2003: Injuries Sack Storm's Playoff Bid

For a while, it looked like there might not be a 2003 season for the Storm – or any other WNBA team. Negotiations between the league and its players extended beyond the league-imposed April 18 deadline. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement was not completed until a little over a week remained before the scheduled start of training camp.

The Storm had already overhauled its coaching staff by that point, following the resignation of Lin Dunn, the team’s Head Coach for the first three seasons of its existence. Despite coming off a season in which she finished second in voting for WNBA Coach of the Year, Dunn decided to resign. “The decision to step down was extremely difficult, but it’s time for me to take a break,” she said. “I’ve spent a tremendous amount of energy in the last six years building two professional teams with the Portland Power in the American Basketball League (ABL) and the Seattle Storm in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).”


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Billy McKinney, who inherited Dunn’s duties as General Manager, took three and a half months to decide on Dunn’s replacement. But he knew who he wanted much earlier – Charlotte Sting Coach Anne Donovan, who had taken her team to the WNBA Finals in 2001. “After talking with her about basketball and how we wanted to run the operations and grow the team, I knew right away she was the right person for the job,” McKinney said later. Donovan added assistants Jenny Boucek and Jessie Kenlaw from the Miami Sol and Portland Fire, respectively, to complete her staff.

The challenge for McKinney and Donovan in the abbreviated, one-week off-season, was to surround stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson with better, more experienced talent. The Storm selected Fire center Alisa Burras, who set the WNBA record for top single-season field-goal percentage in 2002 at 62.9%, in the Dispersal Draft, and Korean forward Jung Sun-Min a day later in the Amateur Draft. The Storm also added three veteran free agents from the Fire and Sol, who had disbanded after the 2003 season – guards Tully Bevilaqua (Fire) and Sandy Brondello (Sol) and forward Stacey Thomas (Fire).

The hiring of Hall-of-Famer Donovan marked a new era in Storm basketball.
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Trying to learn a new system and fit in several new contributors, the Storm lost both of its preseason games to the Sacramento Monarchs. Donovan expected her team to pick up as the season wore on. “We can’t possibly hit our stride until sometime in June,” Donovan said at media day. “We’ll still be adjusting and teaching incoming players the system that’s been put in. That’s okay with me.” With the newcomers, Donovan was forced to make several tough cuts before completing her roster, notably second-year guard Felicia Ragland and forward and Washington native Kate Starbird. The Storm acquired reserve guard Rita Williams from Houston to complete its roster, and also cut guards Kate Paye and Jamie Redd, Thomas and center Takeisha Lewis.

The Storm opened the season in Texas with a tough road trip against two 2002 playoff teams, the Houston Comets and San Antonio Silver Stars. In each game, the Storm played one good half and one bad half, and that meant two losses. Seattle returned home to take on the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks in the home opener, and the game turned into another classic battle between the arch-rivals. The Storm led most of the way before Bird was forced out of the game because of chondromalacia in her left knee. Nikki Teasley hit a three for the Sparks to send the game to overtime, where they prevailed, 77-74.

Four days later, Bird was well enough to play and the Storm started a three-game winning streak to get back to .500 against the Sacramento Monarchs. The Minnesota Lynx arrived in KeyArena to close the five-game homestand, and ended the Storm’s winning streak with a 77-72 victory behind 32 points from guard Katie Smith. After beating the Mercury in Phoenix to start a three-game road trip, the Storm set up another showdown with the 8-1 Sparks. This time, the Storm held on to the big lead it built up, with Brondello’s 21 points leading the way in a 69-67 Storm win. The momentum quickly dissipated as the Storm played poorly in a 69-64 loss at Sacramento, but the team responded to its first back-to-back of the season by returning to KeyArena and drilling the Silver Stars 93-53, setting a team record for points.

