Pressure on Storm to find its next star as 2014 season begins
Seattle opens its 15th season in the WNBA, knowing well that the leadership and star power from Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are fading. Who’s next to carry the mantle?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Jayda Evans’ WNBA predictions
Western Conference, playoff teams
1. Los Angeles
Eastern Conference, playoff teams
Western Conference champion: Los Angeles
Eastern Conference champion: Atlanta
WNBA champion: Los Angeles
A Storm fan’s instinct will be to bathe in the celebration.
Sue Bird is back after a yearlong absence. The Storm is flexing its 15 years of staying power, arriving after Seattle women’s hoops fans’ first love, the ABL’s Reign, folded and many questioned whether a pro league was viable.
But as KeyArena hears the cue, “Everybody clap your hands,” and the yellow ThunderStix pound in response at Friday’s WNBA season opener against Los Angeles, a question might wash over some. Haven’t we been here before?
It has been 12 years of the Storm and Bird, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2002. With the point guard leading the way, Seattle has experienced sold-out nights, championship victories and clutch three-pointers for improbable victories.
At some point you come to a realization:
“I’m definitely at a point in my career where I know it’s not going to last forever,” Bird said.
Then who’s next to captivate the crowd? Bird, with her consummate team-first mentality, could provide the perfect pass to her successor this season.
“‘Who’s next?’ is important,” said MVP Tamika Catchings, an Indiana forward. “Who are people going to be like, ‘Oh! There goes so-and-so!’ Sue and Lauren (Jackson) retire, who do people talk about? It’s great if you find that person while your (all-star) is still there.”
Last season’s glimpse into a future without Bird and Jackson was grim.
With Jackson, a three-time MVP, and Bird out all season with injuries, the Storm averaged 6,980 fans, fewest since Bird’s rookie season. Seattle finished 17-17 and made the playoffs. But it was swept in the best-of-three first round, the final loss to Minnesota coming at the Tacoma Dome before 3,457 fans, after a Microsoft conference pushed the Storm out of KeyArena.
At the end of the year, the best the Storm felt it had to market was that it had made the playoffs for a WNBA-record 10 straight seasons. But numbers don’t draw fans, players do.
Bird, one of two players to win an NCAA title, WNBA title, EuroLeague championship and Olympic gold, has been the perfect marketing tool to draw beyond ardent women’s basketball fans. Yet Bird, who turns 34 in October, has played year-round to maximize her income. Her longevity likely won’t pass Olympian Teresa Edwards, who retired in 2005 at age 40.
So who’s next to carry the franchise forward in Seattle?
“Wow ... hmm ... who did they draft?” responded Catchings, forgetting Seattle had traded its pick this year in a draft plentiful of players with both personality and talent. Seattle gambled on the unproven for All-Star Crystal Langhorne. At 27, she’s is in her prime, but she’s not a beacon for the future.
Still stumped? OK, skip Seattle. Who’s next in L.A., Connecticut, New York or San Antonio? Names like Nneka Ogwumike, her younger sister Chiney Ogwumike, Essence Carson and Danielle Robinson easily rattle off and debates arise. What about Jantel Lavender (L.A.), Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut), Tina Charles (New York) or Kayla McBride (San Antonio)?
And of course there’s Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins.
But back to Seattle. Who’s next?
Shoot, who else is on the team besides Bird?
Storm players insist it’s unimportant that Storm marketing has failed to cultivate other stars who’ve proved themselves on the court. The question of “Who’s next?” is answered with the upcoming opponent — as in that’s who’s next ... to beat.
“We have a team where it doesn’t matter whose face is out there, we’re going to compete regardless,” said Camille Little, who re-signed with Seattle in March. “Who they pick to market or whatever, I feel our fans are going to come and they’re going to support us. Our fans know exactly who does what and what they bring.”
That’s true for the season-ticket holders, who have averaged around 3,000 the past 14 seasons.
But keeping the casual fan interested in a town where the Seahawks’ popularity is skyrocketing and there’s a revamped women’s pro soccer team that draws curiosity with its 7-0 start — a recognizable face with an electrifying game is essential to stay relevant.
“You can’t just force somebody through marketing; ‘You fans are going to love this player,’ ” said former Sonics president Wally Walker, who heard outrage when his organization traded Hall of Famer Gary Payton for Ray Allen.
“People were apprehensive because Gary had been the face of the franchise for so long,” Walker said. “In a short period of time, Ray became the most popular player. And he earned that through his play.”
Timing probably couldn’t be better for a parallel with the Storm.
The franchise won its second title in 2010 and still had the all-star trio of Bird, Jackson and Swin Cash. But Storm coach and general manager Brian Agler traded Cash for the No. 2 overall pick in a 2012 draft that didn’t feature a lot of recognizable names beyond Nneka Ogwumike, the No. 1 overall pick to L.A.
Seattle fans bristled. Cash helped coin the moniker “Storm Crazies” for the passionate fans who didn’t flinch at standing in a driving rainstorm for a makeshift parade after the 2010 championship.
With the pick gained in the swap for Cash, Agler drafted versatile Tennessee star Shekinna Stricklen, who had a reputation for being able to play every position and do it all — except play defense, Seattle’s signature since Agler was hired in 2008.
