Chemistry is Storm's Intangible Asset

There are few more elusive concepts in all of sports than that of a team’s chemistry – or cohesion, camaraderie, whatever c-word you’d like to use. Many people think of chemistry like the Supreme Court thinks of pornography – they know it when they see it. Defining the concept, putting into words, is much more difficult. What’s not difficult is identifying what’s not chemistry – or, more accurately, bad chemistry. A fight between the players, bickering between players and coaches in (through?) the media, players padding their stats at the expense of the team’s success – these are all obvious enough. Good chemistry is far subtler, especially for those unable to invade the locker room and the practice facility, where most chemistry develops and manifests itself.

Donovan believes the Storm’s chemistry is ‘special’.
Craig Jones/WNBAE/Getty
The difficulty in identifying chemistry should not diminish its value or importance – though you shouldn’t tell former Portland Trail Blazers President and GM Bob Whitsitt, who was infamously quoted as saying, “I did not take chemistry”. Countless players, coaches and executives have placed its value on a par with that of a team’s talent. While that specific appreciation of chemistry is debatable, it is certain that chemistry can be the difference between a good team and a great team, which is a great deal indeed.

Whatever chemistry is, it’s clear as the halfway point of the season draws near that the Seattle Storm has it.

For some, the evidence might be the way veteran leader Sandy Brondello calmly and quietly takes aside a younger teammate and explains what her years of basketball experience have taught her about how to play the game. For others, it’s the way the Storm’s starters pull for their backups after being removed early from a blowout victory. For still others, the best proof is on the court, in the way the Storm’s starting five plays as a unit, knows what each other is doing and picks up when one is having an off game. For yet others, it’s the team rushing to embrace center Alisa Burras after she finished singing the national anthem before a game.

For Storm Coach Anne Donovan, the Storm’s chemistry was most apparent when the team came home to play the second game of a back-to-back against the San Antonio Silver Stars the night after a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Monarchs. “We lost at Sacramento, we played subpar. It was a very difficult post-game dialogue after the game in Sacramento,” Donovan recalls. “After a tense dialogue, we came back here, on a back-to-back, against San Antonio, a team that had won a couple of games, and just put it to them – won by 40. To me, chemistry is what that was about. A toughness, together, collectively, that they weren’t going to settle for what they did in Sacramento anymore. Nobody acted tired, nobody acted upset about the dialogue, nobody blamed anybody. That was a turning point for me. I saw what we were made of.”

Naturally, a key part of chemistry is having fun. It’s only natural to those who have worked that one performs better, works harder, when they enjoy where they work and what they’re doing. The latter usually goes without saying for professional athletes. The former is not such a given. The Storm is having fun, whether it’s on the practice court or in the heat of intense games. Take the aforementioned victory over the Silver Stars. Sue Bird, her evening of work finished, was standing on the sideline with the rest of the starters. When Coach Donovan crouched down – still coaching as if the game was tied – Bird came up behind her, nudged her in the back and asked, “Who’s tall now?” The Storm bench broke up. It wasn’t a big thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it made what was assuredly already a fun game even more so for the Storm. “We’re just having fun,” Lauren Jackson said after a recent practice. “I think that’s obvious in the way that we’re playing.”

The Storm’s starters formed an almost immediate rapport, despite adding Brondello to the mix. The bench’s chemistry took more time, with three new players playing regularly – Burras, Tully Bevilaqua and Rita Williams. Now, however, the Storm bench believes it has that same rapport. “It’s something that we don't have to work at,” Bevilaqua told the Seattle Times last week. “There’s just something special about this group. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Overall, that the Storm could develop such strong cohesion after adding five players and an entirely new coaching staff to its roster and with just three players – Jackson, Simone Edwards and Kamila Vodichkova – left from two years ago, is remarkable. A great deal of credit has to go to the coaching staff, for helping fit the pieces together, and the front office, for picking the right pieces. Donovan explains that there was a conscientious effort to find players the Storm believed would work well together. “It’s important to have quality people, and I’m a big believer in that,” Donovan says. “You want talent, there’s no doubt – and we have tremendous talent – but you have to have quality people that can really make things happen from a chemistry standpoint. We hand-picked people to be a part of this chemistry.”

As Australians, Bevilaqua, Brondello and Jackson have a special bond off the court, and that helped the Storm coalesce. More important was the willingness of Brondello to share her knowledge, and the rest of the team to listen. “I am a little bit experienced, and if I see things I’ll tell the players,” Brondello says. “It doesn’t matter who they are, they always listen to what you have to say. It’s vice-versa, they can tell me too. It’s sort of a mutual respect.” Is it any wonder Brondello describes the Storm as “one of the closest teams I’ve ever played with”?

The value of chemistry is difficult to quantify – it can’t be found in any stat sheet – but Donovan gives it a try. “I’ve been around teams that really get along, the chemistry’s been good, but this team is truly special,” she says. “Top to bottom, all the way to 12 – Danielle McCulley, who’s been on IR. This team is special. There’s a bond there that gets us probably ten points when we walk into a gym. It’s unmistakable what an advantage that is.”