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The Team Behind the Storm: Inside the Practice Squad

Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | Aug. 12, 2010


One of the city's best basketball teams never plays any games, and its roster changes from day to day. It includes former Pac-10 players and others who have played overseas, yet sometimes its responsibilities are limited to assisting with drills. This "team" is the Seattle Storm's practice squad, a group of men who practice against the Storm on a regular basis and help the coaching staff in the team's development.

PRACTICE SQUAD BIO

Name: Grant Leep
Playing Experience: University of Washington, 1998-2002
Day Job: Assistant men's basketball coach, SPU
On Observing Coach Agler's Practices: "I think he runs a great practice. He's really organized. They run some really good things offensively. Being able to be around some Xs and Os and see some of the stuff they're running offensively and the concepts they use defensively, it's been really nice."

Former Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan created the practice squad when she came to Seattle from Charlotte. Since replacing Donovan, Brian Agler has kept the practice squad around and made more use of the men, who have become more critical now that WNBA teams are limited to 11 players, leaving fewer bodies for practice. About half of the league's teams uses practice squads, mostly for similar reasons to those cited by the Storm.

"We play against the guys for a couple of reasons," said Agler. "To play against good athletes - some size, some strength, some quickness. We can still keep our players fresh because we don't have to play them all the time. We can sub in and out that way."

"I think the biggest effect that both Anne and Brian have seen is that it limits the repetitions that our players go through against each other," added Director of Basketball Operations Missy Bequette, who has overseen the practice squad since its inception. "We do it enough on the road when we are practicing each other.

"They're able to have someone who basically doesn't know our plays, they're more physical, they're more athletic ... they take us to a higher level in some respects. But I think the biggest thing is the reps, that you don't have to have everybody in practice all the time - especially with an 11-player roster if somebody's sick and somebody's tired or somebody played 40 minutes in a back-to-back."

When she arrived this season as an experienced Euroleague veteran but a newcomer to the WNBA, Storm forward Jana Veselá was surprised that the Storm practiced against men. The practice is not common in Europe. However, many American players worked against practice squads throughout their college careers. Elite teams like Tennessee and UConn both make use of male practice squads, and before he became a Pro Bowl quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks practiced against the women's team at Boston College.

"I've been practicing with practice guys since college," said Storm center Ashley Robinson. "They become your competitors, your biggest supporters and your friends throughout the years. These guys, they are men with jobs but they take the time out to come practice with us. I think it's important to our development as well, because we don't beat up each other."


Aaron Last/Storm Photos

PRACTICE SQUAD BIO

Name: Justin Lord
Playing Experience: Westmont College (Santa Barbara), one year in Australia, one year in Denmark
Rivalry: Lord has been defending Lauren Jackson for eight years, and on occasion Jackson has been known to ask him to stick around after practice for more one-on-one work in the post.

"There was a time where they used to run a clear-out play for Lauren. I knew it was coming, and I told her ahead of time, 'You're not going to get this.' She caught the ball and she drove baseline. I played perfect defense. She just hung in the air and I hung. She shot it over me and made it and looked at me. I had to respect that."

No Average Joes

The men who practice against the Storm aren't exactly the guys you'd see at lunchtime down at the Y. In order to challenge the Storm's players, members of the practice squad need to be talented enough to have played the game at some of its highest levels. That kind of experience also helps them pick up the various strategic changes needed to simulate each opponent before upcoming games.

While three teams (Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix) held open tryouts for their practice squads last offseason, the Storm has long relied on a word-of-mouth system of recommendations, using Bequette as the conduit. In the early days, Redmond Athletic Center trainer Mike Lawson helped send the team players he thought could help.

"Mike worked with Karen (Bryant) and the Reign - they had tryouts for a practice team back then," said Bequette. Mike has been instrumental over the years in sending me guys because he trains guys at various clubs in the area. Guys will call me or text me and say, 'I've got a guy who would be good.' For them to put their word on the line, that means a lot because they know that's somebody who will respect what we do and know that they're just in there to help us. Rarely, if ever, do we take somebody on a cold call. I don't know everybody and their background. I need to know somebody who can vouch for them. That's important."

By this point, there are a handful of members of the practice squad who have been around for years. Justin Lord is the longest-tenured player, having been practicing with the Storm since the beginning of the practice squad in 2003. Jimmy Quigg has been a fixture since 2004. Meanwhile, with players coming and going for a variety of reasons - they leave town or can no longer take time away from work during the middle of the day to get out to practice - new members are always joining.

This season, the Storm's move to a new practice court in Seattle Pacific University's Royal Brougham Pavilion allowed the team to add a pair of Pac-10 veterans to the practice squad. Grant Leep, a former starter and captain as a senior at Washington, where he played from 1998-2002, is now an assistant for SPU's men's team and probably the most recognizable name on the practice squad. Donte Quinine, SPU's assistant athletic director for compliance, played at Oregon before playing professionally. Rashaad Powell is another practice squad member with pro experience, having played in domestic minor leagues and abroad after starring at Renton High School and winning Big West Defensive Player of the Year at Idaho.

