PhoenixMercury.com 2007 Playoffs Blog
In between providing fans with the most exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage from the team bus to the locker room, PhoenixMercury.com's web and multimedia manager Steven J. Koek will be providing insights and tales from the road, and home, as the Mighty Mercury drive towards the franchise's first-ever WNBA Championship.
Talkin' 'Bout My Girls
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Sept. 17, 2007
DETROIT -- I knew it.
I didn’t want to say it out loud before the game and I know how it sounds after the fact, but I just knew it.
I knew the Mercury were coming home with the 2007 WNBA Championship by the way they conducted themselves as a team in that players-only meeting I weaseled myself into on Saturday afternoon (see below).
They had a loose confidence about them that gave off an aura of a championship team. They didn’t have the trophy yet but they were already champions.
They weren’t figuring out how to win, they were reiterating how they were going to win. They knew they were the better team and were confident the better team would win.
As Game 5 began and then progressed with the Mercury clearly in control, I never doubted the outcome, never doubted there would be a champagne-drenched celebration, never doubted Phoenix would be raising a WNBA Championship banner for the first time.
And as exhausting as this three-week playoff run was at times, I never doubted I would remember and cherish the experience forever.
I came into this playoff run as an employee doing my job. Granted, I’m an employee who loves my job. I even volunteered to put off my vacation, with the stipulation that I would be the web site representative to travel with the team on every trip throughout the post-season.
Admittedly, some my excitement had to with the possibility of visiting different cities, and enjoying an expense account and room service, but I also knew I wanted to be the one who documented everything if indeed they did go on to win the title. “If they win it all, we’re going to want to have a record of the early rounds as much as the Finals,” was how I approached it all along.
From the start I genuinely wanted the team to win and was looking forward to covering them with behind-the-scenes video and photos, but I never imagined I could become so attached to them and feel so invested in their success.
They never seemed put off by my presence at their every turn. From the court to the locker room, from the hotel to the bus, from the airport to the airplane, I stuck my camera in their faces to try to capture as much of their journey as I could.
All I ever got back were smiles, waves, hearty thumbs up, the occassional raspberry and always the right thing to say. They were professional, courteous, respectful and a blast to be around. There was a college-like playing-for-the-love-of-the-game atmosphere, spearheaded by Coach Westhead and led by the irrepressible, intense and all together nutty Diana “Perpetual Motion” Taurasi.
The fact is they got to me. I have no problem admitting that. I found myself rooting for them every bit as hard as any other team I've been behind. Every call against them seemed unjust and every loss gnawed at me as if I called the wrong play or missed a shot to win it at the buzzer.
Now that this run is over, I may not hold any increased interest in women’s basketball in general or the WNBA in particular as a result of my experience the past few weeks and the Mercury might not win another title, or they might win the next six or seven in a row.
But no matter what the future holds for the team or my involvement with them, I will remember the 2007 Phoenix Mercury with great fondness.
They will always be “my girls.”
Mercury Together, Loose and Confident
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Sept. 15, 2007
DETROIT -- I discovered today that my still camera will get me into places my video camera will not. Of course, the day before the final game of the season is not the most opportunistic time to find that out.
Nonetheless, because I only brought my still camera to Saturday’s practice I was able to weasel my way into the Mercury’s team-only video-watching and strategy session. The closed-door meeting was not even attended by the training staff, but perhaprs that might be because they held it in the ultra tiny coach’s locker room area instead of the not-much-larger players locker room.
(Steven J. Koek/PhoenixMercury.com)
In any case, my camera and I were allowed to enter that inner sanctum to get some shots of the meeting without revealing the details of their plan to bring the WNBA Championship trophy to the Valley with them when they return home on Monday. I had asked before the playoffs started if I could go into meetings like that with the video camera, but Westhead reluctantly denied the request. But with just the still camera (and more importantly, without a microphone), I basically stood in the corner of the hallway and peeked my head out into the room every once in a while to snap a few shots of them listening intently or laughing hysterically.
Most of the 50-minute meeting, however, I just stood there and listened. I thought about leaving after I clearly had enough pictures to satisfy the practice photo gallery, but the photographer in me wanted to a shot of the final huddle, which they most certainly would do to end the gathering before heading back to the bus. The writer, employee and basketball fan in me wanted to hear every word of what a team would discuss a little more than 24 hours before a game of this magnitude.