Answering to “Strick,” her personality hooked Northwest fans when Stricklen shared via Skype from the draft site that she loves to fish and heard Seattle has some good spots. But after two seasons where time isn’t a luxury the WNBA can afford, Stricklen hasn’t come up huge in game production.
She’s a 6-foot-2 wing who can make the nets snap. Her release for a three-pointer looks like an outstretched arm dropping coins in a piggy bank. But she’s young, reacting with trepidation.
“Last year, I knew I didn’t get better,” said Stricklen, who was replaced in the starting lineup by seven-year veteran Noelle Quinn, averaging 10 points and 2.8 rebounds. “From being overseas (the past season, in Korea), I know I’ve gotten better and have confidence in just being back to try to take my game to another level.”
Stricklen is the first pick Agler has retained during his tenure.
At practice, you can overhear owners discuss Storm prospects. Peeks inside the team’s draft “war room” shows associate head coach Jenny Boucek speaking as much as Agler. And Karen Bryant, the Storm’s first employee when Seattle was granted a team in 1999, is the backbone.
Her pending retirement in July makes what’s next part of her legacy.
Financial gains of constantly marketing Bird have faded. Bryant, 46, said the Storm won’t turn a profit this season after losing Bing as a sponsor that displayed its logo across the players’ jerseys. Selling out the opener isn’t even a given as it has been since 2003. The team needs a serious marketing push and a few walk-ups to reach its goal (9,686 fans for a lower-bowl sellout) on Friday, according to Bryant.
In 14 years, Bryant has left a deep imprint. Before it became popular leaguewide, she had the Storm host “Gay Pride” nights, growing the event to feature rainbow-colored wristbands with the Storm logo that sold out from the team store in minutes.
In conjunction with the WNBA using its platform to pioneer environmental, social and health awareness off the court, Bryant has put a spotlight on the achievements of local women with Seattle’s version of the leaguewide “Inspiring Women” honor. And Bryant has opened up about her health problems to launch a “Take Your Health by Storm” initiative.
Community impact and championships are nice things to reminisce about. But in a fickle sports world, the altruistic message won’t draw the casual fan. And theme nights don’t comprise seasons.
Bryant nonchalantly shares that she already has her seats picked out for when she becomes a Storm civilian. But she needs a star beyond Bird to make certain Bryant’s legacy leads to a vibrant KeyArena packed with fans.
This season the Storm brought in a crop of players with three or fewer years of WNBA experience to balance its veteran champions Bird, Little and Tanisha Wright. The hope is that “next” filters out of the fresh faces — without the organization having to compromise its sustained winning to find a star in the draft.
“It’s too early to be characterized as a concern,” Bryant said of needing a new marketing face before Bird and Jackson retire. “We’re confident that as we continue to talk about it as an organization, we’ll avoid that cliff.”
Bryant has even talked with Stricklen about her potential. The Arkansas native isn’t exactly verbose but her explosive offense offsets her quiet Southern charm.
“Shekinna comes from a background where she knows Sue and Lauren are the superstars and she’s a team player,” said Washington coach Mike Neighbors, a fellow native of Arkansas who recruited Stricklen before she signed with Tennessee.
“If Sue and Lauren aren’t in the equation and people start looking at Shekinna that way, she’s certainly got ‘it,’ ” Neighbors said. “She is dynamic.”
But is she next?
|Storm in Seattle marketplace|
|A look at Seattle’s current pro sports teams:|
|Team, league||First year||Conf. titles||Championships||All-Stars||MVPs||Coach of year|
|Notes: All-Stars are players who were named to play in an all-star game. In both the all-star and MVP categories, each player is counted just once, even if they were chosen for multiple all-star games or won multiple MVP honors.|
|Storm draft history|
Most teams rebuild through the draft. Not the Storm. Only three players on the current Storm roster were originally drafted by the team, one by Brian Agler, the team’s current coach and general manager. Here’s a look at Seattle’s first picks in the draft, starting with selecting Sue Bird with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002.
|2002||1 (1)||PG Sue Bird, UConn||Five-time all-star led the team to two WNBA titles|
|2003||1 (8)||G Jung Sun-min, South Korea||Suffered from a cold-like sickness and played 17 games|
|2004||2 (19)||F Trina Frierson, Louisiana Tech||Underwent left knee surgery, appeared in five games|
|2005||1 (12)||G Tanisha Wright, Penn State||Four-time WNBA all-defensive first team|
|2006||1 (11)||G Barbara Turner, UConn||Cut from 2007 training camp after not reporting on time|
|2007||1 (7)||G Katie Gearlds, Purdue||Suffered a career-ending left knee injury in 2009|
|2008||2 (22)||G Allie Quigley, DePaul||Total of 14 minutes in Seattle, helped Chicago to playoffs|
|2009||1 (12)||F Ashley Walker, California||Limited to 13 games due to broken bone in her foot|
|2010||1 (10)||G Alison Lacey, Iowa State||Refused to return due to lack of playing time|
|2011||1 (12)||G Jasmine Thomas, Duke||Traded for Katie Smith, who retired after two seasons|
|2012||1 (2)||F Shekinna Stricklen, Tennessee||Being honed to be the Storm’s next star|
|2013||1 (6)||F Tianna Hawkins, Maryland||Traded after averaging 9.7 minutes as a rookie|
|2014||1 (7)||G Bria Hartley, UConn||Part of trade to get All-Star Crystal Langhorne|
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067
On Twitter @JaydaEvans