Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Guru Report: WNBA Season 15 Eve Has Arrived !

By Mel Greenberg

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – A difference between Christmas Eve and the onset of the WNBA summer is that the one that occurs in December is an overnight experience in anticipation of the many gifts that will be opened at sunrise while in the other coaches have the next several weeks to immediately begin playing with their special delights in hopes of leading to success when the actual months of competition begin the night of June 3.

Training camps are under way and associated media days will be held, including the one here at the Mohegan Sun casino-entertainment establishment Monday afternoon, which will include rolling out a new floor in front of season ticket holders.

Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault hopes a year of experience added to the youthful presence of 2010 will mean snapping a two-season absence from the playoffs that had been an annual Sun event since the franchise was brought North after the NBA Orlando Magic organization jettisoned its WNBA sister Miracle prior to 2003.

Another former member of the UConn powerhouse family returns to the Nutmeg State in second-year pro Kalana Greene, who arrived via draft-day deal that sent Sun pick Sydney Colson off the NCAA champion Texas A&M Aggies to the New York Liberty.

To focus on the actual conference races in the East and West at this moment would only mean to cause a redundancy several weeks from now when the WNBA season is actually ready to takeoff from the launch pad.

Still, there are things to discuss in terms of overall storylines and individual team situations where camps will be about rookies trying to force their way into veteran-laden 11-player rosters beyond the newcomers from the first round of April’s draft with the best shots at making the grade.

There are also some golden oldies in Sheryl Swoopes and Betty Lennox who are attempting comebacks after signing deals with the Tulsa Shock.

With a series of exhibition games primarily next week, including one here Thursday night against the Chinese women nationals, the object will be to get everyone battle ready.

One special event will occur in England where on May 29 in Manchester the WNBA runnersup Atlanta Dream will play an exhibition against Great Britain a year ahead of the country hosting the 2012 Olympics.

Former WNBA All-Start Dawn Staley, retired but coaching South Carolina in the NCAA, recently made a trip to help promote the international meeting next week.

In a change, early action should be improved over summers past for no other reason than a later opening day this time around is allowing more players to arrive at camps closer to the start dates following their winter competing overseas.

Year 15 will mark special events at WNBA home office level, highlighted by the All-Star Game’s first appearance in San Antonio, Texas, in late July where the Alamo City is hoping to add another memorable women’s experience to one in April 2010 when the NCAA Women’s Final Four was held.

For the third time the WNBA has a new leader, in this instance straight from the business world where marketing wonk Laurel Richie was plucked from the Girl Scouts to succeed Donna Orender and undertake a mission aimed at keeping turnstiles spinning all the way to the title game in September.

Her first official day on the payroll happens to be today (Monday).

No question last season was the most competitive ever, though for a change it was the East that shone more. Still, though the West was a sea of mediocrity with losing records abound, the dominance at the top by the Seattle Storm continued straight to the championship and a second title after a hard-fought series with the three-year-old Atlanta franchise.

The Storm has all its mainstays back, including Australian star Lauren Jackson and former UConn great Sue Bird, but the West is expected to be much more productive than 12 months ago.

Eyes are always on former Connecticut star Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury, perhaps the top player in the world, but after a winter of controversy that featured a suspension that was eventually recanted in the Turkish League over alleged use of a banned sleeping aid, the actual rest during her penalty may have done her well.

Taurasi was clearly the top player in the recent three-day USA Senior National Women’s Team training camp in Las Vegas, according to reports from those who attended the workouts at UNLV.

Training camp also means introductory time again in terms of new coaches and in the present go-round Dan Hughes hired himself back to the sidelines in San Antonio, former LSU coach Pokey Chatman is running the Chicago Sky, Trudi Lacey has been promoted at the Washington Mystics, and John Whisenant, former general manager-coach of the defunct Sacramento Monarchs, now holds the same dual roles with the New York Liberty.

When it comes to new delights, no one could be more giddier than Minnsota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, the former La Salle star in Philadelphia, who is expected to transcend her squad from 2010’s injury-riddled frustrations to a championship challenge.

Why not? In early winter the lotto ping-pong balls were nicer to her than the favored and forlorn Tulsa Shock in sending the No. 1 draft pick rights in Minnesota’s direction.

