Palmer is Perfect Storm Addition
Three days after the Seattle Storm suffered its disappointing playoff series loss to the Houston Comets last September, Storm Coach Anne Donovan met the local media and laid out her plan for the Storm to avoid the same fate in 2006. More than anything else, Donovan identified one type of player she wanted to add.
"I'd like to see another piece come onboard," Donovan said. "I'd like to see some experience added. We have tremendous experience - Lauren (Jackson), five years in the league already, Sue (Bird), four years in the league already, so we have experience. I'd like to think about adding another older player to the mix. We thought about that last year; it was difficult to work out."
Donovan went on to describe the player as, "Somebody who wants a ring at all costs."
Thousands of miles away in Russia, Bird celebrated when she heard that Palmer was coming to Seattle.
"I was very excited," says Bird. "I thought last year when she was a free agent that it would be great if the Storm could have gotten her. Then we finally did this year. I was just really excited. In her, I see somebody who obviously has that veteran leadership. She has a calmness about her. But I also thought she would fit great into our system, just really complement what we already had her."
After veterans Tully Bevilaqua, Sheri Sam and Kamila Vodichkova left the Storm as free agents following the team's 2004 Championship run, pressure was put on Bird and Jackson to step into a greater leadership role. As great as both players are, however, it's not a natural fit for them at this stage of their careers. Bird and Jackson prefer to lead by example. Palmer has given them that opportunity by taking a more vocal leadership role.
"A lot of the leadership, in terms of vocally and what not, would always fall on Lauren and myself and then Betty (Lennox) when she got the team," Bird says. "But it can be tough. To have somebody else is big. She's calm, cool, collected, that savvy veteran. I think it's great to have that voice in our huddles."
Never before had the Storm had a leader quite like Palmer. Bird cites elements of her influence as being present in past teammates, from Sam's vocal presence to Sonja Henning's strength and maturity to Vodichkova's quiet dedication and work ethic. Palmer offers it all.
Donovan, by contrast, has coached a player like Palmer before. When Donovan was in Charlotte, Dawn Staley (who preceded Palmer at Virginia by one season) was an extension of her coach on the floor, both as a point guard running the team and as a vocal leader. Staley wasn't afraid to criticize her teammates when it was necessary but remained good friends with them through it all. It is Staley, who now coaches under Donovan as an assistant for the U.S. Senior Women's National Team, who is Donovan's archetypal leader. She sees similarities between the two veterans, particularly now that Palmer, like Staley, is coaching at the NCAA level (as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth) while continuing to play in the WNBA.
"There's a maturity that comes from playing on both sides of the white line, on the bench and on the floor," says Donovan. "Just by her age, 10 years in the league, she knows how to play with a lot of different personalities. And she knows how to coach different personalities from VCU. That transition, it's not an easy one, and the players who make it successfully, like Dawn, like Wendy, have a whole lot to offer when they came back into a playing role."
Palmer says leadership is something that was born in her and comes naturally to her, but she admits it wasn't always that way. If you go back to her collegiate career at the University of Virginia, she deferred to a teammate who is very familiar to Storm fans - former Assistant Coach Jenny Boucek, who remains good friends with Palmer.
"I think I fought it in college," says Palmer. "I was definitely a leader by action more so than verbally, and I didn't necessarily want to become a verbal leader. At times, I was, and at times I wasn't. I think that's where Jenny and I were so good in college. Jenny was more of a verbal leader the first couple of years. I knew it was something that had to be done. It was easy for me to gradually grow into that, because she was there."
As Palmer moved on to a professional career, first in Europe (Palmer finished up at Virginia in 1996, the summer before the WNBA opened for business) and then in the WNBA, she got more guidance from fellow North Carolina native Andrea Stinson. (In a small-world-of-women's-basketball twist, Stinson was Staley's backcourt-mate in Charlotte for six seasons, including both of Donovan's years in Charlotte.) Nearly seven years Palmer's senior, Stinson provided valuable wisdom to Palmer, who calls Stinson her "big sister."
