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, July 11, 2011

Guru's WNBA Musing: Coaching Door Revolves Again With Gillom Ouster in L.A.

(Guru's note: There is a live NY-Chicago game coverage post above this. Some details and quotes are drawn from team reports and AP wire coverage.)

By Mel Greenberg

After the WNBA revolving coaching door swung twice over the weekend how safe can Trudi Lacey be in Washington with the Mystics or Marynell Meadors be with the defending Eastern Conference playoff champion Atlanta Dream?

The only reason to mention those two is there seems to be a trend in the WNBA over its 15-year history that once the season begins if the team one is guiding begins to sink in the standings than that coach eventually gets sunk by the front office.

It was not a surprise late Friday night that Nolan Richardson announced his resignation after the Tulsa Shock, in the early of part of their second season in Oklahoma since moving from Detroit, had lost to the Phoenix Mercury and dropped to 1-10 following a 6-28 WNBA season-worst record in 2010.

Tulsa ownership probably did a lot to help Richardson, the former Tulsa and Arkansas men’s coach, make up his mind given the clamoring for his exit and impatience that had begun seeping into whatever fan base exists in support.

The one positive in Richardson’s short reign was the woeful record earned Tulsa the number two overall pick in April’s draft and the Shock, which had won three WNBA titles under the previous Detroit ownership, chose Australian super teenage post sensation Elizabeth Cambage.

In hindsight, perhaps with as many teams that desired Cambage, depending who might have made multi-player offers for the pick, it might have been better to sacrifice the position and go for more experienced talented bodies immediately in helping restore a roster than once bore the likes of Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith, and Deanna Nolan.

The Shock, for now, named Olympic and Georgia great Teresa Edwards as interim coach for the remainder of the season in what is becoming an eventful summer with her promotion from director of player personnel and an assistant coach in Tulsa.

Next month Edwards will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., following numerous other honors that stems from a career in which she won four gold medals and one bronze playing for the USA in the Olympics.

Edwards recently was named the overall United States Olympic Team Chef de Mission for next summer’s games in London, England.

Unfortunately, things did not change overnight with Edwards’ ascension when Tulsa finished a home-and-home weekend with Phoenix getting hammered by the Mercury 102-63 in the Arizona desert as Phoenix set a WNBA record making its first 11 shots.

But even as Tulsa was experiencing another loss, a quick trigger was pulled in Los Angeles where the Sparks, off to a 4-6 start and 0-6 on the road, including a current five-game losing streak away from the Staples Center, dispensed of second-year coach Jennifer Gillom, who is a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer who starred in the WNBA and at the University of Mississippi.

It was thought that for now Gillom would get a pass considering that Sparks superstar Candice Parker is out for six weeks with a knee injury suffered in Newark, N.J., against the New York Liberty at the second road stop on the current trip.

The swing continues at the San Antonio Silver Stars Tuesday night where the trip began and though Los Angeles is struggling, the Sparks are still very much in the playoff hunt following last season’s barely making the playoffs with as 13-21 record.

However, Parker missed all but the first 10 games in 2010 as she underwent shoulder surgery for a nagging injury dating back to college at Tennessee.

And so on Sunday night after the Sparks returned from a demoralizing 99-80 loss at Seattle to the WNBA defending champion Storm, general manager Penny Toler, who scored the first points in WNBA history in 1997 playing for Los Angeles, waited to inform Gillom that she was done.

Assistant coach Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of NBA Lakers great Kobe Bryant, was named as a replacement for the rest of the season after having already once oversaw the Sparks from August 2005 through the 2006 season.

“This was a very difficult decision, but I felt it was necessary to take the team in a different direction at this point in the season. Joe’s familiarity with the Sparks organization puts us in the best possible position to compete going forward, and should make for a seamless transition,” Toler said in a statement “We respect Jennifer’s commitment to the Sparks and understand she has faced adversity with player injuries during her tenure. That being said, with a short season and playing in the competitive Western Conference, winning games early in the year is critical and the Sparks’ goal remains to contend for a WNBA Championship.”

In Bryant’s full season, the Sparks won the Western Conference with the league’s second-best record at 25-9 but lost in the final round of the conference playoffs in 2006.

Assistant coach Sandy Brondello, who was head coach in San Antonio last season, will be retained to work with Bryant.
It’s possible Gillom’s ouster could affect her standing with USABasketball where she had been an assistant on the World Championship squad under UConn’s Geno Auriemma that won the gold last September in the Czech Republic.

Auriemma’s staff has yet to be named for London though it was expected DePaul’s Doug Bruno and WNBA Atlanta’s Marynell Meadors would be retained.

