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Larry Stone: As the Storm dominates the WNBA, coach Dan Hughes can only watch from afar

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 8, 2020

By Larry Stone The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – As the Storm goes through this historic WNBA season in the Florida bubble, one man watches from Beavercreek, Ohio, with keen interest, occasional input – and undisguised pride in the team’s performance.

That would be Dan Hughes, who under normal circumstances would be coaching the team that has the league’s best record at 16-3 after defeating the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday, 90-89. Hughes guided the Storm to its third WNBA title in 2018 – and then had to sit out part of the 2019 season after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract.

There might be some wistfulness within Hughes while he observes from afar. But there’s no mixed emotions as he roots unabashedly for a successful run by the Storm, which now has his assistant, Gary Kloppenburg, in charge.

“I would like nothing better than to see this team win a championship and me be a virtual coach,” he said. “That would be absolutely fine with me.”

Hughes said he was all set to head to Bradenton, Fla., in late June with the intent of coaching in the coronavirus-shortened season. After discussing it with his wife Mary he was willing to take whatever risk was involved in entering the bubble. Throughout that week, the 65-year-old Hughes had been “totally immersed” in staff meetings to prepare for the season.

But when all members of the WNBA traveling party had to fill out medical evaluations for screening as a final step, Hughes was flagged by the league’s doctors. Hughes notes that there are older coaches within both the WNBA and NBA bubble – but the combination of being 65 and being a recent cancer patient made him too high a risk if he were to get COVID-19.

“There’s nobody who has the package I’ve got,” Hughes said in a phone interview recently.

Alisha Valavanis, the Storm’s CEO and general manager, called Hughes to tell him he would not be approved for bubble entrance. Though obviously disappointed, Hughes said he understood the decision.

“There were enough signs that people were trying to prioritize my health,” he said. “It wasn’t that they were trying to treat me badly. They were trying to protect me.

“When they say you shouldn’t go, and they tell your organization that, it’s a little hard to say, ‘You’re wrong. I should be there.’ There are things I want to do in life. I have a few things left to do.”

So Dan and Mary are ensconced in their bubble in Beavercreek, located near Dayton. It includes their daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren, who live very close, and his ailing mother, whom Dan visits weekly.

“And that is everything I do,” he said. “Aside from watching WNBA games, and texting and Zooming and calling, that’s my life. It’s pretty boring.”

For a guy deemed too risky to coach, Hughes feels great. Just recently, in fact, Hughes received the joyous news from doctors that he was cancer-free and 100% healthy.

“I wished I had known all that earlier,” he said. “I could have maybe made a case for myself. But it’s OK. They (the Storm) are doing great, and I try to support every way I can.”

Hughes describes his role in the Storm season this way: “I support.” And it goes both ways. When he informed the team he wouldn’t be joining them in Bradenton, he was deeply touched by the response. Hughes said guard Jewell Loyd texted her well wishes while he was still talking. Forward Breanna Stewart asked if she could call him after he finished.

“And (guard) Sue (Bird) just kind of stood up in front of the group and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take care of business. We know what to do,’ ” Hughes said.

Hughes sees one of his key roles now as something akin to being an advance scout. He watches the Storm’s next opponent on television and makes 10 to 15 notes on that team. He also receives some analytical input from a friend. All that information he shoots off to Kloppenburg.

“And Klop just takes care of business,” Hughes said. “He’s done a phenomenal job. This is not an easy situation to be coaching in. You’re in the bubble, with one day to prep, and he’s done a great job. That’s the same job he’s done for two years for me, and I just want to be a help to him.”

Indeed, Hughes believes this is something of a returned favor to Kloppenburg, who has been on his staff since 2018 and filled in last year while Hughes underwent cancer treatment. Hughes is very mindful of not being meddlesome but texts back and forth with Kloppenburg after each game. They also talk throughout the week – “the same dialogue we’ve had for three years,” Hughes said. “It hasn’t changed very much.

“Gary has supported the heck out of me for two years. He has been a huge part of whatever success I have enjoyed, including last year, jumping in when I had cancer surgery. I try really hard to be supportive of him. And Noe (assistant Noelle Quinn) is the same way. I love working with younger coaches. That’s just been my sweet spot where I get a lot of enjoyment.”

The Storm’s success is no surprise to Hughes. He could see it coming last year when they finished above .500 despite playing the entire year without Bird and Stewart. With their return, Hughes knew the Storm was capable of soaring in 2020.

“I spent more time on preparation for this season than any season I ever had,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic I’m not coaching. But the things taking place with the team are exactly what I kind of hoped it would be. You merged that 2018 team that just got better and better, with the improved depth from 2019. And they are such good chemistry people, too.”

Hughes said his wife can attest that he is slightly more relaxed watching Storm games from his couch – except when he doesn’t like an official’s call. He can sense when a play has been designed by Quinn, whom he calls “a real keeper.” Mostly, he marvels at how Kloppenburg has kept things percolating through trying times.

“The culture doesn’t look a lot different to me, to be honest with you,” Hughes said. “There’s very few times I don’t understand a moment. I kind of get him. It’s the same things we talked about long before the season started.”

Hughes said he keeps “a running dialogue” with the Storm players, mostly via text. He stresses that it’s mostly generic things like, “Hey, be strong today.” Our interview was conducted before the WNBA season halted for two days in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis.

“I’m not coaching them, but I want them to know I’m supporting them,” Hughes said.

Will he be back coaching them next year? Naturally, much will be dependent on the state of COVID-19. But Hughes said, “I am not retiring. I very much want to coach in the Olympics (he is an assistant to Dawn Staley on Team USA). That has always been a lifelong goal for me. And I don’t feel like I’m done. I think part of the reason for me to be cautious here was to have a chance to elongate my career. Those are things that will get answered in time, but I definitely have things to do going forward.”

First on Hughes’ agenda is watching the Storm finish their run to what he hopes is another title, in which he would take enormous vicarious satisfaction. In the meantime, he is proud of the assessment of a friend regarding how Hughes has handled his sabbatical:

“He texted me and said, ‘What I love about you is that you’re like a teacher that can step outside the classroom, and things still keep going good.’ ”

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