Boucek’s Choice Pays Off
When she graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in sports medicine and sports management, Seattle Storm assistant coach Jenny Boucek thought she was headed for medical school. Boucek had put together a stellar four-year career on the court while at Virginia, but she believed her playing days were over.
Boucek is beginning her second year with the Storm.
"I was done with basketball in my mind, getting ready to go to med school is what I was thinking," Boucek recalls. "Then my fifth year of school, they started talking about the WNBA. I wasn't going to do it, because I hadn't played in eight months. Then, as it came closer, and I was graduating, I said, 'I've got to at least try'. I really hadn't worked out or trained for basketball in eight months, but I just gave it a try."
Despite the rust, despite facing dozens of women fighting for two spots on the Cleveland Rockers roster - one guard, one forward - Boucek beat the odds and made the team. That would have been accomplishment enough, but Boucek kept at it, working her way into the starting lineup for what would turn out to be the most important game of her professional career on many levels - a nationally televised July 3 game against the Los Angeles Sparks. Boucek's back had been bothering her, but she had to play on.
"I couldn't sit out," Boucek says. "I knew my back was messed up, but I ended up playing 38 out of 40 minutes with it already broken. It sent me to the emergency room and that was pretty much - that was the end of my career."
Boucek was placed on the injured list, which meant she had a front-row seat as the WNBA made women's professional sports history.
"That first year is something that I'll never forget," says Boucek. "Not only was it history, but also that sense of anticipation, excitement in the unknown of the first major professional women's sports league and the impact that it had on so many girls and women, just in tears at our games. It meant a lot to a lot of females, so that was a neat thing to be a part of."
Playing in the WNBA was not the first time basketball played an unexpected role in Boucek's life. While in high school, she didn't plan to play collegiately, expecting instead to focus on her studies.
Boucek explains academics have "always been a priority in my family, and sports have been for fun. Until I did a little more research on the fact that you could get a great education while playing a sport, I wasn't even going to probably play a sport, because sports have always been secondary to academics."
In Virginia, Boucek was able to successfully combine academics and athletics. As part of a high-school program to help students choose their colleges, she had identified Virginia as a likely destination. That the Cavaliers women's basketball program happened to be one of the best in the country was pure gravy.
Boucek was a four-year starter at Virginia as her teams enjoyed remarkable success. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season championship during each of her four seasons and were ACC Tournament champions during her freshman year. Three times during Boucek's career, the team advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, though they failed to break through and reach the Final Four.
Individually, Boucek describes herself as "a utility player", but that fails to do justice to her accomplishments. A captain her senior season, Boucek was a two-time All-ACC pick and was selected as Virginia's Defensive Player of the Year twice. She is also one of 20 Virginia players to have scored more than 1,000 points in her Cavaliers career.
"At the time, Virginia was a top-five, top-ten program," Boucek says about her lasting memories of her college career. "We had great fan support, we were expected to win, and I liked that pressure. One year Virginia went undefeated in the ACC, and we didn't lose at home until the second half of my senior year. So it was a standard of excellence with that program that was fun. Knowing you had a chance to win the national championship every year, working to do that, even though we didn't get it."
Throughout her playing career, Boucek was a team leader. Naturally, that led teammates and observers to suggest she had a future in coaching.
"I was the type of player everybody said from a young age, 'Oh, she's going to be a coach, she's going to be a coach, she's going to be a coach'," Boucek recalls. "I am not one to go with what everybody else thinks, so I was being stubborn and thinking, 'No, I'm not going to be a coach, I'm going to be a doctor.'"
The WNBA detour forced Boucek to begin re-thinking her future plans, something she continued to do after playing a year in Iceland after the 1997 WNBA season. Boucek averaged 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game and was voted the country's best player.
And that was it for Boucek's playing career, something she says now she was okay with.
"It really just put a peace to my career and got me prepared to coach because I was totally good with where I had reached individually as a player and was ready to move on. I realized my injuries weren't going to get any better. I was ready. I was good with what I had done."