But since Gillom is now unemployed it is not known how that might affect her. Anne Donovan had left Seattle where she was a WNBA head coach but she already was the existing Olympic coach for the gold-winning effort in Beijing in 2008 and had been employed at the time of her appointment.

Gillom earned a spot in the USA loop off her effort as interim coach of the Minnesota Lynx, which was injured riddled in 2009 but still competed.

Ironically, when she was hired in Los Angeles there had been a split in the Sparks front office, according to sources at the time, and that one faction wanted to hire John Whisenant knowing the Sacramento Monarchs of which he was coach-general manager were about to be jettisoned by the parent NBA Kings.

But Toler won out and hired Gillom.

Ironically, after sitting out 2010, Whisenant landed on his feet this past winter as coach-general manager of the New York Liberty, which is in the hunt again in the Eastern Conference as the team is steadily adjusting to his White Line defensive style.

The elder Bryant, by the way, played for La Salle University in Philadelphia, and the Guru, back in his much younger days, covered him for several games for The Inquirer.

It is not known if both interims will be back next year in Tulsa or Los Angeles but what is known is Van Chancellor, the former WNBA Houston Comets coach who won the first four league titles with the former franchise, has told friends since his ouster from LSU in April he’d love to be back on the sidelines in the pro league in 2012.

Meanwhile, if injuries and tough schedules – not all are equal in the WNBA, only the number of games – can’t be considered a safety net, whither Lacey and Meadors?

Atlanta (3-8), which rose to heights in the franchise’s third season as a former expansion entry, has struggled at the outset and only the Mystics’ record (2-8), which is one win less, is keeping the Dream out of the basement.

Injuries affected Atlanta’s start and Meadors holds both titles under an ownership that for now has created one happy family.

But everything has been forward progress since Atlanta’s launch and this is the first slide in the other direction though it wouldn’t take much of a win streak to turn things around.

The Washington picture is a little more gruesome where Lacey also holds both coaching and GM positions.

Injuries have had a major impact on Washington’s return to mediocrity, not likely to improve on the current road trip, after a season in which the Mystics rose to a franchise-best 22 wins, first-place Eastern tie with New York and No. 1 seed in the East playoffs.

Former Duke star Monique Currie suffered a knee injury in the offseason and is out for the entire 2011 schedule. Blue Devils great Alana Beard, who missed all last season following foot surgery, has yet to play this summer after suffering an ankle sprain just before last month’s opener.

Then recently former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne, the lone returning starter off wholesale changes from last season, has missed the last three games – all losses – due to back problems and is listed day to day.

Mystics fans could normally grin and bear the difficulty were it not for already being ticked off when in cost cutting moves last winter Washington ownership fired likeable general manager Angela Taylor. Soon thereafter, coach Julie Plank left when she was asked to take both positions.

Marianne Stanley, a former Washington head coach, is back as an assistant, though getting a head coaching job back in the nation’s capital over a potential Lacey ouster is not something she would desire.

Washington does not seem likely to be ready to be making a move now given the circumstances, though if the losing continues and the fan base shrivels, higher authorities at the Ted Leonsis level may have other ideas.

But then again injuries to a team’s star did not keep Gillom in safe harbors.

Meanwhile, in the Tulsa game where Edwards’ debut was ruined, Penny Taylor had 16 of her 18 points in the first half for the Mercury (8-4), who moved into a technical first-place tie with idle San Antonio (7-3) and idle Minnesota (7-3) in terms of games behind but are a few percentage points off the mark.

Phoenix goes to Minnesota Wednesday when all four games on the league schedule are afternoon events. Tulsa will be in Chicago the same day.

"It's tough, but you can't use that as an excuse," Edwards said after the loss. "I really thought we made a stepping stone today just trying to adjust and come in here and making a few adjustments and carrying it over to the game."

Diana Taurasi added 12 points and six assists as the Mercury have won four straight and eight of nine since a 0-3 start.

Tulsa’s Tiffany Jackson had 19 points for the Shock and Cambage scored15 points.

"We're excited, it feels like a fresh start, a new start," Jackson said. "We probably didn't start out like we wanted to, but we know Coach Edwards is really going to get after us. We're learning from the best, so we are excited about it."

"I think we were pretty focused," said Tulsa rookie Kayla Pedersen out of Stanford after she scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds. "It's a new start, it's a new day and we really wanted to close that chapter from before."

Despite winning in Tulsa on Friday night, Taylor said the Mercury were cautious approaching the return match two days later.

“Obviously they are in a tough moment, so it was important to come out and be aggressive,” Taylor said. “You always know that when a team changes coach, they come out hard and aggressive. So we jumped on them from the start and that was a good test for us."

-- Mel


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