Although at one point Coach pointed to me at and joked that whatever they were saying didn’t matter because “it would be all over the Internet in an hour,” anything that would be of use to the Shock basketball-wise went right over my head. At this point, I tend to doubt there are any secrets one team has over another anyway.
What was most impressive was how they all treated each other. There were free-flowing discussions, even debates, about how they wanted to act and react in various circumstances during Sunday’s game, with both coaches and players alike participating in the decision-making process of how they would proceed.
Westhead and Kelly “Coach Schumacher” went over one specific defensive tactic for several minutes before coming to a joint conclusion on how best to react to a specific potential offensive maneuver.
There were recaps of discussions and clarifications on specifics of various plays. There was stopping and rewinding of game action. For the most part the talk and planning seemed to be focusing on the most minor of points, the major attack being the same thing they have done the entire regular and post-season. It was as if they were brushing up for a final exam after spending the semester at the top of the class.
Then Westhead took the stage. He told a number of on and off the court anecdotes from other teams he had coached. The players were engaged, amused and enter tained. They genuinely seem to love this man and he had them all right where he wanted them – together, loose and confident.
In Game 4, the pressure was all on the Mercury. That is not the easiest way to play in the free-flowing system Westhead has implented. The shots were not falling, continuing the trend from Game 3's loss. But Cappie Pondexter was able to take the team on her able shoulders and secure the victory, giving the team a chance at a title.
A good deal of the pressure has now shifted to the defending-champion Shock. But in a winner-take-all situation, no team really has that edge.
Superstitions: Mrs. Westhead's Pass and Stubble
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Sept. 8, 2007
DETROIT -- It seems the older I get, the less I believe in superstitions. But when covering a team vying for a championship, the adage “it can’t hurt” has often come to mind.
While I am still not willing to paint my fingernails black, I do continue to wear black socks and shoes to games and, unlike Coach Westhead, my shoes actually match.
(Steven J. Koek/PhoenixMercury.com)
Before Game 1 of the Conference Finals in San Antonio, communications manager Vince Kozar was frantically trying to obtain my credential which allows me access to the locker room and bench area during the game. He was never able to track down my pass, but somehow wound up with the one designated for Cassie Westhead, who had not made the trip to Texas.
I was not expected to pass for Coach Westhead’s wife of more than three decades, but I was nonetheless given the pass, just to have one. So I put it in the plastic holder behind my Mercury season pass, where it stayed for the win in San Antonio and series-clincher at US Airways a couple of days later.
Upon our arrival at The Palace in Auburn Hills for Game 1 of the Finals, Vince was once again on the prowl for my credential. This time he was able to get his hands on one with my photo and name on it, as well as a plastic holder with a WNBA Finals lanyard.
Into my backpack went the season pass I was wearing, which of course also held Cassie’s San Antonio credential. The result, if one who doesn’t believe in superstitions can say “result,” was the Mercury’s first loss of the playoffs.
Needless to say, Cassie’s pass returned to its rightful place behind the Finals pass for Game 2 and the Mercury returned to their rightful place in the win column.
Throughout this frantic run for the title, I have never found the need or desire to shave the morning of a game. There was no real reason for this; it certainly did not start out as any kind of tradition or superstition. I was usually just tired or lazy, or with these crazy hours we keep in the playoffs, had shaved recently enough to let it pass.
Until, that is, it came to getting ready for Game 1 here in Detroit on Wednesday evening. I had not shaved in a couple of days, and I wanted to look my best knowing I would be seeing dignitaries such as Mercury GM Ann Meyers Drysdale and WNBA President Donna Orender. So, like the non-superstitious fool that I am, I shaved.
If I were a superstitious person, I would say that Cassie Westhead’s pass had more of an impact on Saturday afternoon’s win than did my stubbled face, but I’m taking no chances. I haven’t touched my razor since before Game 1 and I have no plans on doing so until, hopefully, later this week.
