When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted
By Matt Wurst, WNBA.com
“I think it is easier to repeat than to win the first one,” Detroit Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer said. “The experience of winning makes the mental part easier. Sustaining championship level for three or four years becomes more difficult, but to repeat, I think, is easy.”
Easy? Well, the Shock do have history on their side. Laimbeer’s Detroit Pistons won back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. The Houston Comets, the first team to win a WNBA Championship back in 1997, ended up winning four titles in a row. Then, the Los Angeles Sparks won consecutive titles in 2001 and 2002.
“We’re all going to have to step it up this year,” Ford, the 2003 WNBA Rookie of the Year, said. “The teams are getting stronger and the players around the league are better. Both of those factors will make things tough, so we all need to continue to work on our game and take it to the next level.”
All Roads Go Through the Motor City
The competition definitely has gotten stronger. With the contraction of the Cleveland Rockers as well as the strength of the incoming rookie class, the packs of hunters have only gotten stronger. The biggest competition within the Eastern Conference could come from the Charlotte Sting, who went 4-0 against the Shock last season.
Every team traveling to the Motor City this season will challenge themselves to beat the best, will hear the motivational pep talks from the coaches and will, no doubt, bring their best games right at the defending champions. That means a hungry opponent every night for Detroit.
“The second is tough because everyone is gunning for you,” Hall-of-Famer Ann Meyers said. “You have to play your best each game because you have a target on your back and everyone is going to come out playing you hard. When you talk about playing Houston, Los Angeles or Detroit, teams get up for those games and there is extra motivation there.”
But unlike Houston and Los Angeles, veteran teams made up of Olympic gold medalists and experienced players on every level, the Detroit Shock players have no real championship defense experience. At least Riley and Cash both won NCAA titles, so they do know a little something about what it means to be a marked team.
“Ruth, Cheryl, and I come from college programs where we were used to having the targets on our backs, but I think our work ethic has to start from day one and we have to play like champions,” Cash said. “Last year, we were out to prove something. We saw how difficult it was for L.A. to defend their title. This year, we are playing to keep what’s ours. That’s definitely going to be a mental adjustment.”
As they proved last year, going 25-9 and winning big playoff games on the road, the Shock are strong enough to adjust. Their extraordinary team chemistry, both on and off the court, gives them the ability to play well in all game situations, whether up or down, early or late, and to find different ways to win games.
“The experience of winning definitely helps your team develop a mental toughness,” Riley said. Winning close games as a group in the playoffs brings a team together, and we are going to have the same group together this season.”
Bad Boy Does Good
Then there is the glue that holds the group together. Laimbeer is the confident coach who steered the Shock to the title in his first season coaching any team of any gender at any level (except his daughter's AAU team). And with a year spent getting to know his team and the sideline playoff experience under his belt, Laimbeer could be an even better coach this season.
Understanding personalities is just part of what Laimbeer does well. He fostered a winning, no-nonsense attitude from Day One and instilled confidence in his team.
“I think we have the same amount of confidence as we did when we started last year,” Cash said. “It starts from our coach, who said from day one that we were going to go out and win the east. And we did that. But no team is ever defined by winning one championship, so we have to go out and win another one.”
But winning even one championship bolsters that confidence and motivates a team to seek the validation that comes with another championship.
“I have a swagger in my walk now,” Ford said jokingly.
The challenge for Laimbeer and his coaching staff now is to find new ways to motivate his players, especially with the improvement of every other team but his through the Dispersal Draft and with every other WNBA team using the Shock’s remarkable turnaround as a source of motivation and hope for a championship of their own.
“When you bring in the right players, those one or two missing players from an already-solid team, you start to click and things will change,” Phoenix Mercury All-Star center Adrian Williams said. “We have brought in new, big-time players and are thinking about what the Detroit Shock did, going from last place to the championship.”
The Rich Get Richer
But in addition to the past and the present, the Shock also have the future on their side. In addition to signing free agent Merlakia Jones, the Shock drafted both Chandi Jones and Iciss Tillis in the first round. Jones is a scorer, able to knock down the outside shot as well as create her own shot by slashing to the basket. Tillis was an All-American at Duke as a junior, and at 6-5, is a finesse player in the post. She can rebound, score and block shots. She even led the Shock in scoring in the last preseason game against the Chinese National Team. For her part, Merlakia Jones is one of the few remaining original WNBA players and has averaged more than 10 ppg over her career. With the loss of top reserve Kedra Holland-Corn to the Houston Comets, all will see considerable playing time.
That is, until the pressures of game situations and the Championship defense becomes real and Laimbeer shortens his bench again in crunch time.
“With your second championship, you have tasted it and are still hungry,” Meyers said. “The first is very difficult, but once you get it, coaches know how to motivate the players and remind them what they went through the year before and the players are hungry for that feeling of exhilaration. Detroit has all of the pieces in place to repeat.”