At 6-5 – 6-2 since the season-opening losing streak – the Storm seemed to be making good on Donovan’s promise. That continued through the ensuing East Coast road trip, with the Storm taking two of three, losing only to Indiana while playing without Jackson. Donovan got a huge win in her return to Charlotte. The Storm held on for a narrow victory over the Washington Mystics before closing the first half of the season by losing to the Sparks in Los Angeles, 84-75.

The Storm’s 9-7 mark at the midway point was impressive considering the number of off-season changes and the fact that the Storm had played nine of 16 games on the road. Seattle got bad news during the break, however, when starting small forward Adia Barnes was lost for the season. Barnes was injured against the Sparks, but the injury was not diagnosed as a season-ending ACL tear until the Storm returned to Seattle. On that down note, Bird and Jackson traveled to New York for the All-Star Game. Bird was voted a starter by the fans, while Jackson replaced an injured Tina Thompson in the starting five. Bird had 11 points, Jackson nine, and both grabbed four rebounds as the West won its fifth straight All-Star Game, 84-75.

Jackson’s game-winner against the Sun.
Ray Amati/WNBAE/Getty
With Barnes out, Amanda Lassiter – the Storm’s starting small forward down the stretch in 2002 – returned to the starting five. She got an immediate test against 2002 WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes. Swoopes scored 17 points, but shot just 7-for-22 as the Storm handed the Comets a 69-55 loss to take over second place in the West. Afterwards, it was back on the road for the Storm’s final East Coast trip. It started well, with a Jackson score with seconds remaining giving the Storm the win in a nationally-televised game at Connecticut, but quickly degenerated with the health of Bird’s knee. She sat out most of the second half of a loss at East-leading Detroit, and played just three minutes against Minnesota. Jackson scored a then-career-high 30 points against the Lynx, but it was not enough as the Storm returned home 11-9.

A stretch of six of eight home games afforded the Storm an opportunity to get healthy, and it did just that. First, Lassiter had a career-high 16 points in the first half and Jackson a team-record 22 second-half points as the Storm easily defeated the New York Liberty. Two nights later, Jackson scored 26 points to chants of “M-V-P” from the crowd as the Storm blew out the Mercury by 29. The next evening, the surging Monarchs ended the winning streak, winning 76-63 behind 21 points from DeMya Walker. After four days off, the Storm met up with the Sting again. Jackson was the main story, as she scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, becoming only the fourth player in league history to go 20-20, but the Storm could not have won without Bevilaqua’s career-high 14 points in 12 minutes off the bench.

When the Storm lost at Minnesota two days later on a Smith buzzer-beater, however, a disturbing trend was apparent. Seattle had won six straight at home and lost four straight on the road. The home streak extended another two games. The Storm hung the worst loss in franchise history, 92-56, on a limping Sparks team playing without All-Stars Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton. Jackson took advantage to score a career-high 34 points and set a WNBA record with 17 field goals made. Two nights later, in the team’s most important game of the season to date, the Storm beat Minnesota 68-65 to avoid a Lynx sweep of the season series and take a 1.5-game lead in the race for the third playoff seed.

The following Tuesday, Aug. 12, it all unraveled as the Silver Stars scored a Storm-opponent-record 87 points and ended the Storm’s eight-game home winning streak. More importantly, center Kamila Vodichkova was lost for the season during the game with a sprained left foot. While the Storm again had a strong replacement in Simone Edwards, the loss of Edwards and Lassiter was devastating to the Storm’s bench. In its next two games, the Storm lost first-half leads of 18 points and 19 points, respectively, to the Mercury in Phoenix and the Shock at home. The second loss dropped the Storm out of the West playoff picture for the first time since early June.

With four games left in the season, the Storm returned to the state of Texas and was swept again. Both times the Storm was close, but it came up short each time. At Houston, Bird passed on a chance to tie the game with a three and had her shot in the lane blocked by Comets center Michelle Snow, with Houston winning 52-47. The next night in San Antonio, three-pointers in the final minute by Bird and Brondello forced overtime, but the Storm was incapable of stopping the Silver Stars duo of Adrienne Goodson (26 points) and Marie Ferdinand (25) in the extra session and fell, 78-70. A night later, Sacramento’s victory over the Houston Comets eliminated the Storm from playoff contention. In just ten days, Seattle went from holding the third seed and thinking about moving higher to out of the playoffs.

