I know what you are going to say. I’ve heard it all before, sometimes even out of my own mouth. The WNBA does not hold the same appeal as their male counterparts – it’s just not as exciting.
You and I were both wrong.
The Mercury play a different brand of basketball, there is no denying that. The game is not peppered with the kind of gravity-defying moves and raw power that the NBA supplies on a nightly basis. There is not the name or face recognition that comes with a saturation of marketing campaigns and high-profile media coverage.
But, there is excitement and there is great appeal. The Mercury had been shut out of postseason play for the past seven seasons. But they are now on the verge of advancing to the second round for the first time since the went to the WNBA Finals in 1998 after beating the Storm in Seattle 101-84 on Friday night to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three opening round series.
That alone should be enough for even the most casual Phoenix sports fan to take notice, but there is so much more about this team to rally around.
While killing time in the Seattle airport waiting for our return flight to Phoenix this morning, I was chatting with Mercury athletic trainer Tamara Poole, a veteran in the field of professional sports team training, who summed up the demeanor and attitude of the team in five words.
“It all starts with Coach.”
Head Coach Paul Westhead and I have a couple of common denominators which connect us in odd ways. I was a teenager in Chicago at the time he was the Bulls’ head coach. His Reggie Theus-led teams in the early ‘80s made me an NBA fan for life and that was a few years before some guy named Jordan came along to bring the rest of the world on board (“If Michael came when I was there, I might still be there,” Westhead quipped.)
Several years later, I was sitting baseline in the photographers’ row at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum when Cotton Fitzsimmons’ Suns scored 12007 points in the first half against Westhead’s Nuggets and finished with a record-tying 173 points.
In my experiences watching Westhead both as a fan and from the “inside,” he had come across as a stern, serious, if not downright surly, man. Be it age, experience or the grandkids (or maybe he was never really like that, he just seemed like that), Coach has a lighter aura around him these days.
He can still be stern and demanding with his players, but they respect and love him as a coach, and as a person. They want to play hard for him and give him their best.
I realize fans generally do not support a team because of its coach, but Westhead has set the table and served up a team that you can really get behind. The run-and-gun style he is famous for has worked wonders with the Mercury after many said the faster-paced game could not work in the WNBA. It is a style that has not only been successful, but it is, dare I say, very exciting to watch.
They run, they shoot and they rack up points like no team in the WNBA ever has, and they have fun while doing it. Their fast breaks look like choreographed Globetrotter routines at times and while their rebounding has been a sore spot, they are adept at cutting off the passing lanes and creating fast break opportunities in other ways.
Sound like another highly successful basketball team from the Valley?
It is often the case that when you begin to root for a particular team, they become less appealing when you get past the skills as players and start to get to know them as personalities.
This current Mercury team, also much like our current Suns team, is one where the appeal is only greater when you begin to get to know the players as people.
All-Star guard Diana Taurasi should be called “Perpetual Motion.” She is never still, whether it’s waiting on defense for her opponent’s offense to set up or sitting on the plane watching a movie with reserve guard Kelly Mazzante. She’s always moving, jumping, tapping her leg or biting on her iPod cord.
The three-time NCAA Champion with Connecticut is also an extremely hard worker and her desire to win is only slightly greater than her likeability factor. She always stops for autographs and looks into the eyes of the fans who want to meet her or take a photo.
She leaves you with the impression that she not only understands the importance of reaching out to her fans, but actually embraces it and enjoys the interaction.
All-Star forward Penny Taylor is a friendly and funny mate with an intoxicating Australian accent. Just don’t make her mad. Once on the court, Taylor is as physical a player as there is. She gets knocked around every game and does her fair share of bruising, as well, but always shrugs it off as part of the job, which for her it is. It is simply not a Mercury game until Taylor is on the bench at some point grimacing in pain.
The third in the trio of Mercury representatives in this year’s All-Star festivities is second-year guard Cappie Pondexter. The leading scorer in the team’s Game 1 win, Pondexter is as focused and determined a player as I’ve seen. Her drives to the hoop are lightning-quick and her pre- and post-game demeanor tell the story of someone driven to win a championship.
And while the three All-Stars garner the most attention and credit for the team’s success thus far, there is a general consensus among the organization that this team would be nowhere near what it is without playmaker Kelly Miller and center Tangela Smith, both of whom exude a quieter confidence about them than the more vocal leaders like Taurasi and Pondexter.
The fact of the matter is that this is an exciting and likable team with a legitimate chance at a WNBA.title, if not in the next couple of weeks, then in the next couple of years.
So here is my challenge to you, sports fans from the Valley and elsewhere. Give this team one chance. If you are around the downtown Phoenix area on Sunday afternoon, buy a ticket and see if they can get the two-game sweep of the Storm and move on. If you cannot make it to watch it live, tune in to ESPN2 and watch on TV. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.
If you give them that one legitimate look and it is still not the game for you, you’ve lost nothing but a couple of hours watching a basketball game. If it is for you, you can jump on board now and enjoy the rest of the ride.