Marciniak's Triumphant Return

Surprisingly, former Seattle Storm guard Michelle Marciniak wasn’t feeling conflicted as she stood in the tunnel underneath the KeyArena stands before the Storm’s 2003 home opener against the Los Angeles Sparks. Marciniak could have been forgiven if she was feeling sad about wearing a pants suit instead of the Storm uniform she was wearing when the team last played in KeyArena against the Sparks, in Game 1 of their playoff series last August. Instead, Marciniak had one main concern – a victory for the home team over the Sparks. “We had quite a rivalry with them last year and I think it started something,” Marciniak said, “so I’m looking forward to watching the game and hopefully getting a W under our belts.”

It probably says something of Marciniak’s relationship with her former teammates that even then, over a month after she had announced her retirement after three seasons in the WNBA and three more in the ABL, she still referred to them as we. Indeed, Marciniak confirmed that her teammates made her decision all the more difficult. “My teammates are incredible,” she said, again referring to them in the present tense.

Marciniak demonstrates the hustle that made her a fan favorite.
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Alas, Marciniak is no longer a member of the Storm, having announced her retirement on April 14 to take an assistant coaching position at the University of South Carolina on the staff of Susan Walvius. The move was a natural one for Marciniak, who had long been planning a post-playing career in college coaching. Already, she was involved with the collegiate game as a color commentator for USC basketball and strength and conditioning coach for the University of Lousiville’s women’s team. “My future is in coaching and I always said starting three years ago that if I ever got this opportunity in coaching, I would stop playing, but that never happened,” Marciniak explains. “This year the position was offered to me. Coaching in the SEC, I couldn’t ask for a better situation because I played in the SEC (with Tennessee). It’s a good move for me professionally, and that’s what it really came down to.”

Professional considerations, however, were only half of the story, and that’s why Marciniak added that her decision was “50-50”. In just two years with the Storm, Marciniak fostered lasting bonds with both the team and the Seattle community. Her retirement brought a strong response in e-mails to the Storm organization, with one fan writing, “Michelle, words can't even begin to express my disappointment as I think about the fact that you will not be on the court when the Storm play this season.”

That outpouring of support continued on opening night, with fans giving Marciniak an ovation that lasted throughout an entire timeout after she was introduced to the crowd. Before the game, her time was in constant demand from fans, team executives, staffers and reporters, with Marciniak skillfully devoting attention to each. For everyone, it was a chance to say goodbye after a hurried departure that saw Marciniak in Seattle to conduct a basketball clinic on Saturday, and in South Carolina to accept her new position on Monday. Marciniak recognizes the importance of her relationship with the fans. “It was important to me,” she says. “I played in front of a lot of people at Tennessee in college, and I understood how important it was and I was taught in college that the fans are who can really motivate you as players. . . . I’ve always as a player found it very important to give the fans a lot of attention. And the thing is, if you give the fans attention, they’re going to give it back to you.” That has certainly been the case in Seattle.

Though she would quickly become much more, Marciniak was just another player when she arrived in Seattle as a free agent on June 8, 2001. In four years, three in the ABL and one with the WNBA’s Portland Fire, Marciniak had yet to remain with the same team two consecutive years. She found a home in Seattle, emerging as a contributor off the bench, averaging 4.9 points and 1.7 assists, and started five games.

Heading into the 2002 season, Marciniak was seen as a possible starter at the point, but that changed when the Storm drafted Sue Bird with their first overall pick of that year’s WNBA Draft. Instead, Marciniak opened the season on the injured list. After being activated, she initially found minutes hard to come by. Still, Storm fans – who had grown closer to Marciniak thanks to her participation in the team’s “Stormin’ the Sound” community outreach program over the off-season – supported her, chanting Marciniak’s name at multiple games in an effort to get then-Coach Lin Dunn to put her in.

Marciniak celebrates her game-winner against Orlando.
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Eventually, following the trade of guard Sonja Henning to Houston, Marciniak got her chance. And while statistically the 2002 season was the poorest of her WNBA career, with averages of 3.1 points and 1.7 assists per game, Marciniak’s impact was undeniable, producing several of the memorable moments that will keep her forever a part of Storm lore. On June 27 against Orlando, Marciniak exploded off the bench for the finest game of her WNBA career. In 22 minutes, she made six of nine shots and six of seven free throws, scoring a career-high 18 points and winning the game with a buzzer-beating score. On July 11, Marciniak livened up a blowout victory over the Sparks by tussling briefly with Sparks forward Latasha Byears, who officially outweighs Marciniak by 52 pounds.

The Byears incident helped add to a rivalry between the Storm and the Sparks also catalyzed by an incident between Marciniak and Lisa Leslie during the 2001 season. It’s no surprise, then, that she remembers the teams’ matchups most fondly from her Storm career. “I think the rivalry with L.A – there was something to me that felt like the Tennessee-Uconn rivalry in college,” Marciniak notes. “I didn’t really get that feeling from anybody up until last year with L.A. I played what, 12 minutes a game? It wasn’t about me playing. It was about our team against their team, and how competitive it was. I think, to me, that was the biggest moment of my career, was getting to the playoffs and knowing that we had beaten them a couple of times, and them knowing they should have beaten us. Just that whole dynamics of playing L.A.”

In the end, Marciniak’s wish came up short. With Bird sidelined, the Storm – perhaps missing its former backup point guard – fell short in overtime, 77-74. Still, odds are the defeat was only a slight damper on a triumphant return to Seattle. “I’m just excited to be back,” Marciniak said before the game. “I’ve been really looking forward to it. When the Storm called me and asked me to come to opening night, it was an honor. It will be nice to see many familiar faces, the fans and my teammates.” They probably would have said the same of seeing her.