Boucek returned to Virginia to spend the 1998-99 season doing color commentary and teaching private basketball lessons. She also did soul searching and determined conclusively that her future was in coaching, not medicine.
Just 25 years old and still just two years removed from college, Boucek hooked up with the Washington Mystics and Coach Nancy Darsch, who had been an opponent when she was coaching first at Ohio State and then in the WNBA with the New York Liberty. Darsch took on Boucek as a volunteer, but with all the responsibilities of a full-time coach, giving Boucek an opportunity to learn in a hurry.
After one season with the Mystics, Boucek got a call from Ron Rothstein, newly-named coach of the expansion Miami Sol, who she knew from when both were in Cleveland, Rothstein with the NBA's Cavaliers and Boucek with the Rockers.
Boucek fought the idea of becoming a coach, but has now embraced it.
Boucek helped get the Sol to the playoffs in 2001 and within one game of a return trip in 2002, when the team went 15-17. She was preparing for a possible breakout 2003 season when word came that the team was ceasing operations.
"It was real disappointing in a lot of ways because we felt like the next year was going to be our year, that we built our foundation and laid it down for that year, that was the year we were targeting to make a move," Boucek explains. "We were going to have three first-round draft picks, two lottery picks, to add to an already good team with some players getting healthy and (Elena) Baranova coming back from overseas. We were feeling really good about that next year. But I believe that everything happens for a reason, so I wasn't really that upset."
Indeed, the Sol's untimely demise was also an opportunity for Boucek to hook up with Anne Donovan as Donovan constructed her new staff in Seattle. Working with the women's basketball legend was something Boucek had long wanted to do, she says.
"As an assistant coach, I'm always looking at head coaches and thinking who I'd like to work for or just learn from by watching them, and she's always one that I kept my eye on and thought that she'd be awesome to work for or, if not, just a great role model for me. She's such a good person, not just a coach, and treats her players right. When she called, for me, there was no hesitation. I had always wanted to work for her, so when she gave me that opportunity, I didn't have to think twice."
After a successful first season with the Storm ended just shy of a playoff berth, Boucek and the rest of the coaching staff are working hard to ensure that 2004 is even better. In November, Boucek and fellow assistant Jessie Kenlaw were promoted to full-time assistant coaching positions, enabling them to take on a heavy scouting load in anticipation of April's college draft.
Boucek has criss-crossed the country, spending virtually every weekend since the NCAA season began in earnest on the road. She loves the opportunity to stay connected with the college game.
"Yeah, I love it," Boucek says about scouting. "I love the college environment, so it's a real treat to go enjoy those games and watch players trying to win a National Championship, number one, but also take their games to other levels. The college environment is different, I appreciate the difference."
In accordance with the Storm coaching staff's philosophy, Boucek is looking at more than a player's ability when she scouts college games, particularly in person. She's also looking to see how the player will fit into one of the league's most harmonious locker rooms.
"We're watching body language, we're watching interaction, we're watching work habits before the game, all those things as well," Boucek explains. "That's where it's an advantage to go to the games rather than watching them on TV. You really get a better sense of what type of people (prospects) are and how well they'll fit into this team - not just basketball-wise, but as a person."
In addition to her official scouting duties, Boucek also served as a color commentator on a few Fox Sports broadcasts of ACC women's action, returning to her college basketball roots. In addition to being another chance to get a close look at potential draft picks, color commentary is also a natural extension of what Boucek would be doing anyways.
"Such a part of my life was ACC basketball, so getting to go back there and see those coaches, analyze the game, sit around and talk about basketball, it's great," she says. "Even though it's on TV, it's what I would be doing on the couch with my best friend. That's another real huge blessing."
Less than seven years removed from college, Boucek has had the opportunity to participate in the game of basketball at its highest level as both a player and a coach, while also maintaining her connection to NCAA basketball through scouting and broadcasting. Is it safe to say, then, that she made the right choice by pursuing basketball instead of medical school?
"It's very clearly what I was supposed to have done," Boucek says. "That doesn't mean I'll do it the rest of my life. I could still end up going back to med school. Who knows? Clearly, that's what I was meant to do for that time in my life."