Corey Gaines is Exactly What the WNBA Needs
To the Mercury head coach, basketball is basketball.
by Ben York
Corey Gaines understands the game of basketball more than most. After all, he’s played in every level imaginable and has been deeply immersed in the intricacies of the game for several decades. But it’s his refreshing approach to women’s basketball that could be his greatest accomplishment.
Gaines doesn’t coach women any different than men; they put on a uniform just like everyone else and compete equally as hard. Thus, he believes the respect and admiration they receive should be the same as men. And while there are many people that have to consciously remind themselves of this fact, it comes naturally to Gaines.
Perhaps his high level of awareness stems from an enhanced knowledge of both the game itself and the culture of the sport. In college, Gaines played at UCLA with Reggie Miller before transferring to Loyola Marymount in 1986 to play for Paul Westhead. At Loyola, Gaines would play alongside Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers as the starting point guard, guiding the team to a 26-game win streak in 1988. Gaines was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft playing 5 seasons in the NBA and 12 seasons internationally before rejoining Westhead as an assistant coach in the ABA in 2003. He would then serve as the Mercury’s top assistant coach to Westhead in 2006 and 2007 before taking over the head coaching reigns in 2008.
It was his time as a player and assistant with Westhead that would ultimately shape his coaching style and approach to the game. Westhead (currently the women’s basketball head coach at Oregon) is famous for his high-octane, run-and-gun style of play. However, Gaines says that in addition to learning the up-tempo offense from Westhead, he also developed a keen sense of how to treat and interact with players.
“I trust my players and they trust me,” Gaines said. “Nobody thought Westhead’s system would work. When Paul [Westhead] first ran the offense with the Mercury, nobody thought it would work with women. Well, we’ve won two championships in three years. In 2008, we didn’t have the players. Everybody thought it was luck that we won our first one. Well, guess what? We won it again last year .”
So, what is the system? We know that it’s fast and produces an insane amount of points offensively, but what exactly does it consist of? Why is it so difficult for opposing teams to guard?
“The best way I can describe it is this,” Gaines began. “Let’s say you have to take some sort of physical test in a few weeks. Everyday, you run 2 miles – jogging, etc. After a while, you start to feel like you’re in pretty good shape. But on the day of your test, they say you have to take the test at a higher speed and for a longer amount of time. Then, it’s not the same test. You struggle. Our players practice, shoot, and play at that fast of a pace at all times so it’s not new to them. Even if you think you are matching our pace, we can go faster. It bothers you. Of course, there are games like the Atlanta [Dream] game last year when it just doesn’t come together but that happens with every team. Other teams can always go slower, but they can’t always go faster.”
But what makes the way Gaines coaches so unique? A fast-paced system doesn’t always translate into success (i.e. Golden State Warriors). What does it take to implement the system effectively?
“You need the right players,” Gaines said. “We had the right players in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. If you can’t shoot the ball, you can’t shoot. Simple as that. Our system puts people in roles and they buy into them. All of our players know and believe in our system; they believe it can work and have seen that it can work. People always get on me for not calling timeouts. Why should I? What am I going to say to the team that they don’t already know? These players aren’t dumb, they know what to do. We have a team of veterans that play hard and understand what we are trying to do. It’s always funny to me to watch TV and see some coaches draw this amazing play for the final seconds, and then the team isn’t even able to get the ball in. I trust my players, and make sure they trust me. It’s a two-way street. We have the same goal and they understand their roles. What I do isn’t really coaching, it’s managing personalities.”
That last statement stuck with me – managing personalities. That made complete sense. It’s why Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are so successful in the NBA. They have effectively managed egos, consistently garnered buy-in from players, and have commanded respect at all times. They’ve always been the type of coaches who were able to plug players into defined roles and inspire confidence in their collective team. More than anything, there is a mutual trust between player and coach and that faith in each other goes a long way.
“I’m the type of coach who is real,” Gaines said. “I tell it like it is and I think the players actually like that better. Help me help you. If I make a mistake or if I screwed up, I’ll tell you. For example, in the Finals last year after we lost to Indiana in Game 3, I sat in the coach’s room for maybe 20 hours and had about 87 different plays drawn for the next game trying to figure some loophole that would help us. Then, I just snapped and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing’? Don’t make it complicated. It’s simple. We need to keep the game simple, keep it easy. So, we just ran the same plays over and over again and they couldn’t stop us.”
As for the players themselves, they absolutely love Gaines’ approach to coaching. He understands what makes them tick, how to best motivate them, and when to let loose the reigns. The term “players coach” is thrown around a lot, but Gaines really does put his players first – just like family.
Gaines recently signed a one-year deal to remain the head coach of the Mercury in 2010. With how quickly things change in the WNBA, he didn’t feel the need to extend the deal for multiple years and said, “If I do a good job, they’ll want me back.” Entering his third year as the Mercury’s head coach, Gaines still sees room for improvement both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. He continually seeks input from his players and fully admits his way or philosophy isn’t always the absolute best. Because of this, his coaching style is more permissively democratic rather than a strict hierarchy.
“The system evolves as the years have passed,” Gaines said. “As the game has evolved, so has the system. It changes as the game changes. It takes you out of what you know. We are creatures of habit. So when I tell my players to turn up the heat, it throws you off. The other team might think they are playing fast, but I can go faster. Then, if the other team tries to go faster they’ll get tired quickly; they’re not used to the pace. My players are. Our style isn’t normal, but it works.”
A perfect example of the way Gaines cares for his players involves former Mercury forward, Le’coe Willingham. Willingham came to the Mercury during his first year as head coach in 2008 and simply wanted a chance to prove herself in the league. Gaines recalls speaking to Le’coe at the time and said he would give her the opportunity to showcase her skills in order to put her in the best possible position to continue her tenure in the WNBA and provide for her son and family. Recently, Le’coe signed a deal with the Seattle Storm that was a significant upgrade in pay.
“Le’coe called me a couple weeks ago just to thank me,” Gaines said. “I told her no matter what, I just was happy that she had a chance to come in and prove herself. That’s exactly what I told her two years ago. I was a player once too so I know what they go through. Le’coe has a child, a family – I wish her the best.”
In fact, in an article in SportsBusiness Daily in 2008, Gaines was quoted as saying that an “increase in salaries, TV coverage, and respect” are the three things he wished most for in regards to WNBA players. Gaines clearly has an affinity and admiration for his players and respects what they mean to young women everywhere.
Although the Mercury won the WNBA Championship in 2009 and is heavily favored to repeat, the league is now down to 12 teams and competition will be as fierce as ever.
Gaines wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I want the West to be extremely competitive,” Gaines said. “Honestly, it’s the best thing for us. Why would you want to play in a weak division? Last year, the tough games we had in Seattle, Indiana, San Antonio, L.A. – they all made us a much better team come playoff time and helped us win the championship. To get better, you have to play the best. When I was growing up, as a teenager I would go to the gym and get my ass kicked by grown men and players who were better than me. I knew what I was doing. That’s the only way I was going to get better!”
Having a person like Gaines as an advocate for the WNBA is invaluable to the future success of the league. Gaines is just a cool guy who gets it (professionally speaking, of course) — he understands the work ethic of the players, their value to the sports world, and their amazing talent.
And he loves every minute of it.