On the Road with the Phoenix Mercury
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After winning their second championship in three years, the 2010 Phoenix Mercury would have a vastly different look. Cappie Pondexter, who some call the “Dwyane Wade of the WNBA,” had requested a trade to New York to play for the Liberty in the offseason. Cappie was a fan-favorite in Phoenix so the news came with a bit of shock. Though, it was nothing personal; she has a fashion business in NY and is from Chicago so playing in the East Coast just made more fiscal sense. But, as a bi-product of her request, the Mercury needed to get creative in order to acquire a player remotely close to Pondexter’s caliber.
General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale, a women’s basketball legend, focused her sights on Candice Dupree, a 6-2 superstar who played for the Chicago Sky. Head coach Corey Gaines loved the way Dupree could fit in to his up-tempo system, as a good portion of his scoring options are designed for the player in the 4 spot. I won’t get in to the specifics, but the Mercury pulled off a phenomenal trade that would provide them with the inside presence they sorely needed along with having the ability to resign key players Temeka Johnson and Penny Taylor. There’s also a player you might’ve heard of named Taurasi that returned, but we’ll get to her in a bit.
With so many new pieces, the 2010 season started a bit slow for the Mercury. You didn’t see a single member of the team panicking though; you could tell it was more of a comfort issue and they just needed more time to play together and get a feel for each other. The integration of Candice Dupree, a vital piece of their formula, wasn’t going to happen overnight.
My role during our time in Seattle and Los Angeles was to observe the normal routine of the players on the road and document it – while staying out of the way. Knowing I’d be traveling with the team for a week beginning June 6, I was secretly hoping for a win when they faced off against their bitter rival, the Los Angeles Sparks in Phoenix on the 5th. That game was on a Friday and we were scheduled to leave Phoenix just 12 hours later. A win for the Mercury would most likely mean the players would be a little more upbeat and jovial, at least for the start to the trip. After all, embarking on a tough two-game swing on the road with a 3-3 record is infinitely better than 2-4. In a very physical game, the Mercury pulled away with a victory on a last-second defensive stop. Selfishly, for me, the trip was already off to a great start.
The next day, I arrived early to the arena where the Mercury would have a quick shoot-around before boarding the team bus to the airport. I noticed I was the only one in the arena save for the grounds crew setting up for the Arizona Rattler’s (AFL) game that night. Some of the players came in early for treatment on any nagging injuries or for preventative measures. Candice Dupree had been nursing a minor quadriceps injury for the past week and trainer Tamara Poole was doing some therapy on her before the flight. With this being somewhat of an informal practice, the players arrived intermittently throughout the hour. The best way I can describe the goal of the shoot-around is simply to stay sharp; never get complacent. Assistant coach Julie Hairgrove took the big’s to work on post-up moves and some last minute defensive assignments while Director of Basketball Operations Bridget Pettis oversaw the guards on the other end of the floor for spot-up shooting. Even though this was a light session, the players certainly didn’t treat it that way. Admittedly, I was a little surprised; this was the defending WNBA Champions who came off a win just a few hours prior – it would be easy for them to take the gas off, especially right before a long flight. Diana Taurasi probably gave, roughly speaking of course, 4,912 high-fives during the hour — always leading, always encouraging.
When the shoot-around wrapped up, the players headed in to the locker room to shower and change before boarding the team bus which was scheduled to leave at precisely 11:30 am. I’ve been coming to the US Airways Center for years (or as some remember it, America West Arena) and have always wanted to go exploring the halls and passageways since I was a kid. Realizing there wasn’t much security to speak of and since I’m friendly with the ones who were there, this was the perfect opportunity. I wandered aimlessly through the halls, checking out the weight room, the Suns locker room, and various doors which led to nowhere. Sadly, it actually wasn’t as cool as I thought it would be. I caught up with the Mercury’s PR man, Bret Burchard and head coach Corey Gaines for a while to talk about a few last minute details of the trip and what to expect once we arrive in Seattle. Right on time, at 11:30, we meandered through the back hallways of US Airways Center toward the bus.
Loading up the bags of over 15 people in to a small section on the bus might seem like a tedious task in such a short amount of time, but the Mercury have it down to a science. Denise Romero (“Little Dee”), the Equipment Manager, drove the cart with all the bags up to the side and, like a glove, fit them all below the deck in about 2 minutes. Since Denise wasn’t on this trip, the Mercury’s Athletic Trainer Tamara Poole doubled as the Equipment Manager and essentially, the tour guide. Bret and I helped where we could but we mostly just got in the way.
We waited for the players and coaches to board the bus before Bret and I got on. I exchanged pleasantries with Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi before grabbing my seat. “Hey Ben, good to see you!” Tayor said. Bret had told all the players earlier in the week that I’d be making the trip with them but with all their commitments and people constantly in their ear it didn’t surprise me they forgot. Luckily, they knew me and it wasn’t a big deal. “What’s up, B-York?” Diana Taurasi asked me. “Hey I got a new place for you to try. I think it’s called The Duce. It’s really cool; it has everything – real artsy. I loved it.” I hadn’t been there before but I’m definitely checking it out next time I’m in downtown Phoenix.