[L to R: Reggie Love, Ted Leonsis, President Obama, daugther Sasha & guest, Sheila Johnson.]
With the exception of a Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich or a Kevin Seraphin signing here or there, from this blogger’s perspective, the Washington Wizards are basically closed for business until training camp. Unfortunately for me, my basketball jones does not die that easily, so I decided to take my talents to the Washington Mystics of the WNBA.
When I initially looked at the Mystics schedule, there were certain games I had ear-marked as “must-sees”. I wanted to see Chamique Holdsclaw and the San Antonio Silver Stars, I wanted to see Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm, and I definitely wanted to see former University of Maryland star, Kristi Tolliver and the Los Angeles Sparks. But above and beyond those match-ups, the team that intrigued me the most was the Tulsa Shock.
The Shock are led by former Arkansas Razorback head coach Nolan Richardson, who is the winningest coach in Arkansas history and is famous for the “40 Minutes of Hell” full-court press. He also gave us such college and NBA players like Corliss Williamson, Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Scotty Thurman, Oliver Miller and Joe Johnson. Richardson is trying to bring that same frenetic style of play to the WNBA, and so far his team has struggled with a 4-22 record.
Also on the Shock roster is former world-class track athlete and gold medal winner Marion Jones. Her past has been marred by legal issues ranging from check fraud to performance-enhancing drugs. So recently, she found solace in basketball — a sport she hadn’t played since she was on North Carolina’s national championship team in 1997. Jones only plays eight minutes a game for the Shock, and she averages just 2.7 points and a rebound a game. On her transition to basketball, Coach Richardson said:
“Well, I like Marion’s work ethic. Marion is a hard-working young lady that’s getting 10 or 8, 9 minutes of playing time, working her way back into basketball. She was on a team that played for a national championship as a point guard, that North Carolina team for three years, went track, and had the love for the game. She’s worked so hard, she kept her body so strong. She’s 34, but she looks like and plays like an 18-, 19-year old simply because she doesn’t have a lot of basketball road mileage on her. I’m very happy with her, the way she comes to work everyday … one of the first to come in, one of the last to leave. She’s truly a professional.”
So Richardson and Jones were enough to bring me to the Verizon Center, but considering the Washington Mystics are also in the midst of a playoff race, my Sunday afternoon had the potential to be a quite an entertaining one. Then, as I entered the building, I realized that President Barack Obama would be in attendance. The potential of the afternoon kicked up from entertaining to epic.
I had my first encounter with President Obama at a Bulls/Wizards game early last year, and I wrote a running diary of the whole event. I did the same thing yesterday…
2:05 p.m.: I arrive at the Verizon Center, where I am greeted by a Secret Service agent before I can even open the door to the media entrance. The following conversation ensues:
Secret Service: Who are you with?
Me: I write for Truth About It.
Secret Service: Who?
Me: It’s part of ESPN’s True Hoop Network.
Secret Service: Oh, ok ESPN.
He then proceeds to write only ESPN on my name-tag. I’d like to take this time to apologize to Kyle Weidie (editor of Truth About It) and my whole True Hoop family. We did not make presidential name-tag status.
2:25: I make a beeline to the Tulsa Shock locker room to interview Marion Jones. I had been told by other writers that there are rarely media crowds at WNBA games, but figured Jones would generate some degree of interest, so I arrived five minutes early. From the moment I arrived in front of the Shock locker room, to the moment I concluded my interview with Jones, not a single, solitary media member was there except me. I need this type of privacy at Wizards games.
2:35: Jones emerges from the Shock locker room. I really don’t want to slam or criticize her, so I will be as diplomatic as I can. The interview was less than enthralling. She was holding the door to the locker room open, and she kept peeking back in there while the interview was going on, so I never had her full attention. I asked if she wanted to step away from the locker room door to a more private area, and she said no. So I finished the interview with her under those less-than-ideal conditions, and it was the most uncomfortable two-minute interview I’ve ever conducted. In a nutshell, her body feels great considering she hasn’t played ball in years, and she’s considering playing overseas after the WNBA season is over. She also said that she isn’t at all worried about interest in the WNBA fading or waning in the wake of Diana Taurasi’s threat to take a year off from the league and only play abroad. “The league is strong, good players are coming in, and just because one player decides to bail, doesn’t mean we still can’t thrive,” Jones said.
