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Originally published October 11, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified October 12, 2010 at 9:52 AM

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Storm CEO Karen Bryant has a winning plan

The Storm CEO hasn't just built a title-winning franchise — she has helped women's basketball captivate Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Karen Bryant

Position: Storm CEO. Age: 42, born Dec. 21, 1967, in Edmonds.

High school: Edmonds-Woodway.

College: Green River Community College (1986-88), Seattle University (1988-90), Washington (1990-91).

Acquired: First hire of Storm organization, June 18, 1999.

Residence: Leschi.

The word: Bryant has a staff of 30 who produce the broadcast of, ticket sales for and marketing of Storm basketball. She has helped hire three coaches and increased sponsorship since the team's inception in 2000.

Balancing act: Bryant married her partner in 2005, giving birth to their daughter in April 2008 via C-section. But Bryant didn't take maternity leave, overseeing the transition to an independent organization after the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City. "That year was a blur," said Bryant, whose daughter was born two months premature. "We signed closing papers for our home in the hospital. I had her on a Thursday and was back at work on Monday. My doctor was like, 'What!' But we had that agreement with the Sonics that they'd support us, but somebody had to make sure they'd do that. Owners can't, they don't have those relationships. I'm not a vacation person, anyway, which is why I have nine weeks. It's kind of a problem. I'm working on work-life balance."

Three-pointers: Has had a "professional coach" the past four years ... Has a wine cellar in her home. ... Coached Woodinville High from 1993 to '96.

Jayda Evans

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The blueprint is scattered on scraps of paper.

On a notebook in Storm CEO Karen Bryant's messenger bag. On napkins from coffee with former Vulcan Sports CEO Tod Leiweke. Plus diagrams scribbled on notepads in the middle of the night.

Bryant has devoted more than 13 years of creative catharsis to cultivate a dream: a community captivated by professional women's basketball. As autumn arrives in Seattle, fans warm themselves with memories and memorabilia from the summer's championship run. Most don't know that Bryant has done more to define "Storm basketball" than anyone — through four ownership groups, three coaches, two championships and one split from the NBA.

"What she's done is a bit understated," said Seattle University athletic director Bill Hogan, who along with Leiweke are colleagues Bryant swaps ideas with, from branding to personnel hiring. "She's an inspiration for me, just to see all she's been able to accomplish. I'd like to see her get more acknowledgments, but that's not her. It's about women's basketball, about the Storm."

Many Storm fans became hooked after seeing their first game at KeyArena. In addition to watching stars Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, there's the thump of hip-hop and rock music before the game. The hype-generating highlight clips on the jumbo screen. Doppler, the furry mascot with endless comedic antics. Countless giveaways, from lunch pails to T-shirts. And the crowd-favorite ThunderStix — as the words "Everybody clap your hands" blare from the public address system, fans whack together the air-filled plastic tubes as if pummeling the opponent themselves.

The culture has been envied across the WNBA since the Storm's inception in 2000.

"Karen's a very intellectual strategist," said Kelly Krauskopf, the Indiana Fever's senior vice president/chief operating officer and general manager. "From year one to now, Seattle's building and city environment is just different. It feels like you do when you go to any men's game.

"I'm using that term because there's this very avid fan feeling you get when you walk into the building. I've sat by myself before amongst Storm fans, just listening to conversations, and these are moms, dads, women, kids — it doesn't matter. They're very knowledgeable. They're very passionate, and there's real ownership. Her staff does a great job, because it's just two hours of high energy. And I hate it, because I don't think we've won there in a while."

The Storm game experience is drawn from Bryant and her family's creativity, along with the efforts of a youthful, 30-person staff plus seasonal employees and interns working in a renovated ice cream-equipment factory in Interbay.

Bryant's mother suggested the "Stormy Awards" — players and coaches acting out popular film clips for a fan-selected winner. A Bryant family barbecue resulted in 2007's "I'm In" marketing campaign. And Bryant's wife helped shape the final draft of the Storm's mission statement.

"She puts in so much time," Bryant's wife, Merrily Wyman, said of the often 11-hour workdays. "Even when she's not physically there, I think she's often mentally there. She's constantly scribbling down ideas in the middle of the night or the middle of the restaurant or whatever we're doing. It's definitely more than just a job."

Ironically, none of it would have existed if Bryant had taken her first pro basketball experience personally.

Celebrating the holidays with family in Lake Tahoe in December 1998, Bryant received a call on her birthday that the American Basketball League had folded. Bryant, then the Seattle Reign's general manager, was responsible for everything from selecting the team's logo with her 20-year-old sister, to creating the game experience at Mercer Arena, to selecting players.

Bryant, cutting the vacation short, called to let everyone know the league no longer existed. Most had already heard via newscasts.

Six months later, Bryant received another pivotal phone call. This time it was an offer to join the new WNBA franchise in Seattle as vice president of operations. The WNBA was a fierce rival of the ABL; some still feel it played a part in the league's demise. Bryant sought her family's support first.

"It was a dark day for her," said Bryant's sister Trisha. "There was all this competition between the WNBA and the ABL, so when Karen called us and said she got this call from the WNBA we were kind of like, 'What? You can't be a traitor! You can't go over to this league!' But she said the ABL was not coming back and if we want women's professional basketball in Seattle, we need to get on the bandwagon."

Not that it made the transition easy, even with the multimillion-dollar backing of the NBA Sonics. Bryant suddenly became one part of a big corporation where the endless stream of ideas was hard to execute at times. Yet the wealth of experience and small things — like a copier and office space — were invaluable assets not found in the ABL.

The first-year Storm easily surpassed the WNBA's required season-ticket pledge of 5,500 with 7,200 deposits. Seattle, under Bryant's first coaching hire, Lin Dunn, averaged 8,912 fans its inaugural season in the WNBA-configured, 9,686-seat KeyArena.

The Storm averaged 8,322 fans in 2010.

"It's a sad moment when I think about all the lives that were impacted by the ABL folding," said Bryant, who held private parties with former Reign fans — some of whom still haven't attended a WNBA game — to help smooth the transition. "But to look at it now and sit where I am today, I was given new life. Seattle was given new life. So, it's a happy ending. But for a lot of markets, it's not."

Seattle teetered on losing the Storm when former owner Howard Schultz sold the Storm and Sonics to Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett and his partners in 2006. Bennett sought a new arena and when unsuccessful, moved the NBA team to Oklahoma City.

He sold the Storm to four Seattle businesswomen, placing another call on Bryant's birthday to share the news before the January 2008 announcement. Bryant lost co-workers, basic equipment and a practice facility, but gained a new position as CEO — suddenly running the organization.

"I knew it would be work," Bryant said of her new position. "I understood the severity of the transition. With a smaller staff, you're not as agile (as a company) and it's harder to twist and turn and be reactive to opportunities. You have limited capacity."

Yet to an outsider, there was seemingly no change. Not bad for the former Edmonds-Woodway High basketball star who won a Class 2A state championship in 1984, but had her playing career cut short after stints at Green River Community College, Seattle University and Washington due to foot and back injuries.

"When I think about the posters my sister had on her wall, she never had any of women," Trisha Bryant said. "Maybe a small cutout from a rare magazine article of Cheryl Miller or something, but most were of Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain. She didn't have any female idols to look up to, which is another reason why I think she loves what she does so much, because she's able to give that to girls like her. It's another dream she's living out."

Now there's a blueprint to follow.

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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