Thirty-Four Games of Scrutiny
Nolan Richardson builds the foundations for ’40 Minutes of Hell.’
by Josh Flynn
Nolan Richardson, head coach and general manager of the Tulsa Shock, is a Hall of Famer. He has 40 years of coaching experience. He’s the only college basketball coach to win the NCAA National Championship, NIT Championship, and a junior college championship. He took the Arkansas Razorbacks to three Final Fours. He’s the winningest coach in Arkansas history.
It’s a hefty basketball resume. So why is Richardson perhaps the most criticized WNBA coach in the league’s history?
He hasn’t completed a full season of coaching yet, but he has had everyone from Sue Bird to local Indianapolis media scratching their heads this season as he’s traded player after player away. When he traded Shavonte Zellous to the Indiana Fever for a second round draft pick, Bird was quoted in a Seattle Times article by Jayda Evans as saying, “I’m going to have to have a talk with Nolan Richardson. He’s just giving these players away.”
Richardson inherited the remnants of the Detroit Shock, one of the WNBA’s storied franchises, on October 20, 2009. Perhaps if he had inherited a different team than Detroit, a team that hadn’t won three championships in the last decade, people would not bat an eye as he traded away Detroit’s remaining players and created a new identity for the team. Perhaps his every move would not be scrutinized.
Perhaps people wouldn’t be asking, “What in the world is he thinking?”
The Detroit Shock began breaking up long before Richardson ever got his hands on the team. The official end began when head coach Bill Laimbeer stepped away three games into the 2009 season. Fans became aware something wasn’t right in the Motor City. Rick Mahorn did a valiant job of holding the team together. Mahorn may have only been one healthy Katie Smith away from taking the Shock back to the WNBA Finals last season. But it wasn’t enough to save the franchise.
When the Shock moved to Tulsa, Smith and her fellow starters—Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Cheryl Ford, and Deanna Nolan—chose not to move with them. Richardson was left with the team’s reserves—a strong group of players but not the players he needed for his patented “40 Minutes of Hell” basketball system. “We are maybe a little less than an expansion team,” he says. “It would be different if I went around and picked the sixth and seventh player from each team. We weren’t able to do that.” So one by one, he dealt the former Detroit players away until he had a combination of athletes he thought he could work with.
Richardson is used to being second-guessed when it comes to basketball. “I’ve been in the business a long time and I’ve taken a lot of criticism over the years,” he says, knowing a basketball coach picks up assistant coaches in the form of fans and media. “That’s just part of the game. I think it’s important that I see what I think is the best thing for this basketball club and to act upon that. And that’s why I would not have taken the job if I was not the general manager, vice president, and coach all at the same time. I have to be able to come in and do what I think is right to get a team that I think will represent this community.”
On July 26, Richardson completed the first round of his overhaul, sending Alexis Hornbuckle, the final member of the Detroit Shock, to Minnesota for Rashanda McCants. He’s also brought in Ivory Latta, the spitfire point guard who spent a brief stint in the Shock’s pre-season camp before being waived, and Nicole Ohlde, the veteran center. All three players are strong pickups, says Richardson, but Latta has stepped in and leads the team in scoring (12) and assists (4.1).
“She’s a character,” Richardson says of Latta. “She’s good for the team. She’s good for the moral of the team. She was on that  team that was 4-30 in Atlanta. So she knows how hard it is to start a franchise. So that’s a good thing to bring in some one like that who can keep things upbeat and keep the girls trying to play hard.”
Keeping his players focused and looking forward may be the toughest battle Richardson has faced this season. “I have to give my ladies kudos because no one works any harder in practice than they do. They play hard in games. They make a lot of mistakes but they play so hard,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that some of the things they are doing now will pay off as we continue. That’s why I thought we were able to play Seattle to a victory. Of course then we went up there and [Seattle] just blew us out. But they won’t give up. And I’m one of those who won’t give up either and I won’t give up on the team. The more I have been defeated the more it gives me the incentive to get this changed and have the kind of team the fans in Tulsa will enjoy.”
A core group of fans in the Tulsa community has already embraced the team despite their struggles, Richardson says. “People don’t leave the game until it’s completely over and then they still hang around. That is a rewarding thing,” he says. “More fans will attend as we continue to build this team and start putting some wins on the table. But the base is the most important thing and I think we have a great base. Over 3,000 is great for a community that has no idea about WNBA basketball. I think that is the most wonderful thing I have seen.”
Richardson, in his own right, has learned what the WNBA is all about this season. He’s been surprised at the high caliber of play the athletes bring to the court each night and the physical nature of the game. While he’s not enjoying the losing, he appreciates the opportunity “to see players who can really play the game and really do some great things from the standpoint of shooting, passing, rebounding, and running the floor.”
And the Tulsa Shock players are reaching for the same high caliber of play for Richardson. He says Scholanda Robinson has come a long ways from a player who took only a few shots a game for Sacramento to a player who is starting to peak as a member of the Shock. She’s pushed her scoring average to 11.8 from 6.6 ppg a year ago. He’s also been pleased with what Chante Black (5.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Amber Holt (8.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) bring to the team, though he feels the WNBA season has worn both players down. Jennifer Lacy is another pleasant surprise. The five-year veteran averaged just three points last season in Atlanta but is now contributing a career high 7.5 ppg. “I’ve got a lot of players who did not play—they were back up players—on my basketball team that are now beginning to flourish,” Richardson says. “I think most of these young ladies have been very instrumental in—at least at times—giving us an opportunity to win.”
Winning is something Richardson expects his team — currently at the bottom of the league, at 5-24, this season — to soon do. “We are going to be challenging this bad boy next year,” he says, his voice filled with confidence. “We have two first round picks and we’re in the lottery so hopefully we can get the first pick in the lottery, too. We still have Deanna Nolan. Nolan is over in Russia. There is no foregone conclusion that she wants to play and if she doesn’t then you still have her to [trade for] a very good player and a draft pick. So there are a lot of things that can happen. I would like to have the chance to sit down and visit with Deanna to show her how far we’ve gone and what this team is all about.”
With or without Deanna Nolan, Richardson and the Tulsa Shock won’t back down. “We’ll be a heck of a lot better,” he says. “Mark my words.”