Richardson understands he signed up for full-on rebuilding mode, in the WNBA, and seems dedicated to getting Tulsa off to a good start. But his personal transition to coaching the women’s game has also been a challenge.
“In the female game, it’s more patterned. A goes to B, B goes to C, you know, pick and pop and those kind of things,” Richardson told me. “In the male game, it’s more you can get after people like we did at the end there where we got into our scramble defense. We normally do a lot of that with the men’s game, in the women’s game you can’t play that way.”
Most of Richardson’s critics will say he’s failing because his active defensive scheming, aka the “40 Minutes of Hell,” just won’t work with females. Not so says the coach.
“I don’t think people realize that, if you look at tapes of our team, we don’t press all the time. But it’s because of the ‘40 Minutes of Hell’ that everybody assumes that’s what it is …. that’s not true,” exclaimed Richardson.
“There are times we press, there’s times we match-up and there’s times we play zones. But my real thing is that we are a mixed defensive-type team and that takes time to put together.”
The defensive numbers for the Shock are fairly solid: fourth in the WNBA in blocks per game, second in steals, and they force the second most turnovers. It’s just that Tulsa turns the ball over a lot themselves (a league high), and they’re the second worst shooting team in the WNBA.
Richardson smiles at the notion of writers alluding to his staunch implementation of “40 Minutes of Hell,” insisting that he aims to change the rhythm of his defense instead.
“When they write about it, the other players think, ‘Wow, they’re going to run the 40 Minutes of Hell.’ We want them to feel that way,” Richardson told me … after all other reporters had vacated the scene.
Still, the women’s game brings challenges on top of rebuilding and style of play.
“You can’t demand the things that we would demand from the male player. First of all, there’s only 11. The second thing is that you’re traveling and you’re playing and you’re traveling and you’re playing, it’s just too much to put on the body, especially when the girls come from overseas,” said Richardson, alluding to the fact that many WNBA players play two seasons in one year, one stateside and one abroad. But there’s also dealing with the natural differences between genders.
“It’s more personal,” Richardson confessed. “With men, you don’t worry about personal things .. you either get it or you don’t. You don’t worry or think about ‘Oh boy, did I hurt his feelings?’ … No. I think you have to be careful of what you say and how you say what you say. That’s different for me.”
But Richardson is quick to praise the women’s game, especially how it has rapidly evolved over his years in basketball.
“The thing that’s been amazing to me is how well they shoot the basketball, especially opponents that have shot the ball on us,” the coach quipped with a dig on how things have gone for his team this season — the Shock allow the second highest field-goal percentage in the WNBA. “It’s amazing how far the game has gone from when I used to watch the female game play. It’s totally, totally different. The people who played back in the old days, even the superstars of the old, wouldn’t be as great as the young ladies today.”
“From their shooting style, to the free throw line, to the passes they make, to the cutting, to the quickness, to the jumping, everything has totally … I think in the last, I’m going to say 5, 6, 7 years, it really has gone sky high.”
Still, losing has taken its toll on Richardson.
“The hardest part to me is that I’m used to losing this many games, but I also realize that the deck was already stacked, and I have to try to unstack the deck in order to get the right thing out of what I believe,” he said. Richardson remains fueled and passionate about hanging on to the game of basketball.
“It gives me more energy to say, ‘Hey, when I’m through, we’re going to have a team.’ It’s something I don’t have to do. But I love the game and I think I can bring something to the game, and maybe I could give some of the young ladies a different view of the game.”
Ask Richardson if he’s interested in coaching men’s college basketball again, he rebuffs with an immediate, “Naw, I’m very proud of the time the good Lord afforded me in the men’s game,” waxing poetic about how blessed he is to have paved the way for other African-American coaches.
“From the standpoint of looking around and trying to find a college job, I don’t think I’ll do that,” Richardson said. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he would turn a job down. Often during his career, Richardson was out-spoken about the college basketball system, criticizing in his way example of the many problems which plague the NCAA.
Of course, asking him about those problems elicit a response that would make Clay Davis envious.
“I haven’t kept up with it after I really got out of it,” Richardson claimed. “You know, they often try to fix problems and sometimes they neglect the real problem, but it looks good. Doing something is better than doing nothing. But sometimes doing something, ain’t really doing nothing. And that’s how I see it at times.”
Richardson is dedicated to Tulsa, but doesn’t see himself riding off into the basketball sunset in the WNBA. He says he always wants to stay close to the game, if not through the rigors of coaching, but through other means such as the clinics, consulting and commentating he has done before.
“Basketball has given me a tremendous life. I’m so fortunate to have been inducted into nine Hall of Fames. I’m so fortunate to have coached at Tulsa University, at Arkansas. I’m so fortunate to have a school in my honor named after me in my city. I mean, I’m so blessed and it’s all because of basketball.
“Basketball gave me an education, I played … only went to college because I got a scholarship. Other than that, where I come from, it never happens. Never.
“I owe basketball. I love this game. This is my game. This is the game I grew up with. The game has done so much for me and I’m hoping that I can do something for the game.”
In the end, I can’t be more thankful that I came across Nolan Richardson over eight years since I saw him leave the court that last time as an Arkansas Razorback. Gone from my memory is fiery coach who went down in flames because the system boiled over, and he lost tact. Here are memories of a great coach, a Southern gentleman who loves the game, was aggressive (almost to a fault), but with which he fought for what he believed in, and has accomplished far more than he ever imagined.