12 Hours with Andrea Riley

By Ben York, PhoenixMercury.com

Phoenix, AZ – February 20, 2012 – “Hey, Amber,” I typed in a text message to Phoenix Mercury president, Amber Cox. “I’m in the lobby.”

“On the way!” she responded.

Amber and I were going to walk down to the practice court to see the Mercury’s new point guard, Andrea Riley, working out with head coach Corey Gaines. In fact, I was to spend the majority of the day with Riley getting to know her on and off the court and report back to the X-Factor.

Riley had arrived in Phoenix just a couple hours prior for a week of appearances, community events, and workouts. As if on cue, the city of Phoenix couldn’t have welcomed Riley any better. The weather for the entire week? Upper 60’s to low 70’s – a far cry from the chilly temperatures she’s used to in Oklahoma.

Amber and I headed down through the hallways of US Airways Center towards the practice court, discussing the day’s agenda along the way. Riley was performing some light stretching near center court.

“Andrea, this is Ben,” Cox said. “He covers the Mercury for our website and he’s going to be hanging out with us today.”

At that moment, I could only imagine what Riley must have been thinking. I assume having a writer follow you around isn’t exactly the ideal way that any player would want to spend a Monday (or any day, for that matter). As always, the last thing I’d want to do is be an annoyance to the players.

But Riley’s response put all of my worries to rest.

“Hey!” Riley said with a big, genuine smile. “Nice to meet you, Ben. Man, I’m so excited to be here!”

After that, I knew it was going to be a good day.

***

Part of what makes Corey Gaines such an effective coach is the way he inspires confidence in his players – and that goes a long way towards sustainable success.

When Gaines arrived at the practice court, before any shots were put up, he made sure to discuss with Riley what she should be thinking and striving for – not just in today’s workout, but as a member of the Mercury in general.

“When I tried out for the New York Knicks and Pat Riley was the coach, I must have missed every single shot I took,” Gaines relayed. “But I ended up making the team because of how hard I worked and because of my attitude. I want you to shoot the ball. If you miss, that’s fine. In our offense, it hurts us more if you don’t shoot than if you do and miss a couple times.”

Gaines began by having Riley do a series of offensive drills in an up-tempo, controlled way. After all, that’s exactly what the Mercury’s offense is predicated on. Many think there is no method to the madness, but the Mercury’s offense is actually designed to systematically and methodically attack the defense.

The first that I noticed was how insanely quick Riley was – not just from side to side but also while controlling her dribble. Her cuts back and forth were crisp and precise. The release on her shot was swift. All mandatory qualities for being a member of the Mercury. After about 25 minutes of intense drills (including Gaines’ preferred way for point guards to start the fast-break), an inevitable occurrence happened that all new Mercury players go through – fatigue. It happened to Taurasi, Taylor, Dupree, and dozens of others. The key? Fighting through it and training even harder in practice so games feel like a breeze.

As Riley progressed through the drills, it was easy to see how much this opportunity means to her. She knows she’ll be playing with several of the greatest women’s basketball players in the world and views being a member of the Mercury as a fresh start. “I can’t even describe the feeling I have,” a tired but appreciative Riley said after her workout ended. “I’m just so thankful for this opportunity. I want to prove to people that I can play.”

***

More so than wanting to see Riley workout, I was looking forward to attending the Phoenix Suns vs. Washington Wizards game with her and Cox. I wanted to see how she conducted herself with season-ticket holders, with fans, and how she analyzed the men’s game.

“Man, I can’t wait to see Steve Nash play tonight,” Riley said with a smile immediately after we found our seats. “I haven’t seen him play live before.”

From the tip, Riley was clearly immersed in the game. Studying it. Picking up on little intricacies from Nash. It became apparent that she is continually looking for ways to get better and introduce newfound concepts in her own game. Having knowledge of the game of basketball is easy; anyone can study sets of plays, individual players, and overall philosophy. But what most impressed me with Riley was how she’d observe something that Nash did and instantaneously think of ways to apply it with the Mercury.

“The way he uses his body is amazing,” she said. “His vision is even better than I imagined. I need to figure out a way to create the same type of shots for Diana [Taurasi] and Penny [Taylor].”

At half-time, we met up with a few Mercury fans and season-ticket holders. The organization does a phenomenal job of taking care of its fans and finding ways to generate new ones.

“Wow, I can tell that Mercury players make a lot of appearances for fans and in the community,” Riley told me. “That’s exciting to me. I love that.”

Riley spent about 30 minutes talking and joking with Mercury fans. From the moment I met her, I knew Riley would be easy to talk to. That’s just how she is. She has a way of making others feel comfortable while injecting her own flair and humor into the conversation. That’s exactly what she did with a few members of the X-Factor.

To be blunt, she’s hilarious.

We finished watching the Suns complete the victory over the Wizards and talked about all kinds of things – her family, her baby girl (she makes sure others know that being a mother comes first), her college career, and how the Mercury made her feel accepted.

“What an amazing day,” Riley said with affirmation.

***

Throughout the week, Riley continued individual workouts with Gaines. Perhaps the most significant takeaway from these sessions for Riley was the stark realization of how fast the Mercury plays. Riley was in great shape before but she’ll have a couple months to get into “Mercury shape.”

Later in the week, she spent time reading to 90 fifth-grade students at Bernard Black Elementary school and met with the women’s basketball team at Cesar Chavez High School. All the while, Riley had a permanent smile on her face.

The recurring themes of Riley’s visit were, without a doubt, excitement and opportunity. And, most importantly, that’s the exact situation that Riley finds herself in as a member of the Mercury.

“I’m ready,” Riley said, serious as can be.

Those were her last words to me.

Something tells me she won’t take this opportunity for granted.