In part two of our three-part Women’s History Month series, we continue celebrating the defining eras in WNBA history with the Detroit Shock.
The 2003 Detroit Shock are a special team: They kickstarted a dynasty, as the 2006 and 2008 teams would go on to win WNBA titles as well. They were also the first team not named the Comets or Sparks to win the Championship. What was the most important aspect of the team?
“We’d rip your heart out to get a win,” said former Head Coach and General Manager, Bill Laimbeer. Little Caesars Arena burst into raucous applause as Laimbeer spoke during the 20th-anniversary remembrance of the team at halftime of the Pistons game.
As Laimbeer continues, they played with size and physicality across the board that hadn’t been seen in the WNBA yet during its early stages.
In going back and watching games from the 2003 season, their tenacity on the glass stood out, dominating the boards and leading the league in rebounding. Cheryl Ford, whom the Shock selected 3rd overall in the 2003 draft, led the league in total rebounding and would make the All-Star team.
“It was clear early in the season that we were going to be something special. Whether we won or not, well, that was gonna be up to the players, and I give them all the credit in the world. We changed the way basketball was played that year,” says Laimbeer.
The Shock were an extremely young team; the oldest player in the top eight rotation was 28-year-old Kedra Holland-Corn. Four of the starters were 23 or younger.
The youth of the team was outweighed and buoyed by their talent. Laimbeer and the team at large knew there was something special as franchise icon Swin Cash started to come into her own as a leader. They’d acquired Ruth Riley from the Miami Sol in the dispersal draft as she was rounding into her prime. Deanna ‘Tweety’ Nolan, one of the underrated stars of the early W and a Michigan native, unlocked their extraordinary style of play.
A five-time All-WNBA member, four-time All-Star, 2006 Finals MVP, and five-time All-Defensive Team member, Nolan has hardware. Playing the entirety of her career with Detroit, she dazzled as a three-level scorer who put the ball in the hoop with panache.
Athletic crafty finishes around the rim were set up by an incredibly effective pull-up jumper. With a tight and fluid handle, Nolan created space in every which way, crossing defenders into oblivion, snatching ankles back into stepback jumpers, and hitting a hesi to get downhill; Nolan had every move in the bag. She got to the line with ease; She brought an incredibly modern and diverse skill set to the early W, embodying the scoring guards and wings of today much more than two decades ago.
“She was the best player I ever coached,” says Laimbeer. That statement hits hard when reading off the list of players Bill has coached.
Nolan doesn’t take it lightly.
“The things I could do in our era, at my size… I know my career in the WNBA ended a little early, but I feel like I could play now,” says Nolan. She jokes that she could nail a pull-up jumper out of a ball screen right now.
While physicality certainly defined the Shock, their pace of play and ability to move the ball as a team was distinct. They led the league in possessions per 40 minutes for the 2003 season and dominated with transition play.
They didn’t shoot many threes, finishing 11th in makes for the season, but their pace allowed them to play with some of the modern values we see today. The Shock finished first in free throw makes and attempts, largely due to their ability to drive and kick out of transition, with a multitude of players who could handle, pass, and make decisions.
“Our team as a whole kind of introduced that run and gun style,” says Nolan.
“I think we were one of the first teams to get it and go, post up, kick it out, swing it, and then jump shot.”
Swin Cash was essential in that. Cash, more of a four in college at UConn, could really handle the ball and had tremendous court vision. Laimbeer moved her to play the three as a pro, empowering her to push the break, use her vision to set up their shooters, hit the post, or drive and attack herself.
It may seem simple today, but it’s stark when looking at the W then. Cash is one of the very first shot-creating forwards who handled the ball as much as she did. That was crucial in setting up the Shock and changing the game that we see now; setting the table for younger players to develop in a similar track and build off of it.
“You can see more guards, bigger guards that are playing, and that’s the wave. Then, you saw Tamika Catchings, myself, a lot of players coming in that were transitioning (positions). You had to be bigger, faster, stronger, defending multiple positions,” says Cash.
“And then when you’ve got a rebounder like this (Cash pulls Cheryl Ford over around the shoulder), I wasn’t going back to playing the four,” says Cash before she and Ford burst out laughing.
She gives a lot of credit to Laimbeer for having the confidence in her to take on a new role, allowing her to thrive and showcase her skill.
“It was able to change how the game was played and positions listed,” says Cash.
Ruth Riley was pivotal for the Shock, winning Finals MVP during their Championship run. The Shock had the worst record in the 2002 season, making it possible to pick Riley first in the dispersal draft.
‘Worst to First’ became a moniker for the ‘03 team as they completely flipped fortunes, improving from 9-23 to 25-9.
Riley was efficient, and an excellent defensive player. At 6’5, she brought that extra edge of physicality and shot-blocking alongside the 6’3 Ford, who brought excellent helpside rim protection. Cash and Nolan were both incredibly athletic and smart defenders who could make plays on and off the ball; an identity started to form around their core. The Shock would finish top three in defense in four of the next six seasons.
“It was a perfect intersection of great young talent. Bill was a phenomenal coach; he had that experience as a player himself. This team was hungry and had all the ingredients,” says Riley, now a member of the Miami Heat’s front office.
Detroit lost their first game of the season to the Charlotte Sting before ripping off eight straight wins, cementing their place as an elite team in quick fashion during the 2003 season. The only team that beat them multiple times in the regular season were the Dawn Staley-led Charlotte Sting.
Cash, Nolan, and the Shock’s defense dominated the first two rounds of the playoffs, taking the Cleveland Rockers out 2-1 in the first round and sweeping the Connecticut Sun in the Eastern Conference Finals. Few teams in the league had the firepower or defensive personnel to outgun and outscore the Shock when their wing tandem was operating at high capacity.
Beating the Sparks was no small task; They rostered Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest players in basketball history, still in her prime. DeLisha Milton-Jones had been an All-Star in the league, would be again, and was an incredibly versatile forward that could stretch the floor. Nikki Teasley, Tamecka Dixon, and Mwadi Mabika were all All-Star caliber players. The talent was undeniable, but the Sparks lacked depth as their bench only played 30 combined minutes in the Finals (Detroit’s played 111).
The Shock dropped game one to the Sparks in Los Angeles, 75-63. Lisa Leslie dominated with 23 points and 12 rebounds, with the Shock getting run off the court in the first half, but finding some traction later in the game.
They’d survive a firestorm second half from the Sparks in game two, to win 62-61 and then take home game three and the title behind a stellar Ruth Riley performance. Riley would finish with 27 points, 6 boards, 3 assists, and 3 blocks, helping to contain and bottle up Leslie for her quietest game of the series, only scoring 13 points on 19 shots. Nolan hit a three late to seal the game and the series.
“Tweety was gangsta… everything she had, her skill set, not a lot of players were playing like her. And she was a hometown girl that was here… her story needs to be told because she was special,” says Cash.
The players themselves remember that 2003 run as the season that set them in motion as a franchise and as individuals. The Detroit Shock changed the game, bettered the league, exposed a different style and way of playing the game, and brought unique personalities to the forefront of the W.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.