On the Road with the Phoenix Mercury
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We return to the hotel at about 10:30 in the morning. Players used this time to quickly grab a quick bite to eat then a solid pre-game nap. I tagged along with Corey Gaines, Bridget Pettis, and Tangela Smith to a sandwich place right by the hotel. At this point, all I wanted to do was get out of the player’s way so they can focus and prepare. No interviews, no quotes, no small talk; time to let them be. I ran in to Brooke Smith in the elevator who was going for a run a few hours before the bus to Key Arena which was scheduled to leave at 3:45; I made sure I was in the lobby at 3:15.
The bus ride was intense; no sounds, no talking, all focus. Bridget Pettis walked through the entire bus giving everyone a hand-shake and getting the players pumped. Bridget has a way of making everyone laugh but also motivating the players and keeping them on point. The subsequent 10 minutes to the arena was complete silence. As I mentioned before, it was still weird to pull up to the arena and walk a few steps on to the court. The players made their way to the locker room and in to the pre-game warm-ups. I settled in to my seat along the baseline after stealing a couple pieces of pizza from the media room to watch the pre-game routines.
Bret came up and asked if I wanted to sit in on the pre-game talk with the team. Obviously, I said yes since the locker room is a place few media members ever see outside the allotted media availability. We headed back to the locker room before being stopped by what I can only describe as the crabbiest woman in all of Washington. She wouldn’t let Bret and I get past the door leading to the Mercury’s locker room in spite of our media passes which said, shockingly, “locker room.” Corey Gaines eventually made his way out and approved our passage.
The players were doing some last-minute stretches waiting for Taylor Lilley and Sequoia Holmes to join them. Once they arrived, Bridget Pettis told everyone to pay attention to Corey. A flurry of detailed notes covered the team’s whiteboard in blue ink. Gaines began his talk with the correct way to rotate defensively on the Storm’s Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. He then focused on the offensive end of the floor emphasizing tempo and rhythm using a green marker to highlight areas of greater importance. “Let’s go; let’s get out and run and keep pushing the pace,” Gaines said in the team’s final huddle. A “1-2-3 Mercury” chant would send the players on to the court for warm-ups.
It was just a bad game for the Mercury altogether; their rhythm wasn’t there, the Storm jumped out to a 15-point lead at half-time, and the Mercury had trouble putting the ball in the hoop consistently. They found themselves down by over 30 at one point in the game. On the bright side, the bench came in and played solid; rookie Taylor Lilley had 12 points in just 6 minutes during the forth quarter. The end result was a combination of the Storm rolling and the Mercury continuing their unusual slow start. Hecklers were on Corey Gaines the entire game and at a couple points became pretty vicious. Gaines finally acknowledged them with about two minutes left in the game. “We’ll be back,” Gaines said with a smile. “You watch; we’ll see you in the playoffs.” The hecklers had nothing to say after that. Reporters asked Storm forward Lauren Jackson if the game was a statement to the rest of the league. “Not really,” Jackson said humbly. “I wish I could get more excited. It is way too early in the season and every team is going to get much better.” Ironically, the same thing was said to the Mercury players in the other end of the arena at the exact same time. “We have to put this one behind us,” Gaines said in the locker room. “We have Los Angeles in a couple days and they’re going to be ready for some revenge.”
Not coincidentally, that was the very moment any negativity or pessimism left the Mercury team. Sometimes, a loss like that forces everyone to look in the mirror; rather than lose by a few points and have fingers pointing in a couple directions, in a blow-out, the room for improvement is so vast that it can actually be a unifying experience for a team.
After the game, some players went out with family or friends to dinner and others rode the bus back to the hotel. Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor are good friends with Storm point guard Sue Bird so they went off to grab a quick bite to eat. The bus ride back to the hotel was still intense, but for a very different reason. Players are replaying the game back in their minds looking at what they did and how they can improve the next game. Some are listening to music and others are looking out the window just thinking.
It was about 9:30 pm when we got back to the hotel and unloaded the bags. As usual, rookie Taylor Lilley and first-time Mercury player Sequoia Holmes had bag duty. Temeka Johnson had rolled her ankle a bit during the game so she and a couple other players headed to Tamara Poole’s room for treatment.
The flight to Los Angeles was at 11:20 the next morning which meant the bus would leave at 9:15 for the airport. The players, I’ve noticed, make their way to the bus incrementally instead of at the same time. Tangela Smith, Temeka Johnson, and Candice Dupree usually are the first to arrive and Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi get on about 2-3 minutes before we take off. There are always people waiting by the bus for autographs (how they know where/when to go is beyond me) and the Mercury players are happy to sign them all. I noticed the mood was a bit somber on the bus, but as always, everyone is friendly and gives me a hand-slap as they head to their seat.
We fly Virgin-America this time and, as usual, Tamara Poole (trainer/manager) arrived early to let the airlines know the Mercury would be there soon and to get started on their boarding passes. My flight is booked separately from the teams so I had checked-in at the hotel already. I waited to the side for the team to get squared away and made small talk with the team. “Love those shoes, Dee,” I told Taurasi. I don’t know what brand or style she had on, but they were fly. Mine, however, were not. “Thanks, B,” she replied back while looking down at my brown Doc Martin knock-offs I bought at Savers. “You got work boots on, Ben?” she asked.
Corey Gaines and I talked for a while about the Lakers and Celtics Game 2 the night prior where Ray Allen had 8 threes. In the middle of our conversation, I noticed a dog that looked more like a Gremlin. “What the hell kind of dog is that?” I asked. “You never seen those?” Gaines replied. “I think it’s a French bulldog. Not my cup of tea but I guarantee you that damn thing eats and lives a better life than the both of us.” He was right; the dog was better groomed than I was and had a much nicer suitcase.