Work must continue for Tulsa
In snapping 20-game losing streak, Shock at least get reminder of how it feels to win
A week ago, some players lingered around the floor of the BOK Center following the Tulsa Shock's practice. They talked and laughed quietly, not in a mad race to get away from the building where they'd had so many disappointments.
"At least that's a good sign, right?" Tulsa rookie Kayla Pedersen said.
The Shock had lost their 23rd game overall -- and 18th in a row -- there the night before. The pattern was familiar: Tulsa actually had a lead, then it got away. The Shock fought back, but Los Angeles still prevailed. The fourth quarter -- both for this season and in the team's 6-28 inaugural season in Tulsa -- was a hurdle the team could rarely scale.
Late in games, Tulsa would wear down. Teams with more talent/experience would escape and say, "That's a tough team; they keep fighting to the end. They're going to beat somebody."
Except after defeating Washington on June 18, Tulsa couldn't get past anybody else. Not for the rest of June or all of July or most of August.
"It's really tested my character," Shock post player Tiffany Jackson said. "It's so easy to be negative, to give up, or not to care. But I still want to shoot every day after practice. And I still come early before practice. I keep pushing.
"And we joke about it all the time: If we were going through this with a group of people we didn't like, we'd be pulling out our hair. We'd jump off a building into the Arkansas River or something. The fact that we all get along so great has made it not easy, but easier."
Interim coach Teresa Edwards took over the team after Nolan Richardson stepped down July 8. In the midst of the Shock's lengthy losing streak, Edwards was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. The contrast was all too vivid between the great success Edwards had in her playing career and the repetitive cycle of "not good enough" she found herself in with the Shock.
"We're trying to figure out what's going to make us better; what are we not doing?" Edwards said after that 23rd loss of the season. "It's hard to self-assess without being too critical. And to be critical is just not appropriate at the moment for what we're going through. We've got to use this experience to better us for something in life later. How we handle this, the character that it creates in us it has to be preparing us for something down the road."
All that brings us to these last two weeks of the WNBA season and a Shock team on a different kind of "streak." A winning streak.
OK, two victories in a row doesn't normally get the title "streak." But it applies here. Because it looked as if Tulsa was doing the equivalent of pushing an out-of-gas clunker through 100-degree heat, hoping to somehow refuel and get running again. It seemed almost impossible. But as Jackson said, they kept pushing.
Two wins in a row -- 77-75 Friday at Los Angeles and 83-72 Sunday at home against Connecticut -- were a testament to the Shock's refusal to play dead when most everybody else already thought they were long-ago expired and well into decay. At the very least, the Shock can now only tie the 1998 Mystics for fewest wins in a season.
The Sparks are still in a playoff race, although this past weekend set them back with two losses. Sheryl Swoopes, operating in ageless-wonder mode, hit a jumper with 2.9 seconds left Friday to propel the Shock to victory at L.A.
Then Sunday night behind 22 points from Swoopes, Tulsa beat a Connecticut team that had prevailed against Phoenix on Friday in a scintillating game between two playoff contenders. Before heading to Oklahoma, Sun coach Mike Thibault had seemed worried about facing the Shock.
"They're not that far off," he said. "They really can be dangerous."
You might have scoffed upon hearing that about the Shock, thinking, "Yes, and a doormat can be dangerous, too -- if you somehow manage to trip over it and fall on your face. Come on Tulsa? Dangerous?"
But other coaches previously had said that, too -- even conference leaders Cheryl Reeve of Minnesota and Lin Dunn of Indiana.
Because what they saw was more consistency in effort than you would expect from a team that had lost over and over and over. They saw what the fans at the BOK Center who kept showing up for more than two months to cheer a one-victory team saw: The Shock really were still trying.
That is, admittedly, a low bar when it comes to professional sports. While it's certainly a nice byproduct if athletes say they grow as people from dealing with adversity on court, that's not what pro leagues are fundamentally about. They are about providing entertainment for paying customers. And the bottom line for that is winning.
In previous columns (from Tulsa's bleak 0-4 start to Richardson's resignation in early July), we've detailed the Shock's misfortunes and missteps since moving from Detroit to Tulsa for the 2010 season. Hiring Richardson, who had celebrity and credibility in Tulsa, seemed like a good idea to the new owners -- if not to outside observers.
"He didn't have any background in the pro game or the women's game," one of Richardson's former colleagues said. "And that was a lethal combination. It's really hard if you don't have one or the other."
To be fair, Richardson got a team that didn't bear much resemblance to the Shock franchise that had most recently won a WNBA title in 2008. But what pieces that remained from Detroit, he traded away.
Meanwhile, players such as aging former track star Marion Jones stayed on the roster all the first season in Tulsa and part of the second, which confounded those who thought the Shock had to find promising younger guards.
I've criticized the Shock's moves and direction plenty of times, and the concerns that we league observers have had about the franchise have been warranted. But it's also important to remember something: Life is almost always more a mix of gray than it is in the stark contrast of the colors black and white.
