Graf Gets Her Chance in Phoenix
Graf has gotten a long-overdue shot as a WNBA head coach this season.
Through that time, Graf earned a reputation as one of the league's brightest minds, a fine tactician who was key to the Storm improving from 15th to 6th in Offensive Efficiency from 2001 to 2002.
At the same time, Graf was also passed over for several WNBA head coaching jobs she was a candidate for - Phoenix twice, in 2001 and 2003 and Seattle in 2003. While no one could question the Storm's selection of Anne Donovan, who had three years of WNBA head coaching experience and a WNBA Finals berth in Charlotte on her résumé, each time the Mercury hired ex-players with no WNBA coaching experience, former Houston Comets great Cynthia Cooper and Shumate.
That led to rumors that Graf wasn't considered marketable enough to be a head coach, in no small part because of her Australian nationality. When the Mercury hired Graf, she became just the second Australian coach in WNBA history, following in the footsteps of Washington's Tom Maher. Maher, whom Graf assisted on the Australian National Team, lasted just one season with the Mystics in which the team finished 10-22.
Might Graf's performance reflect on the chances of future Australian coaches in the WNBA? She is torn on the issue.
"I hope that I do well and I hope that that's just seen as good coaching, regardless of my nationality, that I've been a part of this league for a long time as an assistant," Graf said before her Mercury took on the Seattle Storm last week. "But if it helps pave the way if I can do well, if it helps pave the way for other Aussie coaches, then fantastic."
On some level, a bias against Graf might have been justified by her multiple coaching responsibilities. Graf has divided her seasons between the WNBA and Australia's WNBL, where she spent four years coaching the Canberra Capitals to two league titles. Graf was also coaching New Zealand's National Team in preparation for this summer's Olympics, but when she was picked for the Phoenix job, Graf quit both positions to focus exclusively on the Mercury (in a strange twist, she was replaced in both roles by Maher), demonstrating the importance in her mind of a WNBA head coaching position.
"It was absolutely a goal, and I'm fortunate that I've achieved it," Graf said of becoming a head coach. "I don't want to just be here for a season and not help this team do something special. I want to stick in this league as long as I can and help this team turn itself around over the next few years."
In that process, Graf is off to a fine start. The Mercury opened the season as one of the WNBA's biggest surprises, winning three games in a row to sit atop the Western Conference last week before losing two straight on the road at Seattle and Minnesota. That returned Phoenix to .500, but it is clear that a repeat of last season's 8-26 record is not in order.
While the majority of credit for the Mercury's turnaround has to go to its pair of number one picks, Penny Taylor (Dispersal Draft) and Diana Taurasi (Amateur Draft), Graf has certainly played a key role. The media and opposing coaches have praised Phoenix's execution in the early going, as the Mercury's dangerous perimeter trio of Taylor, Taurasi and Anna DeForge has fit perfectly into the offensive scheme blended by Graf and assistant Brian Agler. Storm play-by-play announcer David Locke likened the Mercury's execution against the Storm in Phoenix to that of the John Stockton and Karl Malone Utah Jazz.
Despite her extensive head coaching experience in Australia, Graf does admit to being somewhat surprised by the added responsibilities produced by her new title and moving a few feet down the bench.
"There's more requirements and more responsibilities - this, the media stuff before the game, all the little extra things that go with being the head coach," explained Graf. "I knew that was there, but not until you actually do it do you realize the extra stuff that fills your head."
Still, given everything else that comes with the position, Graf isn't complaining.