We Have Heroes: The Story of Karen Bryant
I am getting old.
I am starting to creak where once I was springy, starting to need constant upkeep; refurbishments where I once sparkled. My floorboards, once meticulously snapped together and lacquered into place, have been polished and re-polished into mirror-like perfection over these past decades. I've been covered in ice, in tarp, painted in every hue of green and yellow, seen both elation and heartbreak occur on my surface. I've hung banners in my rafters; felt drops of sweat and tears on my surface. I've housed love, then loss. I've even been renamed--the Coliseum, the Pavilion, The Key.
I've felt many shoes walk, sprint, bounce, squeak, and jump across me in these last 52 years. They were all the same to me, varying only by their weight.
Fifteen years ago, though, something changed. I felt a tangible shift in energy; in the very atmosphere around me once this particular set of shoes lightly stepped across my surface. Sensible dress shoes. A slight limp, maybe from sore knees or hips, or the ghost of an old foot injury.
An icon recognizes an icon. A constant figure in a community recognizes when things are about to change. Once Karen Bryant walked across my boards, I knew I'd never be the same.
Part Three: A Devastating Blow
"Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson were and are the dynamic duo. They're the one-two punch. They're all the clichés possible to describe people that perfectly complement each other, who make each other better and also bring out the best in the team." —Karen Bryant
The Storm was set.
Karen Bryant, Lin Dunn, and the passionate Seattle Storm organization were fired up and ready to build both a team and a culture.
They hit grassroots marketing efforts heavily in order to begin building a fan base. In one of the most notable moments of the Storm's basketball history, Bryant and Dunn bounced a ball all over the city for public attention.
"She was really perfect for the (coaching) job," said Bryant. "To know Lin Dunn is to light up. Her smile, her Southern charm, her infectious laugh...she was and is one of the most charming, personable, and funny people to be around."
Dunn was a solid addition to the marketing effort due to her energy and likeability. And as for Bryant, she has been described as "the embodiment of 'grassroots'". It was just another example of Bryant's effort to surround herself with passionate people, and it was working.
The tag-team's passion and effort behind spreading the word of the Storm and the WNBA all throughout Seattle's local scene began to build some serious excitement as the inaugural season approached.
Meanwhile, all over the rest of the nation, the WNBA was causing a major stir.
From eight teams in the 1997 inaugural season to 16 (including the Storm) in 2000, the league was expanding rapidly. The first WNBA game, during which the Sparks played New York, was a packed house.
"I just remember how excited everyone was," said current Seattle player Noelle Quinn, who, as a Los Angeles native, had attended that very first game.
"I was probably 12 years old. And before that, the only dreams young female basketball players had was that they'd maybe play in college, maybe become the first girl in the NBA. Now we had something to dream about."
That thought was in the mind of many new WNBA fans, especially in Houston. It seemed like the Comets just couldn't lose. Led by head coach Van Chancellor and the legendary Tina Thompson, Houston was rolling toward a historical four consecutive titles.
And in Seattle, the Storm was trying to catch the wave of fresh fans. The organization's excitement built as the first-ever home tip approached—against the defending WNBA champion Comets. The roster was set, the tickets sold...and the Storm lost, 47-77.
They'd go 6-26 that first season, but they existed, and that was the first step.
The second was to get some firepower.
Enter Lauren Jackson.
Lauded by many as "the best player in WNBA history," the tough-as-she-is-tall Australian began her career with the Storm in 2001 with a 21-point bang. Seattle's sophomore season was an improvement at 10-22 and highlighted a defeat of the Comets in KeyArena for the first time ever.
2002 was also a historical year for the Storm. It was the year it found itself.
Every powerful post needs a guard to dish them the rock, so prior to the 2002 draft, the Storm set sights on Bird—the ponytailed point guard out of UConn. It was the addition of Bird, alongside Jackson and Bryant that truly gave the Seattle Storm its identity.
"Sue is the Storm," said Bryant. "She's been the face of our franchise for so many years now. She's been the constant coach on the floor through three coaches, she's seen rookies and legends alike come and go."
The most important thing about Bird, according to Bryant, is that she filled the aforementioned roles immediately, without a mentor to show her the ropes. As a rookie, she became a veteran. It was as simple to her as a give-and-go to Jackson.
And in 2004, under new head coach Anne Donovan (and new title of Chief Operating Officer for Bryant), Seattle, despite being picked to finish last in the West, won its first Championship and the city's first professional sports title in 25 years.
Storm fans remember the legendary season's run, from Bird's game post-surgery during which she had a record 14 assists while wearing a sports mask, to being undefeated at home, to the day the Seattle Storm flag flew over the city from atop the Space Needle.
The team and organization had proved itself to the WNBA, and set sights on another championship while boasting the most rabid fan base in the league.
Despite a few years of coming up slightly short in a playoff push, the Storm, under Bryant's guidance, continued to develop and mature.
"We were trying to rally the city beyond just the core group of women's sports fans," said Bryant, grinning. "We were."
Then, in 2008, from the heavy hand of the NBA, came a crushing blow.
Kevin Pelton, the former beat writer for supersonics.com, was walking into KeyArena on the Storm's Kids Day in the summer of 2008 when he found out that the Seattle Supersonics would be uprooted from their home of 41 years and moved to Oklahoma City.
"We found out that the move was official right when rumors were breaking about a settlement between the city and the ownership group, a couple of hours before it was announced," said Pelton. Previously, the team had been sold to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, and rumors of a move had been stirring in the pool of collective cultural no-nos among fans.
The next steps for Bennett and the team are well known throughout the city of Seattle and its passionate fan base. The team moved, the fans mourned, and local sports culture tried to recover in the same fashion as a person who'd recently lost a limb. Life from a sports perspective would go on—but there would be a major shift in the manner in which it did.
"I was surprised, because I thought the city was going to win the lawsuit against the Oklahoma City ownership and keep the team in Seattle for two more lame-duck seasons," said Pelton. "It wasn't a total gut-punch because (after the sale to Bennett in 2006) we'd all had to prepare for the reality that the team was almost certainly going to move at some point, but the finality of it was still painful."
On the day the decision to move the Sonics was finalized, the news started reaching fans during the Storm game that afternoon. Pelton says that around halftime people started making Sonics-related signs in hopes of sending a message to the league and any outside viewers.
As another gut-check, Oklahoma City got the Sonics' historical memorabilia at the time. Seattle lost its men's team and the 1979 NBA Championship trophy along with it.
Bryant, to fill her shared duties with the Sonics, had to make the announcement at a press conference away from her team.
"It was like the ABL all over again, sort of," she said bitterly. "I wasn't there with my team, and I should've been."
She pauses, and then flips through the binder she'd made back then containing her official statements and announcement schedule.
"I should've been with them."
According to Pelton, it became clear that Oklahoma City was not interested in bringing the WNBA along with it, so the Storm was heading into uncharted territory. Without ownership or big-brother financial support, there was widespread fear that Seattle would lose all sense of its basketball culture if the Storm collapsed.
What happened next is one of Bryant's most precious memories.
"I picked up the phone and it was Clay (Bennett)," she said. "He was very charming about it. He said 'So, I hear it's your birthday, and though I haven't known you long I was trying to think of the perfect gift.'
'Yes, Mr. Bennett, it's my birthday,' I said. And then he told me the Storm was staying in Seattle."
"It was awesome."