Where Are They Now? Sonja Henning
Then: Inaugural Starting PG, 2000-02
Now: Associate Director of U.S. Sports Marketing, Nike
Stay tuned throughout the 10th Anniversary season as we check in with your favorite Storm players to see what they have been up to since the conclusion of their playing careers. We continue today with Sonja Henning, the Storm's first starting point guard.
When the Seattle Storm took the floor for the first time in June 2000, it was with a WNBA champion at the point. The Storm selected Sonja Henning with its second pick of the 2000 WNBA Expansion Draft from the Houston Comets, whom Henning helped lead to a championship the previous season. Also an NCAA Champion at Stanford, Henning played for the San Jose Lasers and the Portland Power of the ABL before coming to the WNBA, playing under Storm Head Coach Lin Dunn in Portland.
Over the next two-plus seasons, Henning would start 65 of the Storm's 72 games before being traded back to the Comets for Amanda Lassiter when she was displaced by the Storm's addition of Sue Bird. The Storm's leading assister during both of her full campaigns in Seattle, Henning also provided valuable defense and contributed as a veteran leader in the locker room.
Henning was always much more than a basketball player. She earned her law degree from Duke University and practiced throughout her career. Henning also served as president of the WNBA Players Association from 2001 through 2003, playing a key role in negotiating the groundbreaking 2003 collective bargaining agreement that introduced the first system of free agency in women's professional sports.
At the end of the 2003 season, Henning retired to focus on her legal career with Portland-based Tonkon Torp LLP. More recently, Henning moved in a different direction when she joined Nike as the footwear giant's associate director of U.S. sports marketing.
Henning took some time out to chat with stormbasketball.com's Kevin Pelton about her time in Seattle, her efforts to help build the WNBA and her career off the court.
What was it like going from a championship team to an expansion squad?
It was what is to be expected - it's a night and day difference from being on a team that was around from the inception of the league and by that year in its fourth year of its existence versus a new team that was just starting out. There are certainly a lot of similarities just because it's all within the same league, but it's two very different points of time with regards to organizations, the team itself, community and their expectations of the team. I don't know that night and day illustrates the difference.
How did the city embrace the Storm?
Seattle has always been a strong supporter of women's athletics. I recall playing at UW in college and they always had great support. The ABL team in Seattle had a tremendous amount of support from die-hard fans. The Storm, I would say, was the same. You saw a similar amount of support in the community for women's athletes, certainly women's basketball players. This was just another stage for them to be able to do that. There was a lot of excitement from the community, all of which I had grown to expect given my history in that part of the country.
Did it help being reunited with Lin Dunn after working with her in the ABL?
It's always good to have some familiarity with a coach when you are in a situation such as an expansion team where a lot of things are new and it's the first time around. I think it helped. It certainly helped me and my comfort level to have had an experience with Coach Dunn and her coaching style. I think to her credit, she did a great job. Many of the challenges of the ABL she faced again in Seattle - simply selling your team, the league you're involved with and becoming part of the community. I think she did a great job of balancing getting the team to the level that it needed to be performing at so that the product on the floor was the highest of quality but also engaging the community and getting them excited about the jewel that they had in having a WNBA franchise.
What did Coach Dunn do to keep the team up in the midst of two seasons with more losses than wins?
I don't recall any specifics. I think in general, she has had a long coaching tenure and has certainly coached teams that have struggled initially and kept them focused on a brighter day. She did the same thing with the Seattle Storm. She knew coming in that the team wasn't going to be in the position to win a WNBA championship, but also that was her determination and goal - getting the team to that level. It was a process where she didn't expect any miracles overnight, but she was building a foundation so that great things could happen. That was the message she delivered to the team.
Did the players recognize they were building something that would outlast them?
All the players understood that. I would say that's across the board with the WNBA - especially then, but I would hope even now. The players recognize and appreciate that we're still building a strong foundation for women's professional basketball in this country. It shouldn't be anything that is taken for granted. The process is always how can you make it better, how can you make it stronger so that in five, 10, 15 years the first floor of the house has been built rather than just being concerned about the foundation. I think the league is progressing now - it's further than the simple foundation, but at that time we were still building a foundation for women's professional basketball in this country.
Do you take pride in your unique role in that with the Players Association?
I would just say it's all a work in progress. There's so many folks that put in their time, sweat and energy to ensure that the process was as good as possible and didn't settle for anything less. There's plenty of examples of other professional leagues in the United Stands (and, of course, abroad). We had plenty of examples at home to look at, whether it's the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL of successful professional leagues and the strength of their unions. Collectively, we wanted to make sure we represented the long-term perspective of where this league needed to get to, not just being concerned with the immediate shortfalls, whether it be sponsorship levels or gate receipts. It was, 'Where do we want this league to be and how can we help to get it there and make sure along the way that players' interests are at the forefront?'
Are you still an avid follower of the WNBA?
Am I an avid fan or am I casual fan? Depends on how you define both, I guess. I certainly keep up with the teams that have players I consider friends. That's the great thing about any sport venture - you meet and befriend many folks. I follow Seattle because of Lauren (Jackson) and Sue, players that I've played with that remain there. I follow other teams for similar reasons, whether it be players, coaches or general managers that are associated with those teams.
With which former teammates do you keep in touch?
I keep in touch loosely with probably a handful of players. I haven't heard from Edna Campbell in probably 6-9 months, but I've certainly kept a friendship with Edna. There are different players I'll run into, whether it's at WNBA games or sporting events in general or NCAA tournaments. Different players are doing different things - some are coaching - so at any given time I'll run into former WNBA or ABL players that I've played with in the past, which is always fun.
How is your new position and the transition from working in law?
What I'm doing now is in sports marketing at Nike, and it's been a great transition from practicing law. A lot of what I do is still centered around contract review and negotiation, so it's a sports marketing function at Nike but it encompasses some of the same skills I developed as a lawyer as far as contract review, negotiation and analysis.