Despite her sore knee, Bird finished second in the WNBA in assists.
Jeff Reinking/WNBAE/Getty
Playing for pride in its final two games of the season at home, the Storm pulled out victories over the Houston Comets and Sacramento Monarchs to finish the season with an 18-16 record, the most wins in franchise history, tied for fourth in the Western Conference with the Lynx (who won the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-1 season-series win) and good enough to tie Donovan's old Sting for the second-best record had the Storm been in the East. Amazingly, the Storm also finished second in the WNBA in point differential at +3.4 points per game, behind only the 25-9 Detroit Shock (+4.6 ppg).

Despite the disappointing finish, it was a brilliant individual season for Jackson, who came into her own during her third WNBA campaign. Jackson finished as the league’s leading scorer at 21.2 per game and improved her rebounding average to 9.3, fourth in the league. She also finished third in blocks for the second straight season. Jackson scored double-figures in all 33 games she played, and 15 points or better in 32 of 33, including the season’s first 27, just two away from Cynthia Cooper’s WNBA record. She finished with 13 double-doubles and was WNBA Player of the Week three times, tying Leslie’s league record. For her efforts, Jackson was named the WNBA's 2003 MVP during the WNBA Finals, outpacing runner-up Tamika Catchings 406 points to 242. Jackson also received the most votes of any player in making All-WNBA first team.

Bird was never healthy all season, always bothered by the knee, but still had an impressive sophomore campaign. She finished second in the league with 6.5 assists per game, also becoming just the third player in league history to record 200 assists in a season. Bird improved her shooting percentage to 42.1% and was fifth in the WNBA, making 88.4% from the free-throw line. She led all point guards in scoring and was second in assists. Bird joined Jackson on the All-WNBA first team, her second straight first-team selection.

Before being injured, Vodichkova was having the best season of her four-year career. At 10.1 ppg, she ranked third on the team behind Jackson and Bird, and she was second in rebounding with just over five rebounds per game. Vodichkova finished eighth in the league, making 47.4% of her shot attempts. Barnes was on her way to her best season when she went down, averaging 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. After making just one three-pointer in 2002, Barnes hit 12 in half a season, making them at a 38.7% clip in addition to her outstanding defense. Lassiter too emerged as a stopper at the small forward position, holding many of the league’s highest scorers in check. She ended up averaging a career-high 5.1 points per game and also snuck into the WNBA’s top twenty in blocks per game.

2003 Storm Roster

13 Mactabene Amachree F 6-1 175 1/30/78 Nigeria 1
32 Adia Barnes F 5-11 165 2/03/77 Arizona '98 5
44 Tully Bevilaqua G 5-7 140 7/19/72 Australia 4
10 Sue Bird G 5-9 150 10/16/80 Connecticut '02 1
6 Sandy Brondello G 5-7 136 8/20/68 Australia 4
41 Alisa Burras C 6-3 218 6/23/75 Louisiana Tech '98 4
4 Simone Edwards C 6-4 164 11/17/73 Iowa '96 3
15 Lauren Jackson F-C 6-5 187 5/11/81 Australia 2
17 Jung Sun-Min C 6-1 168 10/12/74 Korea R
24 Amanda Lassiter F 6-1 143 6/09/79 Missouri '01 2
12 LaTonya Massaline G-F 5-11 160 12/30/77 Florida '00 3
5 Danielle McCulley C-F 6-3 180 1/18/75 Western Kentucky '98 3
7 Kamila Vodichkova C-F 6-4 185 12/19/72 Czech Republic 3
23 Rita Williams G 5-6 135 1/14/76 Connecticut '98 5