On the Road with the Mercury: L.A.

By Ben York, PhoenixMercury.com

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"We leave right at 12:45 so make sure to be on time," Basketball Communications Manager, Bret Burchard, announced to the team. They had just finished a grueling morning practice and were heading to Los Angeles later on for their game against the Sparks Friday night.

Obviously, being late wasn't an option for me. Traveling with the Mercury on a road trip is unquestionably a privilege, and there was no way I was going to be that guy who held everyone up.

So, after I got to the arena over an hour and a half early at 11:00 (totally kidding...it was 11:15) I offered to help Bret get everything loaded up and ready to go. Keep in mind, the players and staff don't take chartered flights anywhere (more on this later) so not only does the team have their own luggage, they are responsible for all equipment bags (usually five or more) as well.

And by "equipment bags" I mean gigantic luggage that weighs roughly 150 pounds (I'm exaggerating here, but not by much).

Bret and I waited outside the locker room for the team to change. We had a cart prepared to load the equipment bags onto the airport shuttle. Since this was only a one-game trip, there were just five equipment bags. On longer trips, there could be 7-8.

We (and by "we" I mean mostly Bret) tossed all the bags (over 15 total) into two shuttles (one for the players and the other for the coaches, Bret, and myself) and made our way to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

Bret and Athletic Trainer, Tamara Poole, do a remarkable job of expediting the check-in process for the entire team. Again, it's not as if WNBA players can skip the hassle of a typical airport experience; WNBA teams and players travel just like the rest of us. Bret or Tamara will usually call ahead to make sure there are attendants on standby to help coordinate the group's travel. Amazingly, we checked all our bags and obtained our boarding passes in less than 15 minutes.

The flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 2:15, so we had some time to grab a bite to eat before boarding. The players and staff usually go in all directions in situations like this. Most players and coaches pick healthier options (like Paradise Bakery, for example). I, on the other hand, went straight for the fried deliciousness that is Burger King.

I grabbed some food and sat down with Sammy Prahalis, Charde Houston and Avery Warley to eat. I'm proud to say that I now know the intricate differences between a clutch and a wallet. So, feel free to ask if you ever see me before I forget.

A short while later, it was time to board the flight to Los Angeles. Now, this is usually a fairly quick process for the majority of travelers, but I can assure you it is far more complicated for people like Krystal Thomas, Nakia Sanford, Avery Warley, and Assistant Coach Earl Cureton (you know...tall people).

Let's just say I'll never* complain about being cramped or not having enough room on a flight again. (*Actually, I probably will but I'll feel guilty about it.)

I'm not a big guy by any means; I'm 5-11 and weigh probably 180 pounds...and even I feel like there isn't enough space on airplanes. Imagine how 6-5 Krystal Thomas feels if she gets stuck in the middle seat. Or, 6-9 Earl Cureton. Luckily, the flight wasn't a long one (just over an hour) so the discomfort wasn't too bad. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how a trip to New York would be...

After arriving in Los Angeles, we waited for our bags before loading them on the bus. We arrived just in time for the euphoric joy that is Los Angeles traffic during rush hour. Once we reached the hotel, the players are told when to report the following morning (in this case, the bus would leave at 10:00 a.m. to the Staples Center for shoot-around). Most players and coaches have friends or family in Los Angeles, so they use this much-needed time to visit with their loved ones.

Bret and I, on the other hand, arduously looked for a place to watch the Heat vs. Celtics game (the one where Lebron James put up 45 points) since the ESPN signal in the hotel was having issues. Bret theorized that the city of Los Angeles was bitter (since the Lakers lost) and there was no chance they'd air a Boston Celtics game.

I suppose we'll never know the truth.

Friday, June 9, 2012

As if on cue, each Mercury player and coach made their way to the bus between 9:50 and 10:00 a.m.

Bus rides with the team can be summed up in one of two ways -- either everyone is laughing and having a good time or they are completely focused on the task at hand. On the bus to shoot-around at the Staples Center Friday morning, the team was a mix of both. They were focused, sure, but they were also jovial and excited to get back to the gym.

Upon arriving at the arena, we noticed the temperature was roughly -18 degrees if you include the wind chill. The reason? The ice was still down from the Los Angeles Kings playoff game earlier in the week. And even though Arizonans typically get cold when the temp drops below 85, I can assure you it was legitimately chilly.

