Heart and passion are two traits associated with championship-caliber athletics.
Two equally important attributes are often overlooked. In order to achieve success at the highest level of professional sports you must have stability and organization.
Heart and passion can be spotted within minutes. Individuals can possess one or the other. Fans recognize.
Stability and organization are a bit trickier. Time and effort go into both. One minute an organization displays the qualities. A few bad calls or tough bounces and each can disappear quicker than a Russell Westbrook driving the lane through traffic.
Last year was a rough year for the Tulsa Shock. "Real rough," chimed in General Manager and Head Coach Nolan Richardson.
Flash back: In October of 2009, the Women's National Basketball Association announced the Detroit Shock would relocate to Tulsa. Oklahoma City businessmen and lead investors Bill Cameron and David Box orchestrated the move under the watchful eye of then WNBA President Donna Orender.
But the core of the former championship team didn't want to relocate to Tulsa.
So flashy moves were made. Richardson's hire created buzz in the Tulsa area. In typical Tulsa fashion, spectators took a wait and see approach before delving into the world of women's basketball.
The product was inconsistent at best. A finishing record of 6-28 told only part of the story. The transaction log for this team rivaled the U.S. Constitution in length.
Can the WNBA's bottom feeder from a year ago turn the corner and bring winning basketball to the BOK Center?
The infusion of championships and gold medals to the organization this year is almost an embarrassment of riches. The WNBA has never seen this much hall of fame talent in one place, T-Town.
Flash forward: Did anyone think Nolan Richardson wouldn't go after and get the best talent possible?
In for the win
One obstacle a team faces when climbing the mountain is changing the attitude. How do you go from slumped shoulders to mugging for cameras? Bring in winners.
"We are extremely happy that we are able to attract a lady with such high standards and great credentials in the world of women's basketball," Richardson said. "I'm really looking forward to working with her."
Coach Richardson is referring to a basketball legend and arguably the greatest woman baller to ever lace the high tops: Teresa Edwards.
The initial announcement stated her role would be Director of Player Personnel. Watching practice reveals her passion simply could not keep her off the court.
Director of Player Personel
"I am what you see," Edwards said with a grin from ear to ear. "I'm a coach. I'm here to assist Coach Richardson in whatever area or aspect I have to when it comes to this game. I'm enjoying every step of the way so far."
She brings an unprecedented passion and perspective to the Shock. She remains the only USA basketball player in history -- men or women -- to compete in five Olympics. She has four Gold Medals.
Team USA women's squads compiled a record of 205-14 with Edwards on the roster. She was named the USA Basketball Player of the Year in 1987, 1990, 1996 and 2000 and was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
She is a winner. "I truly love the game," she said. "I've loved the growth of women's basketball. I feel a depth of gratitude. I owe something back to the game for as much as it has given me. There hasn't been a greater gift that I've been given in my entire life but to be around the game."
Practice was complete. Players ambled about looking for ice packs or the closest chair. Edwards remained on the court talking hoops with anyone and everyone. To say she lives and breathes the game is an understatement.
Now in her late 40s, the role of primetime player is past her. Unlike many former top players of the game, she has no regrets about the rising popularity of the women's game today. Could she have dominated today? Absolutely. Does she feel slighted that her time came before the boom? Quite the contrary.
"It takes a special spirit to be able to fight for something," she said, "to fight for the growth.
"It takes a different toughness to keep people aware; a person who doesn't mind going out spreading the passion. It just takes something on the inside for a person like me to stick around and know that I'm in the right place and where I'm supposed to be at all times. I've played the game. I've done what I'm going to do."
Her positive vibe is contagious. Nolan felt it and convinced her to grab a whistle and join forces on the court.
"He's an old pro," she said. "He adjusts. He adapts. He is true to his game which I love. I think it is opening up our game as women with what he is bringing over. I have no questions. I have no pause."
So much for the grand executive title and mahogany desk. Edwards is exactly where she belongs.
"I didn't know I would be into coaching again until I met this man. The respect I have for his history and what he has given to the game of basketball as a whole has me here in Tulsa right now."
Nolan Richardson remains an icon especially in Green Country. Some have questioned his style transferring to the woman's game. His players seem to be on board this season which is more than can be said for last year.
He admits to learning on the fly in the inaugural year. What exactly did the 69-year-old coach see? Can the fortunes be turned around?
"You fix things in my world of basketball," Richardson said. "We couldn't shoot. We were not a very good shooting team. We were also turning the ball over more than any team. And we were probably the worst rebounding team in the league. You can't win (like that). There is no way."
By all accounts, Richardson's teaching methods and philosophies are very different than these ladies have experienced with previous coaches.
