The pioneer in Anne Donovan tells her that the Seattle Storm’s home game away from home in Spokane tonight is not only novel, but necessary.
“If we’re looking to grow the WNBA,” said the Storm’s second-year head coach, “we’re going to have to try some new things – and if it means playing outside Seattle for us, that’s what we’ll do.”
And then there’s the pragmatist in her.
“There’s one side of me that very selfishly doesn’t want to give up KeyArena,” she admitted earlier, “what we’ve got going here.”
The challenge, then, is to see if the Storm can get it going here, when they take on the New York Liberty tonight at 7 p.m. at the Spokane Arena as the WNBA experiments for the first time in taking a regular-season game outside one of its primary markets.
The confluence of a lengthy home stand and an untapped audience pool in Spokane of some 100,000 streetball players and watchers milling about downtown for Hoopfest this weekend prompted the Storm to try this public relations Hail Mary – knowing they could have 1,000 or so lonely souls rattling around inside the Arena, but hoping for more like 5,000 potential converts.
“I think we should sell it out,” Seattle center Lauren Jackson offered boldly.
Well, it’s the year for the Storm to think big.
Though they’ve had but one playoff appearance in their four seasons of existence – an out-in-two-and-barbecue, in Hoopfest parlance, in 2002 – the Storm are making championship noises by getting off to a league-best 8-3 start, fueled by a couple of prescient off-season acquisitions.
To Jackson, the league’s MVP, and U.S. Olympian Sue Bird, Seattle added guard Betty Lennox, formerly of Cleveland, in the dispersal draft and acquired starting forward Sheri Sam and first sub Janell Burse in a trade with Minnesota that cost the Storm a first-round draft pick.
The result has been a deeper, more athletic and certainly more potent Storm lineup – the best shooting and highest scoring (74.4 points per game) in the WNBA. While Jackson and Bird have seen their scoring averages drop about two points a game (to 19.2 and 10.9, respectively), Lennox and Sam are averaging almost 10 points a game more than the 2003 Storm starters they replaced.
“But experience is the bigger part of it,” said Donovan, the Basketball Hall of Famer who guided the Storm to a franchise-record 18 victories a year ago, “the competitiveness and attitude with all the players and how they’ve approached the game.”
And that experience has paid its biggest dividends in Seattle’s performances on the road – four straight victories after losses at Phoenix and Los Angeles early in the season. That’s a direct contrast to Seattle’s 5-12 road record a year ago, including seven losses in a row at the end.
“Three of our top six players are new, but they have valuable experience in the league,” Donovan said. “There’s no replacement for that. The ins and outs of playing games back to back, travel, media obligations – dealing with all that and still being ready to go when the jump ball goes up, that’s something you grow into.”
Which isn’t to say the Storm have it down cold yet. Returning home to Key earlier this week after that successful road swing, they suffered a meltdown against Houston and lost 63-57 in easily their ugliest effort of the season.
Still, one game is not six – and six in a row is what the Liberty have lost, the worst of them being a 24-point drilling the Storm administered in New York two weeks ago. On this road trip Thursday night, the Liberty had Phoenix in a 20-4 hole to start the game and wound up losing 72-60.
The Liberty, who are led by guard Becky Hammon, have been plagued by a limited inside game and inconsistent play on the perimeter after a 6-1 start.