, in Minnesota and Chicago, hope springs eternal in many cities around the league.
The positivity is particularly prevalent in the West, where four of the five
new coaches find themselves. Sacramento, Los Angeles and Houston each made the
playoffs last season, so it's not like these new coaches are starting from scratch.
"I think everyone is excited for the new season," says Monarchs guard Kara Lawson. "When you come as close as we did a year ago, you're eager to get back with your teammates and make another long run.
"Although we do have a new coach," Lawson continues, "we maintained our three assistant coaches and our core group of players, so there is a great deal of familiarity. When you add an energetic, passionate person like Jenny (Boucek) to that mix, it should add to our already great personnel package."
Michael Cooper won't be starting from scratch, either. After a long and storied career as a player with the Lakers, he originally joined the Sparks as an assistant coach in 1999 and was named head coach in November of that year. In his first year as head coach, he earned the 2000 WNBA Coach of the Year Award after leading the Sparks to a 28-4 mark, their best record in franchise history. In four-plus seasons with the team, Cooper guided the Sparks to a 116-31 (.789) regular season record and four playoff appearances. His teams captured back-to-back WNBA Championships in 2001 and '02 and made the finals three consecutive years.
After leaving the WNBA, Cooper worked as an assistant and head coach in the NBA as well as in the NBA Development League. He coached the Albuquerque Thunderbirds to the 2006 D-League title. He returns to the bench in Los Angeles after Joe "Jellybean" Bryant decided to stay with his Tokyo Apache squad in the Japanese League.
And though Cooper's Sparks will be without superstar Lisa Leslie in 2007, they did pick up veteran post player Taj McWilliams-Franklin over the winter. Cooper is energized by the new opportunity.
"I am thrilled to be returning home and to have the opportunity to coach a team that provides me with so many fond memories," says Cooper, a former Lakers great as a player. "The franchise is starting a new chapter and we want to bring another championship banner to STAPLES Center."
A former assistant for Cooper in L.A., Karleen Thompson is finally getting a shot at a head coaching position after being an assistant for two years under Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor in Houston.
"I am truly excited to have this opportunity to lead the Houston Comets," she says. "I am following behind a legend and I want to follow in his footsteps. In the time I have worked with the Comets, I have been like a sponge learning everything there is to learn. I am ready."
Even Bo Overton, who takes over for Dave Cowens in Chicago after the team's 5-29 freshman campaign in 2006, is confident entering the franchise's second year in the league.
"I think there's a lot of excitement around here," says the former UMKC head coach and Oklahoma assistant. "If you talk to people in the organization who went through it the first year, the coaches, the fans here in town… they're excited and they know how great (a successful team) can be. And they did all of the hard work last year. Now I'm just kind of plugging in pieces."
Helping to continue plugging in the pieces for Sacramento is former coach John Whisenant, who resigned as coach following the 2006 season, but stayed on as the Monarchs general manager. He will continue to provide guidance for Boucek, who at the age of 33 has been an assistant in Washington, Miami and Seattle, but is entering her first ever head coaching role.
"We have an unbelievable relationship," says Boucek of Whisenant. "We had already gotten to know each other before I got the job, but we have great communication and a mutual respect for each other. We are very like-minded and like-hearted and share a similar belief in how the game should be played. I think that is why it has been such an exciting fit and has been fun for us to put our heads together to keep the Monarchs evolving."
In Minnesota, Zierden will be getting some help of his own in the form of ABL and WNBA legend Teresa Edwards, who he hired as an assistant coach in December. Zierden took the reigns from Carolyn Jenkins, who was handed the interim job after Suzie McConnell-Serio resigned in the middle of the 2006 sason. Jenkins has stayed on as an assistant and will be joined by veteran NBA assistant Ed Prohofsky.
"As soon as I talked to (Edwards), the chemistry hit," Zierden said in an interview with the team's Web site. "She brings the credibility of being a legend, one of the best players to ever play this game. We owe a lot of our success in this league to her.
"Besides her knowledge of being a player, I think her excitement to teach and coach is there. When you have so many young players (on the team), teaching and player development become very important. Ed's been a teacher at the high school level. Teresa likes to work individually with players. When I talked to CJ, she said teaching is the number one thing we have to do. When you put a staff together like that, you feel very confident.
"If I'm a player coming to play for the Minnesota Lynx, I know that I'm going to get taught the game of basketball, and we're going to try to play in a successful way."
The mood in Minnesota seems to be reflective of that change in perspective.
"I think most of us are looking forward to a new start," says Lynx forward Kristen Mann. "We've had some disappointing seasons, so with the new coaching staff and with their experience and knowledge we are excited to have a fresh start.
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So what specifically does a new coach bring to a team? While owners and general managers speak often of "fresh starts" and "new beginnings," can a new regime bring about tangible changes on the court?
"I think we will have a few new wrinkles," says Lawson, "particulary on the offensive end. We've been real vanilla on that end the past couple of years, so I'm expecting her to add a little spice to that. But, we won't forget that what makes us unique is our commitment as a team to the defensive end."
Having also played for the Cleveland Rockers during the WNBA's inaugural season in 1997, Boucek brings a unique perspective to her new role.
"I think (that) will help a little," says Lawson. "She has a good understanding of the league and its players. She's pretty hands-on with her instructions and explanations. She'll get out there and show you what she wants if it's not clear to you. I like that about her."
Mann expected a different sort of change with Coach Zierden in Minnesota… one she was less excited about.
"I was nervous at first," she said, "because (the coaching staff) hadn't told us anything about what to expect in training camp except to 'come ready to run.' … That's just no fun. But now, I think I've made peace with it. It's mind over matter and I just have to work through it.
"Plus," she added with a laugh, "you pass out before you die, right?"
The stars in Houston, however, don't expect a major transformation under Coach Thompson, even though it's been 10 years since the Comets have had a new person in charge.
"I don't think my role will change," says veteran superstar Sheryl Swoopes. "If anything, I will have more responsibility as … a leader off the floor. The good thing is that Karleen knows us, and as an assistant coach we have been very comfortable with her style. It's a challenge but I'm very excited about it and looking forward to the season."
Frontcourt mate Tina Thompson agrees: "I just go in and do whatever I have to do to make our team better, and everything else falls into place."
While training camp is the first step for each of these new coaches in dealing with their teams on the court, the true test will come in the regular season. And given that a hope for improvement is typically the reason coaching changes are made in the first place, the biggest concern is how these new coaches will fare.
Most consider Sacramento, Los Angeles and Houston to be solid contenders for the playoffs in 2007, despite the front office turnover. But in Minnesota and Chicago, improvement may be measured on a different scale.
"How many games will we win? I don't know. But we'll have a deeper, better team. And we had some people who were banged up last year, who will now be healthy and ready to go, so there's a lot of excitement."
But can Overton and Zierden, among others, create enough improvement to earn a postseason berth? Are the playoffs even part of the conversation for these rebuilding teams?
"I'm not going to say they're not," admits Overton sheepishly. "But I also know that we're going to do this the right way. It's not a one-month fix. We're going to do it the right way with the right type of people and just keep getting better… practice by practice, month by month and year by year."
That seems like a perfectly sensible approach for each of the new head coaches this spring as they inch closer and closer to a fresh start in the 2007 season.