On the Road with the Phoenix Mercury
SLAM gets unprecedented access inside the WNBA.
I immediately noticed that assistant coach Julie Hairgrove brought her 2-month-old baby, Grace, along for the trip. In such a perceived glamorous world, it’s easy to overlook how difficult it is for Hairgrove to balance being a proud mother and a much-relied upon basketball mind for Corey Gaines. Regardless, she does both beautifully. As a special treat for everyone on the bus, Director of Basketball Operations (and former Mercury player) Bridget Pettis serenaded us with a song over the loud speaker.
There are no corporate jets in the WNBA; they travel exactly like a college team would. These are some of the most well-known and famous women’s basketball players in the world, and they meander through the airport like everyone else. The bus pulled to the curb of the Southwest Airlines Terminal and all the players jumped out of the bus to grab their bags. Some of the training equipment and heavier items were loaded on to a cart. Tamara Poole had already checked most of the players in electronically but we still needed to check-in their bags. The players kept to the side while this process continued. People came by asking for autographs and pictures and I heard a guy on the phone say, “Dude, I totally just met Diana Taurasi!”
Before we made our way up to the gate, the players separated and grabbed a bite to eat. Some went to Chili’s, some to Burger King, and the others to random places. Surprisingly, even though I heard a few people “Hey that’s Diana Taurasi!” or “That’s Penny Taylor!” the team wasn’t interrupted at all while they ate. Corey Gaines took Julie Hairgrove’s baby for a stroll around the concourse while Julie sat down to finish her meal.
We flew on Southwest Airlines which meant three things; 1) no assigned seats, 2) finding a decent seat for the taller players (DeWanna Bonner, Nicole Ohlde, Tangela Smith) is next to impossible, and 3) players and coaches sit next to random people. These are the most prominent women’s basketball players in the world and they sometimes are forced in to the dreaded middle seat like the rest of us. Imagine 6-4 center Tangela Smith, her knees smashed up on the seat in front of her trying to find a place to rest her arms. I made my way toward the back of the plane and sat by rookie guard, Taylor Lilley. I copped the “Lebron vs. Kobe” issue of SLAM at a kiosk to read during the flight, and we had a lengthy conversation about Kobe’s greatness (Lilley is a Lakers fanatic).
The flight was like any other – long and boring. Most of the players tried to catch up on some sleep or read. Once we arrived in Seattle, a couple players (and myself) stopped for a Starbuck’s in the airport (something about having Starbuck’s in Seattle makes it taste so good). Along with Joe Q. Public, the players stopped at carousel 10 to wait for their bags. I used this opportunity to talk with Temeka Johnson, Tangela Smith, and Ketia Swanier to thank them for letting me tag along. Ketia smiled and said, “Ben, you know you’re always welcome.” I felt a little better after that. Of course, that was until I ran in to a National Car Rental sign while checking my email on the way to the bus, knocking the entire display over along with any dignity I once had. “Oh, Yorkie, what the hell are you doing?!” Taurasi said while laughing hysterically. “Damn, you must not be a National fan – more of a Hertz guy, eh?”
The bus ended up being late to pick up the team; nothing unusual. Director of Basketball Operations, Bridget Pettis, started a little rap with the team who was huddled around baby Grace. Ketia Swanier provided the beat. “Little baby Grace, little baby Grace,” Bridget rapped. She must’ve been doing something right; I had those lyrics in my head the rest of the night.
For those who haven’t been, Seattle is a beautiful city. It took about 15 minutes to get from the airport to our hotel. I let all the players and coaches get off the bus first to get their bags. Check-in at the hotel was seamless and the players then made their way up to their rooms to change. It was about 6:00 in the evening so a lot of the players met up to grab a bite to eat, go shopping, or just walk around the city. Bret and I figured we walk around Seattle for a bit and get some dinner at a sports bar to catch whatever game was on (in Seattle, the Sounders MLS team is huge). By coincidence, Corey Gaines came in and ended up sitting with us. He was hoping to catch the Sparks vs. Storm outdoors game since the Mercury would play the Storm the following day. Unfortunately, the establishment couldn’t pick up the channel for the game so we watched some baseball and soccer before calling it a night a little after 9:30.
Shoot-around was scheduled for 9:00 the next morning which meant the bus would leave at 8:45. Again, I didn’t want to be the guy holding up the bus so I got down to the lobby at about 8:05. Nicole Ohlde, DeWanna Bonner, and Taylor Lilley grabbed a mini-breakfast at the Starbuck’s in the lobby before making their way on to the bus. There were a couple fans who had pictures and memorabilia for the Mercury to sign and they all gladly obliged. Being around the team and interacting with them so much, you get to know them on a personal level. The entire team from the players to the coaching staff is so down to earth that I’ve come to know them on a first-name basis. It’s neat for me to see the general “fan” viewpoint since these players are the best in their sport. Whether it is pictures, autographs, or just a quick casual conversation the players are more than willing to go out of their way for fans.
The route to Key Arena was blocked due to a cancer awareness run through the city. We were scheduled at shoot-around for 9 but didn’t get to the court until about 9:15. Every arena is different, but it surprised me how close the bus pulled up to the court in the hallway. From the bus to the floor of the Key Arena was maybe 50 feet. While the players got their ankles taped or any preventative work done, Diana Taurasi and Corey Gaines competed to see who would be the first to make it underhanded from half-court. They each took about 5 shots and nailed almost every one, but with limited time they cut the contest short before either had a chance to make one.
The team went over defensive schemes for both Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, when to attack the Storm defense and when to pass around the perimeter, and the importance of attacking the glass. During this time, Diana Taurasi was as all business. Her intensity and focus rival Kobe Bryant; literally, every minute of basketball is a way to get better. But it goes beyond basketball; it’s the way she gives everyone on the team a high-five after every drill. It’s her constant calming presence while also making everyone better around her. Most importantly, it’s the way she supports her teammates – she loves every millisecond of interacting with them. It’s no wonder she is the best player in the world.