So if you happen to make it down to US Airways Center for either Game 3 or 4 (and at this point, don’t you think you should?), and you see a scruffy-looking guy with Cassie Westhead’s pass around his neck and matching black shoes and socks, do not be alarmed. It’s only me.
"Miller Time" and Getting the Juice Back
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Sept. 6, 2007
DETROIT -- Following Wednesday night’s Game 1 defeat, Thursday’s Mercury practice was spirited, positive and actually sprinkled with a bit of celebration, as Kelly “Miller Time” marked her 29th birthday.
Throughout this playoff run, there have been glimpses of an often-withdrawn Miller enjoying the post-season as much as her boisterous and exponentially louder teammates. Smiles, pats on the back and even an attempt at joining the post-game team dance after clinching the Conference Finals on Saturday are just a few examples of Miller’s rare displays of emotion.
All of that paled in comparison to her reaction to the team’s recognition of her birthday. It was not a lavish party or big celebration, just a simple singing of Happy Birthday at center court at The Palace after practice and a mobbing by her teammates, beginning with a Diana Taurasi chokehold. Coach Westhead got in the act, as well, giving his playmaker a birthday hug.
And while Miller seemed genuinely touched by the attention, it occurred to me to also be just what the team needed. Something to celebrate, yes, but also something to rally around, to remind them of the special bond and unique chemistry that has gotten them this far with a style and personality all their own.
Moments later, as the team huddled up for one last “1,2,3, Mercury!” chant, someone in the middle of the pile screamed, “Let’s get the juice back!”
Show of Unity Tough as Nails
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Aug. 28, 2007
Since I first started working on the Mercury’s web site five seasons ago, I’ve had some experiences new to me in my career in covering and working in sports. For example, until PhoenixMercury.com I had never asked an athlete how much makeup they wear or what they do with their hair for games, as I did during the site's "It's a Girl Thing" campaign a few summers ago.
Plus, the color of the polish threw me a bit, as well, I must admit. Taylor hardly seems like the “Goth” type.
This was, of course, before I found out the entire team was painting their finger- and toenails black for the playoff games in a sign of unity. This makes much more sense to me than my original assumption which questioned their vanity as well as their good taste.
Expect more of the same in the Western Conference Finals after the black-nailed Mercury bounced the Storm in two-game sweep of the opening round.
A show of solidarity among teammates is nothing new, as evidenced most recently by the now-eliminated Sacramento Monarchs and their (temporary) “M” tattoos.
From growing beards to shaving heads, from displays of injured players’ numbers to memorializing patches on warm ups and uniforms, teams have for years been bonding with outward signs to show the unity of the inner circle.
I remember the freakish look of a completely shaven Rik Smits of the Pacers several years ago, as well as Leandro Barbosa’s insistence, evidence to the contrary, that he had joined in on the no-shaving policy the Suns started during a regular season winning streak last year.
In fact, the Mercury’s group nail polish is rooted in two previous forms of basketball team togetherness. When Phoenix center Tangela Smith was making a run at a WBNA title in Sacramento a few years ago, she recalled Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls all wearing black shoes during one of their six NBA Championship drives.
Smith implemented a black socks rule for the Monarchs, which has translated into the Mercury’s current form of unity. The team’s early postseason success should only serve to further entrench the nail-polishing trend.
While it is not something I am prepared to partake in myself (although I do find myself wearing black shoes and socks to most games), I applaud their ingenuity, if not their fashion sense, and encourage any fans so inclined to join in on the growing tradition.
Excitement Level Rising For Mercury
Posted by Steven J. Koek: Aug. 25, 2007
I know what you are going to say. I’ve heard it all before, sometimes even out of my own mouth. The WNBA does not hold the same appeal as their male counterparts – it’s just not as exciting.
You and I were both wrong.
The Mercury play a different brand of basketball, there is no denying that. The game is not peppered with the kind of gravity-defying moves and raw power that the NBA supplies on a nightly basis. There is not the name or face recognition that comes with a saturation of marketing campaigns and high-profile media coverage.
But, there is excitement and there is great appeal. The Mercury had been shut out of postseason play for the past seven seasons. But they are now on the verge of advancing to the second round for the first time since the went to the WNBA Finals in 1998 after beating the Storm in Seattle 101-84 on Friday night to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three opening round series.
