Reflecting on an ‘Extraordinary’ Season
The Fever’s head coach speaks about the significance of 2009 for the WNBA.
by Ben York
In 39 years as a coach, Lin Dunn has seen just about all there is to see on the basketball court. With over 525 victories to her name, she’s unanimously regarded as one of the most successful coaches in women’s basketball history.
But the 2009 WNBA season is quite possibly her most cherished to date.
“Extraordinary,” said Dunn, when asked to describe the season. “’Extraordinary’ describes it the best. It’s really because of a number of things – the chemistry with our players both on and off the court, how players 1-11 came together, the fans, the coverage, everything.”
Though, for Indiana, in spite of their success the mood wasn’t always bright and uplifting. There was an unmistakable dark cloud hovering over the Fever throughout the year with speculation that ownership would not keep the Fever in Indiana past 2009. Citing the low fan attendance and yearly net losses, ownership maintained that it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Fever would be relocated in 2010. After the dust settled from their remarkable season, ownership has since spoke of a renewed commitment to keep the Fever in Indiana. “Looking back, it becomes more and more special,” Dunn says about the resilience of the Fever. “We played an entire season wondering whether or not we were even going to have a team. The players did a great job of not letting that affect their play. There were some articles that came out that were difficult to deal with, but the players really did a good job of not letting the situation affect them.”
There was an indelible sense of greatness to this Fever team from the very start. Playing phenomenal team basketball from the beginning, they quickly became nationally recognized for their incredible team defense along with their trademark intensity in the regular season. “People will talk about the Playoffs and the Finals but we really did have some great regular season games,” said Dunn. “We really started creating an interest in Indiana when we won 11 in a row early on. I remember the New York game where we were down 17 and came back and won in overtime. The regular season got us on a roll, the fans became excited, and the media started supporting us more and we went from good coverage to great coverage.”
As Dunn stated, the majority of people and fans will remember the Fever’s 2009 Playoff run, which truly created the perfect setting for the state of Indiana to rally behind this Fever team more than ever before. But, in order to advance to what has become known as the greatest WNBA Finals of all-time, the Fever had to do something they hadn’t done before – beat the Detroit Shock to capture the Eastern Conference Championship. “Anytime you do something for the first time it’s special,” Dunn says about advancing to the WNBA Finals. “Finally beating Detroit was special to get to the Finals. But before facing Detroit we had some great games with Washington even though it was a two game series. The playoff run before the Finals was absolutely special.”
After beating the defending WNBA Champions to advance to the 2009 WNBA Finals, the Fever faced a Mercury team with an almost limitless amount of offensive weapons. The talk of the series at the time was the dichotomy between the two teams; the match-up of offense (Mercury) vs. defense (Fever). But, Game 1 certainly shook off those notions with an incredibly high-scoring 120-116 overtime win for the Mercury. On a personal note, I remember tweeting that it was, by far, the greatest basketball game I had ever seen – men or women. That game defined how basketball should be played, and captured the true essence of the sport.
The subsequent four games were just as lively, just as fun, and just as significant as Game 1. “Larry Bird buying those tickets for the fans was amazing,” said Dunn. “I had never heard of anything like that happening before. How amazing for the fans! For all the people watching on TV, the fans, the players, the coaches, the trainers, everybody – it was an unforgettable experience.”
For someone like Dunn who has been so incredibly influential in women’s basketball, her description and testament of the 2009 season should speak volumes. “I have to say that I have never in my career participated in a five-game WNBA series with such intensity, such emotion, or such skill,” Dunn stated with fondness. “As I continue to look back more and more it is even more special and widespread than I originally thought. It was such a special moment in time and so much fun to be a part of. Even now in the offseason, many people still come up to me with comments like ‘what a wonderful series.’ It was extraordinary.”
In spite of constantly facing the stark reality that 2009 might be their last season in Indiana, the team still managed to create an unprecedented following and interest in the women’s professional basketball. “It definitely was a turning point for us in Indiana,” Dunn said about the 2009 season. “For us to go from 8,000 fans to 18,000 fans by the end of the year is amazing. There really were a lot of sports fans and basketball fans in general that came out to support us with our games being exciting and so much fun to watch. We managed to create a new interest and energy in the women’s game.”
Though, the energy and interest Dunn speaks of certainly wasn’t limited to Indiana. It’s easy to sense the excitement and sincere appreciation that Dunn has for being lucky enough to be a part of that paradigm shift. “I think it  was an important milestone in the growth of the women’s game,” said Dunn. “You know, we don’t have legislation that keeps us or the league in business; we have to fight and work to get to where we are. I think the 2009 season took the game to another level. There’s no doubt it was a turning point in the professional game.”
Yet, for all the recognition the WNBA and the Fever received in 2009, there still was one important component missing for Dunn – a WNBA Championship for the Indiana Fever. “We were very disappointed that we didn’t win,” said a reflective Dunn. “We believed from day 1 that we could and we almost did. I mean, it was a tied ball game with two minutes left in Game 5.”
For Dunn and the Fever, it makes 2010 that much more important. “It really showed me how important home-court is,” Dunn said. “We want to be back in that situation in 2010 so when the buzzer goes off, that’s our trophy.”