That all changed, of course, once the team started to warm up and go over offensive and defensive sets. Corey Gaines and staff use shoot-arounds to fine-tune anything and everything. Today, however, the pace was more up-tempo and continuous to keep everyone warm.

Shoot-arounds are breathtaking in the sense that you virtually have the entire arena to yourselves, both home and away. It's very surreal. There is an eerie stillness that emanates throughout the entire building -- the very definition of the "calm before the storm."

Peaceful, but almost unsettling at the same time.

After shoot-around, the bus dropped the team off at a mall nearby so they could grab a pre-game meal. One thing I noticed throughout the entire trip, but especially at this moment, was how much this team enjoys spending time with each other. You always hear about teams and players who get along, but this Mercury squad is the quintessential example of that. They got off the bus together, laughing and having a good time en route to the restaurant.

It's nice to see this camaraderie first-hand.

Before each game, every player has their own unique routine they systematically go through. Some take naps, others watch film, etc. Yet, the one thing that is consistent in every player is the look of determination and purpose on their collective faces as they enter the bus again prior to the game. Since the game was at 8:00 p.m. that night, the players all reported one by one to the bus between 5:35 and 5:45.

Silence.

I'm not sure there was a player who uttered a single word on the trip to the arena that evening. They were focused. Attentive. Preparing themselves mentally.

If I'm honest, seeing the players switch into "game mode" was nothing short of intense and astonishing.

The Game: Phoenix Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks

Unfortunately, the game didn't go the Mercury's way.

Charde Houston led Phoenix with 22 points and made four of five 3-point attempts. DeWanna Bonner added 18 points and Candice Dupree had 13. Bonner made consecutive 3-point baskets to pull Phoenix to 73-66 but the Mercury got no closer. Delisha Milton-Jones sank a baseline 3-pointer for an 81-68 lead and Candace Parker took a no-look pass from Kristi Toliver for the last of her points for an 88-71 lead. The Sparks never looked back.

It's miserable seeing the frustration and disappointment on the team's collective faces after a loss. Like any die-hard fan, you feel very much a part of things. Or, rather, you share their immense joy after a win but also their aggravation following a tough loss. There's nothing really that can be said to the players to console them. I usually try and think of something brilliant and uplifting to say but it never, ever comes out right.

Similarly, from a former media member's perspective, there's always an incredibly fine line between asking a relevant or dumb question to the coaches and players.

Put yourself in the Mercury's shoes: The last thing you'd probably want to do is answer questions about what you, as a team, could've done differently to come out with a win. Right? I mean, hindsight is always 20/20. But what always amazes me is how gracious the Mercury players and coaches are to the media after both wins and losses; they know it is part of the job and they're used to it.

There's no sugarcoating it; the loss to the Sparks stung.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

As difficult as losing can be, you can't dwell on it or spend too much time playing the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" game; the past is the past and all one can do is work to get better. (Trust me -- the entire team is more than focused on doing so.)

As fate would have it, Saturday would provide a perfect distraction for the team to help clear their mind: Long Beach.

As part of an annual tradition started by President Amber Cox last year, members of the Mercury and Suns staff who met specific sales goals were also in Los Angeles supporting the team. The players, coaches, and staff would spend the day together team-building near Seal Beach.

The weather was terrible. Just...awful. Okay, not really. It was mid-70's and made incremental shifts from perfect to almost perfect.

Ultimately, though, it didn't matter if we were on the beach or if the weather was completely miserable; it was about coming together as a team and organization. It's clear the Mercury organization is focused on making every employee (players, staff, etc.) feel valued and honored to be a part of the team's success, and that mindset is hopefully felt equally by fans and followers of the Mercury. Everyone was laughing, getting to know each other, and relaxing. And while I'm fairly certain my face and neck are still on fire from the inevitable third-degree burns I received, it was totally worth it.

Yet, like all good things, the trip had to come to an end eventually. After a short stay at the beach, we then made our way to the Long Beach airport that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. to head back to Phoenix.

* * *

The goal of this article was to share with the X-Factor the first-hand experience of what the team goes through on each road trip. Simply put -- we want you to be a part of things even when the players are away from home.

From a personal standpoint, every positive and uplifting thing you've read about this Mercury squad is 100 percent true.

Not only are they fantastic athletes, they're even better human beings.