"She taught me stuff here in the States, but she really helped me get through being in Europe," says Palmer. "She had been over there so many years. She took me under her wing, took care of me."
As Palmer emerged as a star in the WNBA, earning Second Team All-WNBA honors in the league's inaugural season and playing in the 2000 All-Star Game, she continued to grow as a leader.
"I think now it just shows all the time, whereas in those early years, we had other leaders on the team," Palmer says. "You're just so caught up in trying to do your own thing, not really realizing how big leadership is off the court. I was always a leader on the court. Off the court, I kind of laid back and just let things happen. I think I've really stepped up the last few years."
That has been evident throughout training camp, as the Storm has gotten everything expected of Palmer and more. Donovan calls her "solid gold" from a leadership standpoint, and her teammates call her "Mama" - when they're not busting on her about the lip she busted open after getting hit with an elbow in practice earlier this week. Palmer and the Storm's lone rookie, forward Barbara Turner, have quickly bonded as Palmer helps Turner navigate a new league.
"She's made my transition a lot easier," says Turner. "I talk to her a lot, hang out with her a lot. Probably 24/7 when we're not in the gym. She's always talking to me, telling me what I need to do to get through this season, what I need to do to possibly get out of any ruts that I may be in. She's just been there for me. She's like my right hip. She's helping me walk, helping me take baby steps to get better and be able to succeed at this level."
"She's doing a tremendous job," offers Bird. "She really does all the little things, whether it's a loose ball or playing through a play. A lot of our younger players, including me, see her doing it, and it makes you want to play just as hard."
"I don't think you have to change your game," Palmer says of continuing to have success on the court. "You just have to add to it. I'm not going to outjump these kids, but I'm going to win mentally over them. I was a fearless rebounder; I just went in reckless. Now I can tell where my teammates are going to shoot. You have to kind of gauge where their shots are going to come. You do that in practice. Just experience in the league, you know what shots players like. You just go to where the rebounds are going to go."
Palmer led the Storm in preseason rebounding (7.3 rpg) and tied with Jackson atop the team in scoring (11.0 ppg). While she was signed with the idea of using her to back up both Jackson and starting center Janell Burse, with Burse sidelined by a partial tear of her left shoulder labrum, Palmer will likely be a starter on Sunday when the Storm hosts the Los Angeles Sparks on Opening Night (6:00 p.m., FSN, ).
On the court, Palmer matches the Storm's needs because she is equally adept at playing the high post and feeding Jackson down low or working in the low post, where her crafty moves and veteran savvy make up for the fact that she is no longer as athletic as most of the power forwards she faces. Palmer is also happy to be a role player at this stage of her career.
"I'm not coming in here trying to be the focal point of the team," she says. "That's not what I want to do. I want to come in here, play defense and rebound and I can score if I need to."
It was that mindset that led Palmer to choose the Storm as a free agent when several teams were interested in her services. After losing to the Storm in the 2004 WNBA Finals while with Connecticut, Palmer has made a championship ring her primary motivation.
"I was like, 'In my tenth year, what is it that I want the most?'" says Palmer. "Do I want to go somewhere where I'm on the court for 40 minutes, putting up huge numbers, maybe an All-Star because that team is not very good? If I play all those minutes, I'm definitely going to get numbers. Or do I want to go somewhere were I have a chance at a ring?' If I walk away from this game and I never get a ring, it will not be because I did not put myself in that situation. I felt strongly that I put myself in that situation here."
Because both player and team had done their homework, Palmer says, "I didn't have to work to fit in. I just came and was myself. I think that's the great thing about free agency - teams can look at what they need. The coaching staff stressed they needed veteran leadership with experience."
Even if she was unable to contribute as part of the rotation, Palmer would have been a valuable addition to the Storm because of her leadership and key role off the court. Even if she were a non-factor away from basketball, Palmer's presence would be critical to a Storm team in need of depth up front. To fill both needs with the same player? That is truly the perfect Storm addition.