"I think having basketball experience at the collegiate level makes a difference," said Agler. "Those are usually our best practice players because they've been in a practice environment before. They understand that there's a time when you're active, a time to absorb teaching and those sorts of things."


Aaron Last/Storm Photos

PRACTICE SQUAD BIO

Name: Matt Heuer
Playing Experience: Peninsula High School, Everett Explosion (IBL)
Day Job: Manager of Events and Entertainment, Storm
Mixing Work and Play: One of two Storm employees who has played on the practice squad (Account Executive Thomas Adamski is the other), Heuer has found it's helped. "I can ask them to do goofy things at media day because of the relationships I've established with them on the court and respect I've gained through doing that."

The Importance of Mindset

As much as talent and experience, the most important factor in a successful member of the practice squad might be their approach to the experience. Ultimately, the practice squad is there for one reason and one reason only - to make the Storm better players.

"You want guys that aren't so driven by ego and they're happy to get out there and help," said Lauren Jackson. "I think guys that are out to sort of make the Seattle Storm - you're not going to make it! - they're the worst. Guys who are aware of their masculinity and their strength and go out to compete and make it better."

Bequette makes that clear from the start in her instructions to members of the practice squad.

"I give the guys a list of things that are important," she said. "They have to have no ego - the ego has to be about how they can help the Storm. I tell them that in the beginning."

The veteran members of the practice squad understand that well.

"The team is the team and we're here to serve our role, which is to help them get better," said Lord. "I think you just have to keep in mind that it is always about them. It's not about the men competing against the women. It's, 'What can we do today to help them prepare for their opponents?'"

If there's a sense of pride for the practice squad, it's in the performance of the Storm on the court. Donovan once infamously ripped the guys after a preseason blowout loss for not preparing the team well enough. But when the team plays well, that reflects positively on the practice squad.

"Obviously 2004, winning the championship was just phenomenal," said Quigg. "Anne Donovan thanking us at the party at the end of the game ... I know I had tears in my eyes during the parade. It was an amazing, amazing experience."


Aaron Last/Storm Photos

PRACTICE SQUAD BIO

Name: Jimmy Quigg
Playing Experience: Capital High School (Olympia)
Day Job: Telecommunications attorney
Best Memory: "The first one that comes to mind is showing up a tad late to practice, doing this drill. I jumped in there, hadn't barely even tied my shoes, but Anne said, 'Get on the court, Jim.' I had to backpedal to catch up with Betty Lennox, caught my loose shoelace and ended up doing a 360 flying through the air and everybody fell on the floor laughing. That was a great memory."

'They Keep Coming Back'

Life on the practice squad isn't always glamorous. There are practices where the men are asked to do nothing but defend the entire time. It can also be dangerous - Lord broke his nose in 2004, and Matt Heuer (who serves as the Storm's manager of events and entertainment) recalled having his mouth bloodied by a Yolanda Griffith elbow.

Still, as Agler puts it, "They keep coming back, so I think they're enjoying the experience." There are a variety of reasons, but the quality of basketball is near the top of the list.

"It's a chance to play real basketball again," noted Lord, "where you have to do all the little things right - you have to box out, you have to hedge on screens, you have to communicate, because if you don't, you're not really serving your function out here."

"They're the best," added Quigg. "You're playing against the elite. I play because I'm honored to play with them, because it improves my game and because hopefully, in some way or form, I improve their game as well."

Competing with the Storm's players day after day, members of the practice squad can't help but feel a great deal of respect for them and the women's game.

"In high school, I held the stereotypes that the average male does about the women's game," Heuer said. "I remember my first practice being wide-eyed, jaw down about how good they are - how fast and fundamentally sound and good they are with the ball. They can beat college-level and international players in pickup games. I've become a strong advocate of the women's game because of being on the court with them."

"I had played with some of the women at Washington, so I kind of knew what to expect to a degree," said Leep. "The thing that has really surprised me is how well they can all shoot. Every person on the roster can shoot the ball. That's what I've been most impressed with. In the men's game, there are so many guys that rely straight on athleticism - being fast and quick and being able to jump. I think there's a pretty big emphasis in the women's game on having skills - being able to shoot and handle the ball and pass it."

There's also a personal element. Over time, members of the practice squad develop relationships with the players they compete against on a daily basis. The excitable Quigg, in particular, has become part of the Storm family over his run with the practice squad.

"Right now, I feel like I'm watching my sisters play basketball," he said. "They're not my sisters, but I'm with these women constantly. It's been seven seasons now. I feel part of the family."

"I mean, everybody loves Jim," said Robinson. "I think Jim's like the MVP practice guy. A lot of them are from Seattle. We've got out with them a few times - they tell us places to eat, things to do. They're just good fellas."

"I think our players respect them because so many of them take off work - either go in early or take vacation time - to come in and practice with us," Bequette said. "They spend anywhere from an hour and a half to two and a half hours practicing with us when they could or should be at work, or time away from their families on weekends. The guys who have come over the years, it's been a commitment, but I know our players appreciate it and they enjoy it a lot. They really do."