The extreme 40 Minutes of Hell style is still intact. The players will run, run and run some more. If not, they will be shown seat on the end of the bench. Or if last season is any indication, they will find a different jersey to wear.
"At Stanford we ran," said the Shock's first-round, seventh overall pick in the past draft, Kayla Pedersen. "I think that is one of the reasons he drafted me. I've learned how to run for four years in college. It doesn't take me that much to get used to it here."
All but one player opened training camp in Tulsa this year. A season ago players trickled in from their European teams. Some joined the Shock a day or two before the first game.
The head start has made a huge impact so far. Instead of teaching a system to players up until tip time, they can work on phases of the game.
"I tried to go out and get some young ladies that are going to be competitive and play a style that is very foreign to them," Richardson said.
A team huddle to close practice last year was met with poor posture, looks of skepticism and almost a sarcastic attitude.
No wonder roster turnover was so prevalent in 2010. The organization underwent a yearlong colonic. Hopefully the purge is complete.
This year eyes and ears seemed focused on the message. Having respected leaders and players who have been through the wars lends to Richardson's credibility.
A knucklehead cannot give half-effort when a Michael Jordan or Larry Bird type is sweating on the court.
"Women's basketball is more patterned," he said. "I'm trying to teach them how to make decisions by playing an up-tempo style of basketball and making good decisions. It's hard to make good decisions if you are throwing the ball away."
On the bright side, his squad led the league in steals a season ago. Such a stat should lead to fast break opportunities. More often than not they led to turnovers.
And the defense was solid a season ago. However, the Shock failed to gather rebounds thus gave up second and third chances.
"A lot of times it was a stick back," he said. "Or if it wasn't, they would shoot it again and rebound and throw it out and now they hit a three."
Drafting 6-foot-8 Australian Elizabeth "Liz" Cambage should help protect the glass.
Drilling vs. dunking
Richardson noticed another difference between the men's and women's game.
"(The women) learn the fundamentals and skills," he said. Much like the European players, ball drills supersede pick-up games for youth.
"When they go to camps and you teach them, they come back the next year and they have worked on what you told them," Richardson said. "You can tell the boys and they will do it a little bit then go play pick-up."
Even at this stage of their careers the same four girls will practice shooting and passing. They are conditioned to hone their skills. The same situation for guys leads to two-on-two games.
Another facet to the women's game is dunks, or lack thereof. Sure there are a handful of woman on the planet who can jam but for the most part it is not part of the game.
So instead of having impromptu dunk contest in the gym the females work on their jump shots.
"That's the thing I've learned in the women's game. They shoot the ball a lot better in some cases than men," he said.
Limit turnovers, rebound the ball and run. Coach Richardson has two very specific goals he hopes to accomplish.
•Be in shape. Players have two assets: Their minds and their bodies. The Shock players will be in shape. Guaranteed or they will be wearing a different jersey.
•Have a winning attitude. Every time they take the court, believe winning is imminent. Success begets success.
"We have to change our attitude about the game," said Richardson. "A lot of things are in the mind to begin with.
"Then you set goals for maybe winning the conference or the league or getting to the playoffs. The ultimate goal will always be there: winning the WNBA."
•It is a work in progress. Before they win championships, they must win at practice.
"You don't want to be looking for (championships) when you have all this down here to fix," he said pointing to the practice court. "We are going to go piece by piece by piece this year."
Richardson looks relieved this season. Players deal with practice; coaches love it. He feels as though this season he can instill his offensive and defensive philosophies.
"To bring them in now and to be able to work with them 15 days before our exhibition is a big plus for us," Richardson said.
The training camp is beneficial to players and coaches. The team knows where coach wants them. They can develop the mindset needed to run his style. Coach gets to see if the pieces fit the puzzle.
"It takes you a period of time and then you figure out they just don't fit. Now you have that swinging door," he said. "Every time you seem like you have something, one has to go and you bring in another player. It's a learning process all over."
It was frustrating for players, coaches and fans last year. Only two home games at the BOK Center pulled in respectable attendance figures. The bottom line was the team never found a rhythm.
Bringing women's legend Sheryl Swoopes into the mix gives the team a rock in the locker room.
Swoopes, much like Edwards, is a legend. Not just in the women's game, but basketball in general.
She earned four WNBA championships, three Most Valuable Player awards and three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Wait, there is more. She won the 1993 NCAA women's basketball championship with the Texas Tech Lady Raiders. Add three Olympic Gold Medals and you start to understand her place in history. Comparisons to Jordan flow in basketball circles.
But before she sails off into the sunset to pursue post-basketball endeavors, she's back for one more season -- at least.
What does the now 40-year-old super duper star think of Richardson's style? This is coming from a woman who has played all over the world for various coaches and coaching styles.
"Different," laughed Swoopes. "Different. There is no other word for it."
