The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 2, 2021
Dan Hughes spanned the WNBA's generations — Hughes, back in 2018, on the future of women in coaching — Must-click women's basketball links
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I’m honestly more than a bit disappointed to have to keep writing these! But we’re here, in the wake of another unexpected retirement, and we need to have some perspective on Dan Hughes’ career.
The first thing to remember is that Dan Hughes and the WNBA go back a long time, back to nearly the beginning of the league’s history. And it is striking how successful he’s been in dramatically different eras. In 2001, the Cleveland Rockers finished first in defensive efficiency, coached by Hughes. Vicki Hall, a forward on that team, turned 51 years old in October 2020, when Hughes’ Storm won their second WNBA title in three seasons.
Of course, Hughes wasn’t there to celebrate, home due to COVID restrictions, which makes his 2018 title all that much sweeter. He built a very different kind of team in Seattle than he had with his groups in Cleveland and later, San Antonio, playing fast, adapting to a world of analytics. He was a walking contradiction, the players’ coach who got his team to buy-in fully on the defensive end. He never stopped growing with the times, either. Here’s what he had to say about WNBA players becoming coaches, back in 2018. I’d asked if he thought that was an oversight by the league as a whole.
“I think an untapped resource is exactly it,” he said. “I think the WNBA players as coaches have and would have a lot to add. I mean, I want a world someday where people judge coaches on how good a coach they truly are. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, doesn’t matter their background a little bit. They can say he’s a coach or she’s a coach… if they take the time to look and say who can really coach in that group? I think that can be another source that someday comes into play. I’m just glad that this world is opening its eyes to possibilities to our players and to women. I think it’s a wonderful thing, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen happened. I’m very, very happy for it.”
He has lived this prophecy, mentoring Noelle Quinn, now his successor as head coach. It is no accident.
Before that, though, someone with virtually every other box checked on his resume had a WNBA championship, too. In consecutive seasons, to see a pair of figures whose careers have spanned almost the entirety of the WNBA — Hughes, then Mike Thibault in DC — get rewarded with the ultimate prize felt like justice.
Dan is a teacher. He’s the kind of teacher you always hope to get. I wrote in my initial response to the shock news that he was retiring that I always learned from him when I interviewed him, and that’s true. But it wasn’t just because he was willing to answer questions, it was because he had a passion for explaining things.
I remember getting him for a story on Breanna Stewart at the 2018 All Star Game. We’d found some corner of the room underneath Target Center to chat, and our window for talking ended, but we kept on going, me periodically saying I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, Dan demurring like he always does. We finally finished, and Dan and I started toward the exit, but then he remembered something else — an additional story to cast further light on Stewart — and we kept going for another ten minutes. He had more to impart, he understood I was hungry to know more.
It meant everything to me that Dan Hughes wanted me to know more. And it is obvious, in the way folks around the league discuss Dan Hughes, the success he had getting his players to run through walls for him without fearing a taskmaster behind them — a lot of people felt that way.
To know Dan is to understand he’d have been fine if San Antonio was it for him back in 2015. But he had more to give, and got a coda that allowed him to reach the apex of a league he’s been vital in building.
And this is necessary and unavoidable, the passage of time turning the league’s pioneers into former players and former coaches. But I am always sad when a bit more of the league’s present turns into its past. Especially a part of that present that’s been so important to so many.
This week in women’s basketball
Emma Baccellieri on balancing motherhood and professional athletics is worth your time.
SABREENA MERCHANT’S GOT A WNBA SHOW!!!!!!!!!!
Five at The IX: Dan Hughes on women in coaching
This was a conversation I had with Dan back in 2018. Pretty prophetic.
So I wanna talk sort of bigger picture about the state of WNBA players coming to coach in the NBA. Where I wanted to start was, I had read comments you had previously made about when Becky was interested how you helped facilitate it. How you reached out to Pop and you saw that as a pathway that made sense. I guess I wonder whether you saw Becky as the first person you had coached in the W who was capable of this or more to the point, Becky was the first one who was getting that opportunity after many in the past who could have done so?
Well, I think there have been candidates long before Becky, to be honest with you. This was the first opportunity. I had a chance to put two parties together that I knew would work. I knew Becky, and I also knew Pop, and I knew that Pop, we had a lot of years of conversation about Becky. He had saw her play when I first came and we brought her to San Antonio. So I knew how he felt about her, so to me it was an opportunity to merge two people that would benefit from each other.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so, when you say it was the first opportunity. So I talked to Kara Lawson about this awhile back where she had wanted when she was in Sacramento, the chance to coach with the teams. They wouldn’t even let her into practice, wouldn’t even let her see it. Do you remember having players and if you have names specifically that would be even better, who could’ve been on this pathway five, ten, 15 years before Becky and just didn’t get the chance?
Well, yeah. But I also, like I was in Cleveland, and I had an assistant, Lisa Boyer. She’s with Dawn Staley right now.
I had a good relationship with John Lucas, and John brought her to every practice and meetings and everything, that would have been, I’m not exactly sure probably 2001, maybe two. Somewhere in there. And Lisa was very bold with learning from John. I’ve always felt there were coaches or players or potential people that could help NBA teams that it was just a matter of timing, I guess. There have been some incredible coaches and incredible players on the women’s side.
So you know something I thought was really striking is that in Becky’s case, it was an injury that leads to the opportunity. But it’s that there’s an NBA team and a WNBA team in the same town. Kristi [Toliver] is the same thing, in Washington. But that very situation is what lead to Christy only being able to make $10,000 because of the specifics of the current collective bargaining agreement. And so I guess I wonder, Sue was in a little bit of a different situation, I feel it is not really analogous. But the coaching and coaching opportunities as you know is so much based on who you know and making and developing relationships, do you think that needs to be fixed, first and foremost because WNBA players by definition are going to make the most of their NBA relationships in their own town, when there’s that overlap?
I don’t know. That’s a good question, to be honest with you. I think there’s probably a couple things in play. I also think they’re at an age where they can step in through the learning process and develop that as they finish playing or as they get done playing. I mean, I started a lot of WNBA players on my staff. Sandy Brondello, quite a few of them, and I always thought that was important to me. I always had a WNBA player on my staff. But I think they’re looking at seeing the same things. Here’s people with a basketball mind and potential and they can go through some of the learning processes that will make them a good coach. So I think it’s a little bit of both, I think it’s their visibility, so they’re aware of that. But also, I think they’re in a stage in their development as coaches, it’s kind of exciting for them.
It’s the same thing I do in that, whether it’s James Wade, he’s now in Chicago. Or Sandy Brondello, back when she stopped playing. James stopped playing as a men’s player, it’s a good time to grab them and have them on your staff because they bring an element of that player’s mentality that I specifically wanted. But it also is a good time to go through venturing with them.
Do you allow yourself to envision the day when Becky gets that head coaching job?
Yeah, I definitely do. Without question, I would think it’s gonna happen. And I have felt that for awhile and I watched her. I just was with her over the weekend I was doing a couple of broadcasts with the men and women of Oklahoma, and in between, Becky played in Oklahoma City so I went to the game. Every time I see her, I see a head coach in the NBA. I’ve watched her learn under Pop and grow in that league and the knowledge in that league, and take her dues in the right way, and I see a head coach and I see one coming pretty soon.