The sentiments of Storm fans ended up playing a key role in Lauren Jackson's decision to re-sign with the Storm. Aaron Last/Storm Photos
Stormís Braintrust Thrilled by Jacksonís Return
Brian Agler had just stepped off a plane when he got the news. The Seattle Storm's head coach and director of player personnel turned on his cellphone after arriving back in Ohio to spend a couple of days with his family to find a message from Lauren Jackson. He called her back, and the two-time WNBA MVP shared that she had decided to re-sign with the Storm for the 2009 season.
"She told me what her thoughts were, and I said, 'You've made my year,'" Agler said by phone Monday afternoon, after the Storm had announced Jackson's new contract. "We laughed about that and talked about moving forward here and training camp and our team, those types of things. It was sort of moving that direction over the last few days."
Across the country here in Seattle, Storm CEO Karen Bryant's reaction was "relief" at Jackson's decision.
Jackson entered free agency in January as the most coveted player in WNBA history - a two-time league MVP in the prime of her career and available to any team as an unrestricted free agent. While every WNBA team showed interest, Jackson narrowed her choices to staying with the Storm or signing with the Phoenix Mercury, where she would have played with close friend Diana Taurasi and potentially Penny Taylor, her fellow Aussie and teammate on the national squad.
In March, Jackson made public her desire to return home at the conclusion of her season in Russia to discuss her future with her parents before making a decision, a position the Storm understood.
"As I shared with her yesterday," said Bryant, "We've all been sitting on pins and needles, but I said to her that we really respected the fact that she wanted to eliminate all the distractions and get back home and spend some time with her family and have conversations with the people closest to her before she ultimately decided. To her credit, she was only home I think 36 hours before she made her decision. I think she was as responsive to us as she promised she would be, and we're just thrilled that Seattle is the choice."
Throughout Jackson's decision-making process, Bryant remained "cautiously optimistic." Agler admitted to occasionally feeling somewhat pessimistic, something that was easy to do as speculation mounted on the Internet that Jackson was Phoenix-bound.
"I never lost faith, but there were moments of concern, to be honest with you," he said. "The one thing I tried to focus on was there was so much peripheral talk about what people thought Lauren was going to do. I just focused on what Lauren was telling me the whole time. Everything that Lauren was telling me was absolutely the truth and came full circle. If I stayed focused on that, then it was easy not to lose faith or confidence that this could happen."
While optimistic, Agler and Bryant never took Jackson's return for granted. As they outlined to media last fall at the conclusion of the 2008 season, they ensured throughout the offseason that Jackson knew how much she meant to the organization as well as the Seattle community as a whole. Agler reiterated Jackson's crucial role on the court time and again, a message he delivered while meeting with Jackson in person in Europe three times during the offseason.
The Storm's fans offered a big assist in April. When he traveled to Spain to watch Jackson and Sue Bird lead Spartak to the Euroleague championship, Agler brought with him a book filled with printed copies of hundreds of e-mails from Storm Season Ticket Holders explaining what Jackson's return would mean to them, many lengthy and heartfelt, as well as a video produced by the Storm's marketing staff looking back on her career in Seattle.
Agler saw first-hand what the displays meant to Jackson.
"I know that made a big impact," he said. "The last time I was over in Spain visiting with her, I knew and I could hear her talking about some of those materials to her friends. It did have a big impact. This was a team effort: Everybody had real positive things to do with getting Lauren's attention and helping get her back in the city."
"Some of the things that we did over the last couple of months were really designed to reinforce what a special part of this community she is," added Bryant. "That means not just the basketball community that she spends so many countless hours in the gym with, but really the broader community. As much as she has embraced Seattle as a second home, Seattle and the greater Puget Sound has really embraced her as one of our own."
Fittingly, Jackson's decision came just as the Storm is preparing to ramp up celebrations of the team's 10th Anniversary season. Naturally, Jackson has played a key role in the franchise's history, arriving in time for the Storm's second season as a talented but unpolished 19-year-old and quickly developing into the WNBA's most dominant player. Bryant counts re-signing the franchise's all-time leader in games, minutes, points, rebounds and blocks as one of the best days in Storm history.
"It's definitely amongst the highlights for any number of reasons," she said. "I think the fact that we can bring back who I think is the best player in the game today to our franchise is significant. I think it's coupled by the already strong roster we have on paper - adding Lauren to that mix gives us a lot of excitement about what our team is going to look like and what it's going to perform like on the floor. And especially with the 10th Anniversary season - to have her back as part of the organization as we celebrate that history is a special opportunity for both the team and Lauren."
With Jackson's free agency settled, attention - and anticipation - now turns to the start of training camp, less than two weeks away. Agler's excitement was matched by that of the Storm's All-Star point guard, whom he talked to after the announcement.
"It's just great to have (Jackson) be a part of our team," said Agler. "I'm really looking forward to it, and I know talking to Sue (Bird) today, Sue is just delighted. I don't think Sue was totally surprised, but she never took it for granted either, obviously.
"It's just a happy day. We're very delighted that Lauren's going to be back in Seattle playing for the Storm and look forward to getting her out on the court and working with her and our team. I really felt like a year ago, the last seven games or so before she left, we had a good thing going. I'm hoping we can pick up from that point on."