"I could have said the words, but I thought that the music was better," explains coach Paul Westhead.
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The above lyrics to Drift Away, a 1973 hit song by Dobie Gray, is the chorus I couldn't help but hear several of the Phoenix Mercury players singing joyously in the background while I spoke with forward/center Tangela Smith. The song is a classic and is also a favorite of Phoenix head coach Paul Westhead.
Westhead is a veteran coach whose resume includes an NBA Championship in 1980 with the Los Angeles Lakers and a berth in the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament with Loyola Marymount. Known for his unconventional on-court strategies, Westhead also uses unorthodox methods to interact with his players off the court.
"Some years ago I knew my team had a real struggle, so I went to National Geographic and got a two-minute clip of salmon jumping upstream," Westhead recalls.
Now a coach in the WNBA, Westhead gathered his Mercury team in the locker room just before Game 2 of Phoenix's first-round series against Seattle.
"He played this song called Drift Away," Cappie Pondexter says. "It was his way of expressing how he feels about the team. It's a good song."
"Day after day I'm more confused," I hear the players sing.
Confused? I certainly was confused. Why that song? What about the lyrics make it special?
"I told the players that there are two lines that are back-to-back:
'I want to thank you for the joy you've given me.
I want you to know I believe in your song.'
And that is why I played it," Westhead clarifies.
The team won Game 2 against Seattle 95-89 to sweep the series and move on to compete in the Western Conference Finals. But the point of Westhead's pregame playlist was not to get his defense dancing to the music or to get the offense hitting shots to the beat.
"The intention was not to do something zany off the court to show them that we want to play that way when the game's up," explains Westhead. "At that moment, it was the perfect song that had the exact lines that I wanted to convey to them."
The song expressed his emotions, so he kept his mouth shut and turned up the stereo.
"I could have said the words, but I thought that the music was better than me spouting out the words."
And the players reacted positively to Westhead's creative approach.
'The song helped us to come together," Smith explains. "We are women and some of us got emotional about it. It was really deep to me."
Now, the Mercury are facing the Silver Stars in the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix won three of the four matchups against San Antonio in the regular season. While the pregame lullaby from the Seattle series played out well in the first round, Westhead has decided that his days as a DJ are likely done.
"Once is enough. When you repeat things it doesn't have the same effect."
But days after the Mercury's musical moment, the team continues to sing the
same tune with the lyrics their coach emphasized.
"I want to thank you for the joy you've given me
I want you to know I believe in your song."
As the team belts out Drift Away, it is clear that Coach Westhead's favorite song will forever remind the team that the game is their song and the joy is shared by all.