After 17 seasons, 558 regular season games and 48 playoff games, Dan Hughes is finally a WNBA champion.
In his first season as head coach of the Seattle Storm, Hughes took a team that went 15-19 and was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round last season and helped transform them into a team that went a league-best 26-8 during the regular season and completed a 6-2 run through the playoffs, including a 3-0 sweep in the WNBA Finals.
“I think that this team that I came into was a very, very special group,” said Hughes after winning the title with a 98-82 win over Wednesday. “All year you could just kind of see the escalation. But I think everything they did from the time I met them was culminated tonight. I mean nothing that we did satisfied them until tonight. You know, and I think that’s a very special group that feels that way.”
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 13, 2018
The opportunity to coach this Seattle team lured Hughes out of retirement. After the 2016 season – his 11th at the helm in San Antonio and 16th in the WNBA – Hughes said he had “reached a point personally and professionally where it’s time for a change.” At 61 years old, he walked away from a league in which no person had coached more games.
In his year away, the Storm struggled to a 15-19 season, endured a mid-season coaching change, and were bounced from the playoffs after a single game for the second straight year. When it came time to find a new coach to lead this team and get the most out of its talented roster, the Storm reached out to Hughes.
“You get to a point in life where you think you know what’s in the future, and then sometimes you have no earthly idea what’s about to happen,” said Hughes. “The one thing I will always treasure is when this opportunity started to develop, I looked at my wife, and she looked back at me, and her words were, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ and boy, that was profound beyond belief, because being a part of this team, being a part — and I’m so happy — one of the first things I said to Sue Bird was I want to give you — be a part of a team that gives you another chance to win a championship.”
The relationship between head coach and point guard is always an important one, and in this case, even more so as Hughes leaned on the 16-year veteran to lead this team and offer a player’s voice to the team as opposed to a coach’s voice all the time. Throughout the season and even in the playoffs, Bird would take the lead during shootarounds or draw up plays during timeouts.
“The communication factor and the way they work with each other,” Hughes said when asked what set this team apart from the others he had coached during his career. “I’ve always been about self correcting on the floor and doing that, I’ve kind of always had that, but I’ve never had a team close to the reality of how they kind of communicate with each other, whether its in practice or its on the court while we’re playing. I’ve never had anything quite like that. And once I learned their personalities, I began to schedule times within practice where they have those moments to kind of interact with each other on a theme of what we’re preparing for.”
Take it all in, Coach. pic.twitter.com/WjTTzhS07t
— espnW (@espnW) September 13, 2018
Players up and down the Storm roster credited Hughes for the trust he put in them individually and as a group.
“Dan and I are really close,” said guard Jewell Loyd. “He has so much trust in us and that is something that is super unique. When you have a coach who supports you and has full confidence in you that helps you tremendously.”
“He let everyone play pretty freely and to their strengths,” said reserve guard Sami Whitcomb. “That was a big thing he said all year, play to your strengths, and that goes a long way with a group that is as special as this, and you have players like Birdy who can just make reads, who can just execute an offense beautifully and Stewie is pretty hard to guard herself. So I think when you say play to your strengths and you let Sue kind of orchestrate it, that’s a good combination.”
“What Dan did when he got here is he really put emphasis on our defense,” said Bird. “He looked at our team in previous years and he understood our offense – I think we were top three in the league in the least three years offensively – but defensively was really the issue. So he emphasized that, but then he let us be ourselves, right from the start. I don’t think that coaches should give players confidence, I think as a player you should find a way to develop it on your own, but it does help when a coach does put you in a game for a few minutes and not take you out after your first mistake. And Dan did that, he allowed people to figure out who they were in our system and then just be that. You have to give him credit for that for sure.”
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 13, 2018
Seattle was the fourth team that Hughes led to the postseason – an appearance in his only season in Charlotte, three during his four-year run in Cleveland and six in his 11 seasons in San Antonio – and the second team he led to the Finals. In 2008, his San Antonio squad was swept at the hands of the Detroit Shock.
Before the series, he was asked if he felt his career would be incomplete without a WNBA championship.
“Using the word incomplete, yes,” he said. “But would my career still be meaningful without a title, yes. My career has got to do as much about relationships as anything else. Incomplete from having it? Yeah, we all want that. So I don’t mind saying I want that as part of what my teams did.”
Ten years after his first shot at the title, Hughes can now check off that item from his career bucket list. It was something he believed was possible the day he took the job back in October of last year.
“When I was coming from retirement to here, yes I did [think we could win the championship],” Hughes said prior to the series tipping off. “I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t. When I looked at my wife and she said you have to do this, I think we both thought if we get some luck and things fall into place we have a chance to do this.”