It is a lot of running. But she feels there might be a misconception outsiders have about his style of play.
"When you say a lot of running, people think we get on the line and we just run up and down every day," she said.
They are not doing yo-yos, suicides and sprints. The running is for a purpose. It has everything to do with the style of play. The offense they will run. The defense they will employ. The presses they can spring on an unsuspecting opponent.
"It is not just lining up saying go and he's timing us," she said.
The practice schedule might read 1-4, but sometimes they are done in an hour and a half. Everything is fast-paced.
"I was talking to him earlier and I said if nothing else, and I really mean this, and I've played this game for years and for many coaches, I honestly feel like even at my age right now, by the time the season starts I will be in the best shape that I've ever been in in my career," Swoopes said.
This is remarkably high praise from a remarkable player. The running theme reverberates throughout the organization. A little stability goes a long way in championship-caliber hoops.
"We are getting the conditioning in and the running in," she said. "Its go. It's nonstop. In a short amount of time I have so much respect for him as a coach."
It is fascinating watching Richardson ply his system to the women's game. When hall of famers like Swoopes and Edwards are taking note, young players will fall in line.
"He coached college now he is coaching professional women so to see how he makes the transition," she said. "He has to tweak it a little bit for the women but it is interesting to see just how he does that."
She feels like the system will allow multiple players to lead the team in scoring on any given night. This is a polar opposite to most professional teams. You normally show up to the arena knowing one or two players will put up the majority of the points.
"With his style of play and as much running as we are going to do, I mean, we could have five or six players on any given night that is going to be the leading scorer. That's a great style to have."
So what motivates a 40-year-old player who has accomplished everything in the game to come back after a two-year hiatus from the WNBA? A phone call from a legend of course.
Swoopes was hanging in her Houston home when Edwards buzzed her. How are you? What are you up to? Standard banter between friends.
Then the conversation took a turn. "Are you done playing?" Edwards inquired.
"I said, 'I don't know,'" said Swoopes who was caught off guard. "I really had moved on from it and didn't really think about it. Then she called me and I kind of got that itch. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe."
She played in Greece last year. The game still excited her. At no point did the passion disappear. She asked Edwards for a few days to think it over. She talked it over with family, friends and her fiancée. Praying took center stage too.
This is reminiscent of Jordan coming back to play for the Wizards. The great ones always have a little more to give.
"Once I make that decision, I am going to go with it. I wanted to make sure. I wanted to be 100 percent sure one way or the other. Yes I do, no I don't. I called her back a few days later and said ok, I'll do it."
Playing overseas is not a sign of weakness. The paychecks can triple the size of those earned in the WNBA. It is common for the WNBA players to join a European team during the winter. Unlike their male counterparts, they basically work year-round for two teams.
Very little in the way of sponsorships are available to offset the income disparity. Swoopes was the first woman to get her own shoe line. "Air Swoopes" will be the benchmark in women's athletics for years to come.
"That's huge. I would love to see that continue to grow more and more. Player's getting their own shoe, but it's not happening."
What is happening is a change. The Shock will rock the BOK Center. Expect dedication to winning this season unlike a year ago.
Will it translate to victories? Only time will tell. Their season tips off Saturday, June 4. The home schedule commences Friday, June 10 at 7pm.
The cast of characters is not limited to famous Hurricane and Razorback coaches. The two All-Timers are great but they are now flanked by a solid supporting cast.
Liz Cambage is expected to be a force on the interior. She is adapting well to her first living experience outside her home country of Australia.
Famed college coach Geno Auriemma coached against her in International play. Here is how he described her.
"She is really a handful. She's a big kid, a big body, good footwork, good touch around the basket, makes free throws. I don't even want to think about what she is going to be like in a couple of years."
Oklahoma City-born and -raised Betty Lennox is also in the mix. In 2000, she became the first WNBA rookie to play in the All-Star game.
The organization took a flyer on Oklahoma State product Andrea Riley. The diminutive scorer can drop buckets with the best of them. She is still awaiting clearance to play after giving birth earlier this year.
The Shock hopes to team Riley with returning guard Ivory Latta. Latta played 18 games for the team last year and seems to be a perfect fit to Richardson's style.
Also returning is Marion Jones. She is hoping to improve upon her 9 minutes a game, 3.4 points per contest average a year ago.
"I saw that there was still a challenge for me," said Jones. "I don't think I fulfilled all of my expectations. I wanted to give it another run. I thought that I had more to prove to myself, the coaches, the league and I think we can win basketball games and I want to be part of that. I really felt that the Tulsa community embraced us. I wanted to be a part of it again."
From top to bottom, the revamped Shock looks the part. Last year was a learning experience for the owners, coaches, players and fans.
No excuses this year.
Shock up or Shock down?
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