Meaning, yes, there were Shock trades that got them very little, if anything, in return. But one deal that appeared somewhat out of balance -- Plenette Pierson to the Liberty for Jackson early in the 2010 season -- now seems like maybe it really was for the best for both teams.
Pierson did not take at all to Richardson or his frenetic system, and she has adjusted pretty well in New York. Jackson -- like Pierson, a Texas native -- came to Tulsa and worked hard to improve herself and the team. This season, Jackson is averaging 12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists and is a candidate for the league's most improved player.
"If she doesn't get that award because of our record, it will drive me nuts," Edwards said, campaigning for Jackson. "She's been exemplary, the ultimate professional player we have. She works her tail off in practice, and that's showing up in games."
What about keeping Jones -- she was waived July 21 -- for as long as the Shock did? It was obvious that her on-court contributions in her mid-30s after many years away from competitive basketball were limited. Thus came the understandable criticism. But what outsiders didn't always see was Jones' mother-hen effect on teammates.
Jones has been through a lot of very tough times in her life. And, yes, you have to say she brought most of those on herself with the poor decisions that ultimately cost her tremendously. However, watching Jones in practice, or on the bench during games, or in the locker room, you noticed that she was constantly upbeat and encouraging. To the younger Shock players in particular, she was a very good leader. There was definite sadness for them to see her go. And they miss her.
Is that enough to keep someone in a roster spot when there are only 11 of those per team? Maybe not, but it gives some insight into why she was in Tulsa for as long as she was.
I've said before that Tulsa or some WNBA team should consider bringing in Jones to work in some capacity with players and in the community at large. Not in spite of her past baggage, but in many ways because of it. Jones' ability to still stay optimistic after she basically destroyed her track legacy and was forced to rebuild her reputation from subterranean levels says a great deal about her resiliency. That resonates with a lot of people.
What about Edwards herself? Richardson brought her into the organization during last winter as director of player personnel. Once she became interim head coach, she was on the clock to show Tulsa brass that she could be the leadership answer for the franchise. Will these recent wins -- and any subsequent victories the Shock might get in their final six games -- influence the Shock owners' decision on what direction to go for next season?
Edwards has an amazing legacy as a player, though she is still young as a coach. She deserves credit for helping the Shock win these two games. But like I said before there's gray area everywhere.
Swoopes is, in fact, not an ageless wonder -- because nobody on earth is. (Not even former Shock player Taj McWilliams-Franklin, now with the Lynx.) Swoopes turned 40 in March, and while she's averaging 8.1 points and 4.1 rebounds for the Shock, she's not the long-term future of the Tulsa franchise.
Meanwhile, two people who are expected to be a big part of that future -- rookies Liz Cambage and Pedersen -- played very little in the Shock's two victories over the weekend. Pedersen didn't get into the game at all in Los Angeles -- the coach's decision -- while Cambage had two points in about nine minutes of play. Against Connecticut, Pedersen and Cambage each played around three minutes, and neither scored. Edwards said that Pedersen has been dealing with shin pain.
And while it is treacherous to read into what people don't say, it's still hard to not get the feeling that at least some alienation has been growing between Edwards and these two rookies. Edwards is a perfectionist task master who admits that patience is not naturally one of her virtues. Will she be able to effectively mentor Cambage and Pedersen?
Cambage just turned 20 on Aug. 18. If she'd gone to college in the United States, she'd still be in development mode as a sophomore or junior. Remember the struggles with consistency that even a player as talented as UConn's Tina Charles still had her freshman and sophomore years of college?
Also factor in that Cambage is expected to be away from the Shock at least through the Olympics next summer as she trains with the Australian national team.
As for the 22-year-old Pedersen, she played every position but point guard at times for Stanford, and you never heard a peep of complaint from her. She did whatever was asked as a highly talented complementary player. Now she's trying to find where her strengths are best utilized in the pro game that doesn't always immediately reward players like her.
Edwards has been trying to salvage this season in some form by getting back in the winning column. To that end, she has gone with a veteran lineup of players with more experience (in the case of Swoopes, nearly two decades more). It's a difficult balancing act: Some victories were necessary for the franchise to get positive vibes back and take those into 2012. But the development of the younger players is also paramount if they are going to heavily contribute in 2012 and beyond.
If there is any rift at all -- even just the slighest crack for whatever reasons -- growing between Edwards and the two marquee rookies, it will need to be resolved if all three are to be part of the Shock's future.
The Tulsa owners do care about this franchise. The people involved at all levels with the Shock for the most part really do have the right heart. They believe not just in the growing popularity of women's basketball, but also the economic viability of it as a professional sport.
That said, they're further behind in development than what they wanted to be near the end of their second season in Tulsa. The victories help, no doubt, but how much? Are they an indicator that the Shock really are headed in the right direction? Or are they window dressing on what has still been a disastrous season in terms of building the franchise into a legitimate competitor?
For a business to succeed, decisions must make sense for the long haul. And even the most well-intentioned people can have a difficult time gauging all the factors that can go into whether a decision will prove to be effective not just now, but seasons down the road.
The Shock as an organization still have a lot to figure out once the season ends. But at least they will go into that important period for the franchise with a reminder of how it feels to win.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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