2:40: I get my first ever, in person glimpse at Nolan Richardson. He’s older and grayer than he was in his Arkansas heyday, but he’s still appears to be as spry and gregarious as ever. I asked him for an interview, and he told me had something to do, and I could talk to him after the game. Very nice guy. Kyle will post his article on Nolan Richarson on Truth About It later this week.
[Nolan Richardson, Tulsa Shock head coach.]
2:50: Former Maryland basketball star, and reigning WNBA Most Improved Player, Crystal Langhorne stops and chats with me before jogging out for warm-ups. She plays both overseas and in the WNBA, so I asked her about the Taurasi situation, and she had this to say:
“You know it’s really tough doing both, but that’s just part of what we do. I know Diana has been doing it for awhile now, and she’s probably at the point where she needs a break. But right now, at this point in my career, I’m trying to play as much as I can, and get as much experience as I can to get better…but the longest break I’ve had from playing in the past two years is about two weeks, so it’s definitely a strain.”
[Crystal Langhorne fires a jumper.]
3:00: After two and a half years of covering the Wizards, and three games of covering the Mystics, I finally was able to sit on the sideline press row with media credentials. Less than five minutes after I sat down and took out my laptop, I was asked by three separate members of the Mystics/Verizon Center staff to show proof and identification that I belonged there.
4:00: President Obama, his daughter Sasha, a friend of Sasha’s, Mystics team president Sheila Johnson, Wizards/Mystics/Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, and President Obama’s special assistant (and former Duke baller) Reggie Love, slowly walk toward their seats to a rousing ovation. Even Nolan Richardson maneuvered himself to get a better view of the President.
4:04: The Mystics and the Shock tip-off
4:11: Nolan Richardson tells the one of the refs, “You’re a good official, but that’s a bad call” after Shock forward Amber Holt was called for a blocking foul, instead of being awarded the charge. This is just one of several good one-liners Richardson had during the game. As Brian Jackson of ComcastSportsNet observed, “This guy needs to be mic’d up.”
4:18: Rashanda McCants, sister of currently unemployed NBA player Rashad McCants, enters the game. Rashad is struggling to re-gain a spot on an NBA roster, but his mother’s health kept him off the Cleveland Cavaliers summer league team. Rashanda was recently traded to the Shock from the Minnesota Lynx. She scored six points in her debut with the team on Friday night, and duplicated that output last night. During her two year NBA career, McCants has averaged just four points and two rebounds a game.
But this particular game had a larger meaning for McCants, since the overall theme of the evening was Breast Cancer Awareness, which is why the Mystics wore pink uniforms. McCants’ mother is a cancer survivor and has been struggling with her health as of late, and that is the very issue that kept Rashad from playing summer league basketball. McCants’ told Tulsa World about her mother, “Her spirit is so bright that she is able to smile and help other women.” She added ”My grandmother died from breast cancer but I was too young (age 2) to understand it all. So, this is a very important cause for me. ”
[Marissa Coleman on defense.]
4:21: Yet another former Maryland Terrapin, Marissa Coleman, checks into the game. Shortly thereafter, her teammate Matee Ajavon finds her in the corner with a brilliant skip pass, and she nails a three-pointer to put her team up 17-5. It is at this point I realize that Coleman has THE slowest release I have ever seen … even slower than Adrian Dantley. But clearly it’s effective.
4:29: The first quarter ends, and the Mystics are leading 25-9. The Mystics clearly have more talent and cohesiveness than the Shock. As Coach Richardson said after the game, “Only four current Shock players have been with the team since training camp.” The rest were waived or traded.
