Even without Laimbeer, Shock prepare to attack

A New Challenge

Bill Laimbeer left the Shock Monday in search of a new challenge. In doing so, he provided one to the team he led for seven years - to win a championship without him. The players and coaches he left behind say they’re ready for it.

“He always empowered us to do better, be the best that we can be, because he knows what we all can do,” said guard Deanna Nolan, the only player on the current roster whom Laimbeer did not acquire as the team’s general manager. “But at the same time, it’s like yeah, we want to prove that [we can win without him], not only to ourselves, but the league and everybody out there.”

“This endeavor’s going to be huge because Bill’s not there and you see Bill as the face of the Detroit Shock now,” said Rick Mahorn, who presided over his first practice as head coach Monday. “It’s going be hard shoes to fill but I tell you, I’m looking for the challenge and we’re both looking for the challenge to win a championship.”

The “both” Mahorn was referring to was himself and Cheryl Reeve, who holds the unusual job combination of assistant coach and general manager, a hybrid position that Reeve was prepped for last year when Laimbeer named her director of player personnel.

“[Other teams in the league] probably don’t have people on staff to be able to do that, but Bill has groomed us for this day,” Reeve said. “We’re really excited to usher in this new era of Shock basketball.”

Why Now?

Caught Off Guard
by Lauren Harper

While the Shock veterans were aware of Bill Laimbeer’s ambitions beyond the Shock, the younger players were still astonished to hear his decision to resign Monday.

“Of course we were surprised,” second-year guard Alexis Hornbuckle said in between free throws at practice after Monday’s press conference. “We’re only three games in, [you don’t] wake up and go, ‘Am I going to lose my coach today?’ So, it was a shock."

Shavonte Zellous, whom Laimbeer drafted just two months ago, was equally stunned. “It’s a devastating loss even though it’s my first year,” she said.

Laimbeer collected the talent he coached at The Palace, serving as the team’s general manager, and he targeted both players on their respective draft days. In 2008, he traded veteran Swin Cash for the No. 4 pick, where he nabbed Hornbuckle from the University of Tennessee. The following year, the Shock picked up Zellous at No. 11 out of Pittsburgh. Ironically, Laimbeer was drafting for the Shock’s future - a future he would not be a part of.

He nonetheless made an impression on both players in their brief time together, much of it stemming from his “Bad Boys” persona. “He was a hard-nosed player and he wants his players to be just like he was,” Zellous said.

With another Bad Boy now in charge, Rick Mahorn, the youngest Shock players are remembering the past, accepting the present, and anticipating the future. “I’m not really worried about a transition. I know Rick and Coach Reeve will do a good job here in service to Coach Laimbeer,” Zellous said. “I was starting to get a closer relationship with Bill and all the other assistants. But I’m happy for him. He’s moving onto something bigger and better.”

The more immediate challenge for the Shock is to, no pun intended, get past the shock. Although veterans like Nolan were aware of Laimbeer’s other ambitions, they were admittedly surprised to see him make the leap three games into the season - making it the earliest in-season coaching change in WNBA history.

“That was one of my questions to him: ‘why now?’” said team captain Cheryl Ford. “But, you know, he said he made a mistake in starting the season and it happened and he apologized for that, but it is what it is. We got to just continue to do what we do as a basketball team and an organization. We got to move on.”

Katie Smith and Nolan both said disappointment would be the wrong word to describe their reaction. “You know what, you’ve got to make decisions when you can and when you feel it, and that’s what he did,” Smith said.

Nolan, who was barely into her second season when Laimbeer became interim head coach in 2002, sounded a bit more wistful than her teammates about his abrupt departure. “Yeah, that’s what makes it, not disappointing, just surprised, so to speak, that it happened three games into the season,” Nolan said. “Maybe in the middle of the season, like, All-Star break or something, but three games in, it’s kind of weird, but that’s just something that we have to deal with.”

Head Coach Mahorn -- same as Assistant Coach Mahorn?

Many veterans are taking solace in their familiarity with Mahorn, who has been on the Shock bench since 2005. “I think it’s going to be the same thing as playing for Bill,” Ford said. “Rick has been here for, what, three or four years now? We all know him, he’s been around, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Smith anticipates “little tweaks here and there” with Mahorn and Reeve running the show but for Detroit’s overall modus operandi to remain the same. “You take one of them away, they’re still functioning and they’ve all been in this together,” she said. “They’ve been learning from each other. They’ve been doing all this, so to me it’s not such a shocker like, all of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh, Ricky’s taking over.’”

It was often said Mahorn’s strength as an assistant was acting as a counterbalance to Laimbeer, an assessment Laimbeer himself shared. Mahorn was lighthearted when Laimbeer was serious; he offered encouragement when Laimbeer was critical. What remains to be seen is how Mahorn’s relationship with the players will change as he takes the new role.

“It’s going to be hard for me, just because me and Rick joke all the time, so actually, we have to set that aside now,” Nolan said. “It’s more of on a different level.”

The same goes for the dynamic between the former colleagues Mahorn and Reeve, who has places above and below the new head coach in the chain of command. Reeve is intrigued to see how the league responds to their unconventional arrangement.

“The coaching part obviously I enjoy but the general manager part of it is something that is real exciting,” Reeve said, “and the rest of the league is going ‘whoa, assistant coach/general manager? That’s pretty neat, wish we’d had thought of that.’

Mahorn, who is a head coach again for the first time in nine years, seems determined to make it work. “I’m excited about this opportunity, and trust me, I have a lot of confidence in this young lady next to me who’s been working diligently every day to make sure that we are all prepared for what we have to do,” he said.

And what exactly do they have to do - a fourth championship in seven years? A fourth straight WNBA Finals appearance? The standard Laimbeer has set is remarkably high; he inherited a franchise that had one postseason appearance and zero wins in its first five years of existence. There’s no question that a torch was passed Monday afternoon, and when it was, that torch was burning bright.

“We were groomed for this situation, and now the situation is here,” Mahorn said, “and we’re going full-speed ahead right now and making sure the Shock are those champions again."