Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Atlanta Dream Moments of 2009

Women Talk Sports has asked its members to come up with the “Best of ‘09”, the best moments in women’s sports in 2009. I’ve had some difficulty in completing this example for two reasons:

1) Real life. Normally, real life isn’t something to be condemned. We all want as much of a real life as possible, the alternative being several orders of magnitude worse. However, this month might be the month when Real Life (all caps) has made the most demands on my time. I don’t believe that I’ve ever abandoned the blog for 10 days before, and trust me, it wasn’t because I was somewhere on a Caribbean shore drinking a glass of orange juice on a sandy beach. November and December have been months of encroachment – good encroachment and bad encroachment combined.

2) A “Dream centric” approach. The problem is that even though I religiously follow the WNBA, I have not only barely kept up with anything going on in women’s sports, I have neglected the entire realm of sports outside of the WNBA and possibly Georgia Tech women’s basketball. If you were to ask me the “Best of ‘09” in women’s sports, I would be at a loss. I don’t know who is leading the LPGA. I don’t know who won women’s singles at Wimbleton. Did North Carolina win another NCAA women’s soccer championship?

You got me, sister. Only so many hours in the day.

On the other hand – I know about the Atlanta Dream. You might have heard of them, you know, that organization where thousands of people meet on weekday nights that completely escapes the eyes of the Atlanta sports media. And I think that I can tell you what the best moments for the Atlanta Dream were in 2009.

1. The acquisition of Chamique Holdsclaw. In their inaugural 2008 season, the Atlanta Dream finished with a 4-30 record, after starting out with 17 straight losses. Undoubtedly, the hope for 2009 was simply not to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Those WNBA fans in it for the long haul thought that the Dream might contend in about five years.

However, the Dream were about to make a bold move. In December of 2008, the Dream traded the 13th draft pick in the 2009 draft to the Sparks for the rights to Holdsclaw. Would she even play? She returned from Poland in February with a bad knee and for many Dream fans, they would believe that The Claw was back when they saw it.

Well, they saw it. And how. Holdsclaw only averaged about 14 points a game, about four points off her career average. She only played in 25 regular season games and injuries limited her effectiveness. However, Dream fans saw flashes of the old Holdsclaw, who might be one of the best players in the WNBA in moving the ball. Rumor has it that Holdsclaw’s presence returned stabilitiy to the locker room after a contentious 2008 season that saw two players (Camille Little and Stacey Lovelace) essentially jump ship.

2. The drafting of Angel McCoughtry. In 2009 it was, “in with the old (Holdsclaw) and in with the new (McCoughtry).” Despite their 4-30 finish, the Dream could at least look forward to securing the #1 draft pick in the 2009 draft. There was much discussion regarding that choice, which would have an immediate impact on 2009.

Should it be Renee Montgomery? Or Marissa Coleman? Or Courtney Paris? No, it would be Angel McCoughtry out of Louisville. McCoughtry managed to lead her Cardinals to the NCAA title game in her senior year, and this got the attention of Dream head coach Marynell Meadors, who was impressed with McCoughtry putting the team on her back. Perhaps McCoughtry could do the same for the Dream.

In Meadors’s universe, rookies – even super-rookies – don’t start. Dream fans were treated to McCoughtry coming off the bench, and when she came on the floor the game of the entire team picked up. The hard part for McCoughtry was to learn not to do too much by herself – not just yet, anyway.

It became obvious that despite any perceived deficiencies in Meadors’s coaching, Meadors knows how to evaluate talent. McCoughtry scored 12.8 points a season and was the only high point of a playoff sweep by the Detroit Shock, averaging 19 points a game over both losses. The question was whether or not McCoughtry would finish in front of DeWanna Bonner. McCoughtry triumphed with a Rookie of the Year Award, was named to the United States Women’s Basketball Team in the off-season and last I heard she was tearing it up in Europe.

The frightening thing? McCoughtry will be better this year than she was last year. I don’t want to put the “game-changer” label on McCoughtry just yet; that might have to wait until 2010.

3. The surprise of Shalee Lehning. Over the course of the off-season, the Dream stocked up. They picked up Carol Ross, formerly head coach at Mississippi, to join the coaching staff. They picked up big time free agents in Sancho Lyttle and Michelle Snow. And of course, they added Holdsclaw and McCoughtry as well.

When Shalee Lehning of Kansas State was drafted in the second round, the fan reaction was “nod pleasantly”. Lehning wasn’t considered a top rank point guard, although she did score high on the Senior Prospects Metric. There was certainly no buzz about Lehning, no hint that she was overlooked – second round seemed a correct assessment. She’d most likely either get cut at training camp, or, if she was lucky, she’d ride the bench.

Then the bombshell went off in June when Meadors announced that popular point guard Ivory Latta failed to make the cut – and Lehning was going to be the point guard behind Nikki Teasley. The sound heard in Kansas was the sound of swear words from Latta fans across Atlanta. Lehning? The Dream’s starter? Realllly?

Oh yes, really. And even though her role seemed limited to pushing the ball into the post, Lehning would become the dream’s starting point guard. Lehning had a devoted following from Kansas State, each of whom became long distance Dream fans. Lehning supporters in and out of Kansas attributed to Lehning the qualities of an athlete out of a story book – soft spoken, saying “yes m’aam” and without any flash, the prototypical Selfless Athlete.