4:32: The Shock finally score to give them 11 points nearly halfway through the second quarter.
4:35: Marion Jones checks into the game for the first time, and President Obama points her out to his daughter. They are both seemingly fixated on her … until their refreshments arrive of course.
4:38: Coleman gets a steal, drives to the hoop, misses the layup, shouts out an impressive string of expletives, and President Obama claps and yells out words of encouragement in her direction. Coleman doesn’t acknowledge him, but when I informed her of Obama’s actions, she said, “I’m gonna have to write him a thank you note.”
[Marissa Coleman to the hoop.]
4:39: Marion Jones checks out after just three minutes of play and doesn’t accumulate a single stat. She looks lost out there, which is understandable given she took a 13 year hiatus from playing the sport; however, considering this was game 26 of the WNBA seaon, she should have a better grasp of the offense.
4:42: The Shock unveil the famous full court press Coach Richardson is known for, and the Mystics diagnose and solve it in less than five seconds … not quite the 40 minutes of hell.
4:47: During a stoppage of play, an impatient Nolan Richardson says, “Come on ref we want to play ball, this ain’t a convention.” When the ref informs him that someone is bleeding, he calms down and says, “Oh, ok. I thought you all had a visitation going on.”
5:00: It’s halftime and the Mystics are leading, 44-25. The Shock have shown no indication that they can catch up and win this game.
5:04: I take a mobile phone picture of President Obama for my personal collection…I just couldn’t resist, this is the President for God’s sake.
5:18: Injured Mystics star, Alana Beard, gets a personal invite to meet President Obama, his daughter, and his daughter’s friend at their courtside seat. I have never been so jealous.
5:22: The point guard for the Tulsa Shock, Ivory Latta, drives and takes an ill-advised shot, much to the chagrin of Nolan Richardson, who mutters out loud, ”What the hell is she doing?” He subs her out of the game 30 seconds later. I can’t help but wonder if John Wall and Flip Saunders will have this same type of relationship early in the season. Latta, a third-year pro out of North Carolina, finished the night with four points (0-7 from the field) and no assists–way below her season averages of 11 points and five assists per game.
5:32: Marion Jones checks back into the game..with 1:02 left in the third quarter. the third quarter ends, and again, she does not accumulate a single stat. But to her credit, she sprints off the court, and slaps five with all of her teammates, while offering words of encouragement. The Shock were down 65-39.
5:49: The aforementioned Latta, already having a lackluster outing, picks up a technical foul from the bench. Coach Richardson stares at her a bit, then focuses back on the game.
5:51: Jones checks back into the game, and Obama leaves at the same time. I”m not smart enough to figure out the significance of either. Just a few minutes later, she scores her first two baskets of the night. Her blinding speed is still there, as is her handle, but she still looks tentative, but definitely not old. With more overseas basketball, she can be a contributor in this league.
6:00: The game ends and the Mystics defeat the Shock, 87-62. The Mystics have six players in double-figures, and are led my Monique Currie with 15 points. Tiffany Jackson (14 points) was the only Shock player in double-figures.
6:20: I spoke with Marissa Coleman, who picked the day President Obama was in attendance to get her first career double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds). She had this to say after the game:
Finally, I must say I had mixed feelings about my Mystics/Shock game experience. I loved watching and talking to the legendary Nolan Richardson, and I loved talking to some of the Mystics players. I also clearly enjoyed being in the presence of the President Obama, his daughter, and even Ted Leonsis. That’s definitely not something that will happen every day or even every season.
But like I told Kyle right before the game started, I was really looking forward to having an extended conversation with Marion Jones. There were no other reporters, and we had up to 30 minutes to talk before she had to be on the court for shoot-around. The conditions were ripe for a good solid chat. Instead, I got the curt answers, a divided attention span, and I left with much less than I wanted…then again so did the entire Tulsa Shock team, so I suppose I’m in good company.