While killing time in the Seattle airport waiting for our return flight to Phoenix this morning, I was chatting with Mercury athletic trainer Tamara Poole, a veteran in the field of professional sports team training, who summed up the demeanor and attitude of the team in five words.
“It all starts with Coach.”
Head Coach Paul Westhead and I have a couple of common denominators which connect us in odd ways. I was a teenager in Chicago at the time he was the Bulls’ head coach. His Reggie Theus-led teams in the early ‘80s made me an NBA fan for life and that was a few years before some guy named Jordan came along to bring the rest of the world on board (“If Michael came when I was there, I might still be there," Westhead quipped.)
Several years later, I was sitting baseline in the photographers’ row at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum when Cotton Fitzsimmons’ Suns scored 107 points in the first half against Westhead’s Nuggets and finished with a record-tying 173 points.
In my experiences watching Westhead both as a fan and from the “inside,” he had come across as a stern, serious, if not downright surly, man. Be it age, experience or the grandkids (or maybe he was never really like that, he just seemed like that), Coach has a lighter aura around him these days.
He can still be stern and demanding with his players, but they respect and love him as a coach, and as a person. They want to play hard for him and give him their best.
I realize fans generally do not support a team because of its coach, but Westhead has set the table and served up a team that you can really get behind. The run-and-gun style he is famous for has worked wonders with the Mercury after many said the faster-paced game could not work in the WNBA. It is a style that has not only been successful, but it is, dare I say, very exciting to watch.
They run, they shoot and they rack up points like no team in the WNBA ever has, and they have fun while doing it. Their fast breaks look like choreographed Globetrotter routines at times and while their rebounding has been a sore spot, they are adept at cutting off the passing lanes and creating fast break opportunities in other ways.
Sound like another highly successful basketball team from the Valley?
It is often the case that when you begin to root for a particular team, they become less appealing when you get past the skills as players and start to get to know them as personalities.
This current Mercury team, also much like our current Suns team, is one where the appeal is only greater when you begin to get to know the players as people.
All-Star guard Diana Taurasi should be called “Perpetual Motion.” She is never still, whether it’s waiting on defense for her opponent’s offense to set up or sitting on the plane watching a movie with reserve guard Kelly Mazzante. She’s always moving, jumping, tapping her leg or biting on her iPod cord.
The three-time NCAA Champion with Connecticut is also an extremely hard worker and her desire to win is only slightly greater than her likeability factor. She always stops for autographs and looks into the eyes of the fans who want to meet her or take a photo.
She leaves you with the impression that she not only understands the importance of reaching out to her fans, but actually embraces it and enjoys the interaction.
All-Star forward Penny Taylor is a friendly and funny mate with an intoxicating Australian accent. Just don’t make her mad. Once on the court, Taylor is as physical a player as there is. She gets knocked around every game and does her fair share of bruising, as well, but always shrugs it off as part of the job, which for her it is. It is simply not a Mercury game until Taylor is on the bench at some point grimacing in pain.
The third in the trio of Mercury representatives in this year’s All-Star festivities is second-year guard Cappie Pondexter. A major player in the team’s Game 1 win, Pondexter is as focused and determined a player as I’ve seen. Her drives to the hoop are lightning-quick and her pre- and post-game demeanor tell the story of someone driven to win a championship.
And while the three All-Stars garner the most attention and credit for the team’s success thus far, there is a general consensus among the organization that this team would be nowhere near what it is without playmaker Kelly Miller and center Tangela Smith, both of whom exude a quieter confidence about them than the more vocal leaders like Taurasi and Pondexter.
The fact of the matter is that this is an exciting and likable team with a legitimate chance at a WNBA.title, if not in the next couple of weeks, then in the next couple of years.
So here is my challenge to you, sports fans from the Valley and elsewhere. Give this team one chance. If you are around the downtown Phoenix area on Sunday afternoon, buy a ticket and see if they can get the two-game sweep of the Storm and move on. If you cannot make it to watch it live, tune in to ESPN2 and watch on TV. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.
If you give them that one legitimate look and it is still not the game for you, you’ve lost nothing but a couple of hours watching a basketball game. If it is for you, you can jump on board now and enjoy the rest of the ride.