Brian Agler in Minnesota and Seattle. (L: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport; R: Neil Enns/Storm Photos)

Storm Players, Coach Have History in Minnesota

Kevin Pelton, | Sept. 25, 2012

When the Seattle Storm visits the Target Center for Friday's Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Minnesota Lynx (6:00 p.m., ESPN2, 1090 AM), it will be a homecoming for several members of the team. Players Svetlana Abrosimova and Katie Smith both started their WNBA careers in Minnesota, as did Head Coach Brian Agler.

Agler and Smith were there from the start, coming to the expansion Lynx together before the 1999 season when their Columbus Quest team, winner of two ABL championships, folded with the rest of the league. The former ABL Coach of the Year and budding young star gave Minnesota instant credibility and helped the Lynx finish tied for fifth in the WNBA at 15-17 during their inaugural season.

Two years later, Agler drafted Abrosimova with the seventh overall pick out of UConn. Abrosimova would outlast both coach and teammate, playing seven seasons in Minnesota (including three with Storm Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch in the same role) before moving on after the 2008 Olympics. Smith (205) and Abrosimova (204) still rank first and second in games played in a Lynx uniform, while current Head Coach Cheryl Reeve passed Agler to become the franchise's winningest coach earlier this season. (Smith also lost her place atop the team's scoring charts to Seimone Augustus.)

The group looks back fondly on its time in Minnesota, and relationships with the two constants for the Lynx - Owner Glen Taylor and Executive Vice President Roger Griffith, who runs the team on a day-to-day basis.

"My years there in Minnesota were extremely enjoyable," said Agler. "Knowing some of the people there in the front office, I always feel good about them and enjoy going back there and visiting with them."

"I had a great time there," added Smith. "I know a lot of people. I like the ownership group - they always say hey to me whenever I'm there."

When the Lynx traded Smith at the 2005 trade deadline, a year after losing to the Storm in their second playoff appearance, it marked the beginning of a lengthy rebuilding project. Minnesota would not return to the playoffs for seven years, suffering through a series of lottery campaigns. Abrosimova, who was around for the start of the process, recalls how difficult it was.

"As soon as they started changing coaches, trading players, the atmosphere wasn't good," she said. "You can never win with an atmosphere like that, changing players, coaches non-stop. Finally when they got a group of people and the right coach, they started winning. It shows how hard it is to create something special. It takes years of getting the right people and the right system."

Svetlana Abrosimova in Minnesota and Seattle. (L: David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images; R: Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

The payoff for the time the Lynx spent in the wilderness was a series of top picks. Minnesota drafted Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore No. 1 overall and traded the pick that became Tina Charles to Connecticut to bring home native Lindsay Whalen. Add in Rebekkah Brunson, acquired in the Sacramento Monarchs Dispersal Draft, and the Lynx built the core of a team that won last year's championship and posted the best record in the WNBA this season.

"I'm happy for them as an organization," Abrosimova said. "To get on top and stay on top is not easy."

"It says a lot for Glen and Roger staying true to it, staying dedicated, putting in the work through the tough times and years of not making the playoffs and now reaping the benefits," added Smith. "Happy for them, because they were really behind it 100 percent. They put a lot of money, effort, time into it."

At times, Minnesota struggled to attract fans. Spending two hours indoors during the Twin Cities' short but beautiful summers was a challenge for the Lynx. But the Storm players who were there figured the community might respond as it has to a contending team. Minnesota ranked second in the WNBA in attendance, an increase of more than a thousand fans per game over 2010.

"Sports town," noted Smith. "They love their sports - the Gophers, the Twins, the Vikings. They love basketball. They had it in them. Obviously, having a winner juices everything up."

Like Smith, Agler pointed to the success of women's basketball at the college level in Minnesota. The Golden Gophers drew huge crowds in the early part of the 2000s, when Whalen and Janel McCarville led the school to the Final Four in 2004.

"They had some very good teams there," he said. "In this league, to me, whenever you have a quality team like Minnesota does now, you're going to draw well."

Katie Smith in Minnesota and Seattle. (L: Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images; R: Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images)

As the Storm prepares to head to Minneapolis for Friday's game, Smith is hoping some of the fans remember her contributions for the Lynx and take it easy against her as an opponent.

"I don't care. They're enemy No. 1. They're who we have to beat."
- Abrosimova

"I'm excited to see some people," she said, "and maybe they'll cheer a little bit for me and help us out a little bit."

While it's nice for the group to go back and see familiar faces, once the ball gets tipped Friday evening, the focus will be strictly on beating Minnesota and winning the series.

"It's different from other places because I know people there," said Agler. "But other than that, they're an opponent just like everybody else."

"I'm happy for the whole organization," concluded Abrosimova. "There's a whole lot of UConn players there, too. But I don't care. They're enemy No. 1. They're who we have to beat."

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