Latta returned when Teasley was dealt to the Shock – but Lehning stayed, and kept her starting role. A severe shoulder separation denied her the chance to go to the playoffs, but she was with the team to the bitter end. 2010 will reveal if Lehning has more surprises for us.

4. The Twin Towers. It seems that if you put two post players together that are each taller than 6’2”, you can call them the “Twin Towers”. I always thought of Ruth Riley and Ann Wauters being San Antonio’s version of the Towers; but Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza deserved that name.

Lyttle came to the Dream from the Houston dispersal draft. For Lyttle, who grew up overseas and learned basketball late in life, it seemed that she was following the quick trajectory of a person who was making quantum leaps in her acquisition of basketball knowledge.

As for Erika de Souza, Dream fans were denied seeing much of de Souza in 2009, due to injuries. What they saw surprised them. De Souza, who had come off a grueling season in the Spanish League, and who had the added burden of Euroleague games with Ros Casares, seemed to play with fresh legs every night. Meadors said something to the effect that “she is a beast”, and the Beast from Brazil was born.

The combination of Lyttle and de Souza in the post added two things that the Dream didn’t have in 2008. The first was height – with Michelle Snow as a back-up post, the Dream were the tallest team in the league. The second was toughness. In 2008, Dream opponents could waltz into a combination of Mattera and Lacy and come up with two points; in 2009 opposing teams ended up terrorized.

Lyttle and de Souza made it to the 2009 All-Star Game, their first seasons as All-Stars. Lyttle and de Souza were exactly as important to the Dream’s playoff season as Holdsclaw or McCoughtry were; all of the pieces needed to be there for it to happen.

5. Dream 106, Mercury 76. The Dream were already having a much better season, but there was still talk of the awful 2008 season. The old joke was that one person would say, “last night, the Dream were up 15 points in the fourth quarter” and the response would be “wow! Did they win?”

The Dream’s 106-76 demolishment of the Phoenix Mercury killed the ghost. There would be no asterisk next to this win – it wasn’t as if Diana Taurasi was in jail or Cappie Pondexter was recovering from a bad perm. The Dream blew out the Mercury in the first three quarters, had a 40-point lead late in the game, and near the end the Dream were trying impossible shots just to see if they would go in.

It was the first time that the Dream had not merely beaten a quality opponent – but whipped them. Granted the Dream had beaten opponents before – they beat the Sparks late in the 2008 season while on the road – but sometimes, you can stumble into a win. There was no “yes, butting” the 106-76 victory. One game doesn’t normally prove a season, but this game did. It meant that the rest of the league could no longer count on the Dream being an easy win.

6. Playoff glory. Near the end of the 2009 season, the Dream were managing to hang on to second place – barely – behind the Indiana Fever. Behind the Dream was a pack of barking dogs – the defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock, the Chicago Sky, the Washington Mystics and the Connecticut Sun. (Only the Liberty had played themselves out of contention.)

Near the end of the season one needed a calculator to determine who went where in the post season with what combination of wins and losses. In the 33rd game of the season – just before the final season game – the Dream beat the Connecticut Sun 88-64 to clinch second place and home field advantage in the playoffs.

Then it all fell apart. Shalee Lehning separated her shoulder in a meaningless final game in Washington. The Detroit Shock won easily in Detroit. The Atlanta Dream was bumped out of its home court second game by Sesame Street, of all things. At Gwinnett Arena, Deanna Nolan came back on fire from a first-game injury. The Dream played listlessly, and proved that playoff glory can be fleeting.

Dream fans took the good with the bad. Bad to lose the playoffs – but worse not to even go.

7. Coach of the Year. Head coach Marynell Meadors has been called a lot of things – even by Dream fans – but she’s never been considered Coach of the Year material.

The argument, however, could be made that we’ve never seen Meadors with a good team. Meadors was one of the eight original coaches of the WNBA, and only got two years with the Charlotte Sting before being fired in the middle of the third season. After that, she served at the college and WNBA levels in supporting coaching roles until Ron Terwilliger hired Meadors for another building project in 2008.

Meadors’s 2009 Atlanta Dream won 14 more games than the previous model, and made the playoffs. Even if Meadors were not a good coach, she was a great GM. Perhaps the feeling around the league was that she deserved it more than (relatively) new coach Lin Dunn. Meadors was given the honor of Coach of the Year in 2009, which sets the bar even higher for 2010.

8. The Dream survive. With a bad economy, a disastrous previous season and the Atlanta media treating the Dream as if it were a contagious case of cancer, the Dream’s attendance and gate suffered. Ron Terwilliger, who made his money in real estate, could now longer afford the Dream when the real estate market plunged in the off-season.

The big question was if Terwillger would find a buyer. If he didn’t, the Dream would be dispersed after just two years, the shortest life span of any WNBA team. There was also the threat that the Dream would leave Atlanta and end up in Oklahoma, as Tulsa investors were searching for a team.

The Dream, however, would be rescued. Kathy Betty, the widow of the CEO of Earthlink and a successful businesswoman in her own right, purchased the Dream, guaranteeing the survival of the team to at least the 2010 season. With the Detroit Shock ending up in Tulsa and the Sacramento Monarchs outright folding, the Dream’s survival was a close call.

So from the Pleasant Dreams blog, here's wishing all WNBA fans and Atlanta Dream fans a Happy New Year. "Next year is trophy year!"

1 comment:

rogerio silvestre said...

I think it would be fair to mention Ivory Latta's & Izzy's contributions to the Dreamnation in this season! They did a great job!