That meant Maya Moore, the Connecticut superstar, while a draft-day trade with the Connecticut Sun of a year ago also meant owning the fourth overall No. 1 pick and Reeve cashed in selecting former Xavier post player sensation Amber Harris after Chicago picked Gonzaga all-America guard Courtney Vandersloot.

“We would have still been happy if Amber had gone to Chicago and we picked (Ohio State all-American) Jantel Lavender, but it is nice to get everything you actually hoped for,” Reeve said.

Unlike a year ago, the Lynx have former Stanford star Candice Wiggins and former LSU star Semone Augustus fully healed to be in the lineup on opening night June 3 when Minnesota visits the Los Angeles Sparks, who have their own healed sensation in former Tennessee all-American Candace Parker.

That will be the only game that date before four others are held June 4, including a season-opener here with the Washington Mystics.

Despite not getting Moore, Tulsa did all right second in line on draft day in selecting Australian teenage comer Elizabeth Cambage, who’s effervescence on draft day stole the show at the ESPN studio headquarters where the event was held in Bristol, Conn., near Hartford.

Cambage’s arrival is being briefly delayed due to visa technicalities, according to the Shock, who are not worried about the situation.

Former Duke star Alana Beard missed all last summer but is expected to be ready to return to action with Washington, where a testy fan base has still not gotten over some of the front office changes after the team’s best season ever.

Washington tied for first with New York in the East, got the No. 1 seed in the tie-breaker, but was quickly knocked out of the postseason by Atlanta.

On the court in terms of personnel in the off-season the Mystics had a Duke-a-thon – former Blue Devils star Monique Currie suffered a 2011-sidelining injury, Lindsey Harding was traded to Atlanta for newcomer and first-round pick Ta-Shia Phillips out of Xvier, while newcomer and first-round draft pick Jasmine Thomas (Seattle) arrived via a deal following the conclusion of selections in April.

Off the court, however, general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank were let during a cost-cutting move by the Mystics organization, Lacey was promoted and assistant coach Marianne Stanley was re-hired.

New York veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a free agent again, this time took off for Minnesota where she reunites with coach Reeve from their days of glory with the Detroit Shock champions who relocated to Tulsa prior to last summer.

Superstar Katie Smith, also a former Shock, went from Washington in a three-team deal that reunited her with coach Brian Agler and his assistant Nancy Darsch in Seattle.

Agler coached Smith to two titles won by the Columbus (Ohio) Quest in the brief existence of the American Basketball League (1996-98), which collapsed under bankruptcy in December 1998 two months into season number three, while Darsch coached the one-time dental aspirant at Ohio State.

As noteworthy as the Washington offseason front-office action was, the team that will undergo special scrutiny for many reasons is New York, which had returned to winning ways last summer courtesy of the arrival of former Rutgers all-American Cappie Pondexter.

Anne Donovan had already announced her intention to return to the collegiate level prior to 2010 when she accepted the Seton Hall job – though former Liberty coach expects she will be somewhere courtside as a spectator.

But out of nowhere one day the MSG hierarchy decided to jettison longtime Liberty front office head and Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski, who eventually accepted a job at her alma mater at Montclair State.

Blazejowski had been New York’s only front-office head since the WNBA inaugural summer of 1997.

Whisenant, who led Sacramento to a WNBA title in 2004, was hired to fill both jobs, which seems to be the cost-cutting mantra with Chicago having done a similar action with Chatman’s hire.

But there is a new challenge ahead – New York will be playing across the Hudson River the next three summers at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while Madison Square Garden undergoes a series of renovations.

Such as the state of the newspaper industry is these days, it is already questionable short of using wire coverage how many publications will send staffers on ferries, railroads, and subways over to Jersey and it is also a curiosity to see which Garden State publications will appear.

Associated Press national WNBA writer Vin Cherwoo out of New York, a good buddy of the Guru, said unless he hears otherwise he expects to make the trip for the home office so it is not that the wire reports will lack expertise.

But the fan base from Manhattan’s environs on the New York side is already not thrilled about an extended trip, including late-night return perils that could exist on public transit.

Furthermore, from what the Guru heard, Casey Sherman, who was the main media contact for the Liberty, is not being replaced.

If all does not go well, new WNBA president Richie may find that her first challenge might be to lead a rescue effort in Newark just a few miles away from her oval office.

-- Mel

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