Sports

Reign Drop Their Mental Past For A Sane Future

It’s a rival for survival. It’s a talent diluent. But the Women’s National Basketball Association is still the best thing that could have happened to the American Basketball League.

There can be no plot without conflict. No Thelma without Louise.

No - or fewer, anyway - irrelevant comparisons with the men’s game when this intragender rumpus is so much more compelling.

And what comparisons or parallels remained have pretty much been slam-dunked by the ABL’s Seattle Reign, which after an icky inaugural season did just what NBA wisdom - oxymoron intended - has always contended you couldn’t do.

They kept the coach and fired the players.

The rationale behind this makeover was both anchored in logic and fraught with risk, but as Reign general manager Jim Weyermann tells it, the club really had no choice.

“Four of our players from last year,” he said, “would have made the All-Psychology Today team.”

So what is it he’s telling us in advance of tonight’s 7:30 exhibition game against the San Jose Lasers at the Arena? That the Reign in Spokane - hey, use the Weather Channel pronunciation - is plainly less insane?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

As we enter Year Two of this latest - and greatest - experiment in women’s pro hoops, there is bound to be a certain CBAish flux to all ABL rosters. An expansion franchise was added to the original eight. The college class of ‘97 was especially gifted.

“And Year One was about learning and growing,” said Reign coach Jacquie Hullah. “We’re still trying to get this right.”

In San Jose, the Lasers are trying it by the book - that is to say, they canned the coach after a minor mutiny despite making the playoffs with their best player injured.

In Seattle, where the Reign didn’t make the playoffs and the nicest thing the marquee players could say about their coach was “No comment,” they’re making it up as they go along.

There are two versions of this. One - the diplomatic, reasoned explanation - comes from Hullah, and for her it all begins with Kate Starbird, the franchise at Stanford and now in Seattle.

“We really wanted her bad, and the league wanted her bad,” said Hullah. “And with only so many dollars to work with, we had to make some decisions about re-signing players.”

The players in question being Venus Lacy and all-stars Cindy Brown and Tari Phillips.

Lacy, the Olympian, played only 10 games for the Reign last season because of knee problems and “our doctors’ reports were questionable,” Hullah said. Brown, they were convinced, wanted to return to play in Europe “and it would have been a mistake not to trade her.” And by trading Brown and Phillips - the all-star game MVP - the Reign was eventually able to get center Val Whiting and another first-round pick.

For the down-and-dirty version, go to Weyermann.

“There were nights last year, frankly, where you could see it didn’t matter whether they won or lost,” he said. “Certain players were concerned about what it would take to make them famous and less interested in what it would take to win.

“The deciding factor for me was, regardless of who coached that team, would the chemistry change? And the answer was no. We had drafted great basketball talent, but not great mental talent. The me-first attitude of two or three of the premier players was never going to change. And the destructiveness they had on the younger players tore this team apart.”

So Hullah, who many presumed would be gassed, survived - not only survived, but was allowed to draw up the blueprints for the remodeling.

“Frankly it would have been a hell of a lot more unfair to the city of Seattle and the fans if we’d pretended that the easy answer was to change the coach,” Weyermann said.

“Yeah, the fans could walk away from us. A lot of things were voiced about the coach, and that’s typically the way it goes. But you’re seeing even in the NBA, with the deal they gave Rick Pitino and the deal they gave Pat Riley, that managements are realizing we have to take the game back - we have to take control of running our organizations. The Shawn Kemp thing in Seattle is another example. That was a tough decision - but no matter what the talent is, the divisiveness off the court plays such a factor in your ability to win.”

Hey, that’s right. You hear so much about which of the women’s leagues is going to win that it’s easy to forget that individual teams feel any urgency to do so.

Weyermann, naturally, is convinced that the ABL is on the fast track in that race - that all the WNBA did was “make women’s basketball a household name, make it legitimate in the minds of sponsors, advertisers and crossover fans.”

As at least a partial result, ticket revenues are up 68 percent in Seattle, where the Reign averaged 3,229 in Mercer Arena last year. Corporate sponsorships, said Weyermann, are up 78 percent - “and if two or three deals go through this week, we’ll be over 100 percent.”

Of course, the ABL’s games will be on Fox Sports Net and BET, not NBC. And the league is having trouble getting in the door of national sponsors who are locked into the NBA or using other strategies.

“But the real competition in this war is the product,” Weyermann insisted. “Great marketing sells mediocre product once. And the irony is, the top-end player the WNBA marketed and overexposed and paid the bulk of the money to were not the best players in their league.”

In Seattle, the best players are gone. The only question is, have they been replaced by better players?

“There is,” Weyermann admitted, “no excuse for us this year.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABL tipoff Tonight: Seattle Reign vs. San Jose Lasers, 7:30, Arena.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

This sidebar appeared with the story: ABL tipoff Tonight: Seattle Reign vs. San Jose Lasers, 7:30, Arena.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review



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