Wednesday, I roasted coach Don Zierden for the way he had left the Minnesota Lynx just days before the season opener. I thought that was unprofessional. The Lynx/WNBA fans I heard from seemed to feel the same way.
Thursday, a series of phone conversations – including with Zierden – shed at least a different kind of perspective on the situation. A lot of this was off the record, for the standard reasons that people usually have when they are talking to a reporter about things like jobs, contracts and employers.
Considering how harshly I criticized Zierden based on what I knew Wednesday, it would be very unfair (and unprofessional) for me to not address this again based on further examination and discussion about the situation. I’m going to attempt to do that here without compromising the parts of the conversations that were off the record.
Wednesday, the Lynx had a press conference announcing Zierden had resigned to take a job with the NBA’s Washington Wizards and that Jennifer Gillom was being elevated to head coach. Zierden didn’t go to the press conference. Minneapolis/St. Paul media had reported his impending departure the night before, when he’d told the Lynx players, but he did not comment to reporters then.
Wednesday, he spoke to various Minnesota media outlets, including telling Tim Leighton of the Pioneer Press, “The decision was made a week ago. This has been an ongoing thing. This decision was extremely difficult. There were some things that were going on behind the scenes that we will leave behind the scenes.”
Well, OK … but the problem with leaving stuff “behind the scenes” is you leave open to interpretation what your motives were.
Here’s how I connected the dots Wednesday: If Zierden left because he had a better offer from longtime friend and colleague Flip Saunders with the Wizards, why did he wait until just days before the WNBA season to take it? Wasn’t that disrespectful to the league and his players?
That fueled much of my criticism. It seemed to make the WNBA look to be trivially unimportant, something he would walk away from easily for another chance at the NBA.
Zierden acknowledges the timing was terrible for everybody. However, he said he actually did not want to leave the Lynx, nor was salary the issue. Rather, the offer from the Wizards provided contractual security that was the deciding factor.
Zierden stressed that he has long had a good relationship with Timberwolves/Lynx owner Glen Taylor. And Zierden praised Gillom, calling her, “A really wonderful person who is going to be a great head coach. We got along very well.”
He said he stayed on with the Lynx more than week after deciding to leave, but did that in order to help ease the transition for Gillom. This part seems weird to me, though. I’m not sure how he or anyone else thought that announcing the coaching change three days before the season would be better than 10 days before. Maybe at that point, they thought there was no good time to do it.
Or maybe they just didn’t think enough about how it came across: That this likely would be perceived by many as the WNBA being used as a stepping stone back to the NBA by someone who didn’t care about the WNBA to begin with.
WNBA fans/observers are not completely naive idealists (OK, maybe some are, but …) and we realize that it is not the “fault” of the NBA guys in the WNBA that they typically are going to have options the female coaches don’t. Is it fair? No, but it’s the way things are. Is there any profession in this country that is still as shut off to women as coaching men is?
I really don’t know how that’s going to improve. However, I don’t think it’s any answer to be hostile to men coaching women. Which I never have been, and neither are most of the people who are committed to the sport either as fans or media. But we do have a hard time not bristling/griping/stereotyping when someone is hired to coach in the WNBA despite admitting he really knows very little (or nothing) about the women’s game.
That’s not an unfair reaction from us. What would be unfair is if that person DOES learn about the game and does excel at it – for instance, a Bill Laimbeer or a Mike Thibault – and we still held some kind of bias against them. Or if we were hostile to them if they wanted to leave for the NBA. At this point, if the right thing came up for one of those two in the NBA, I wouldn’t criticize them. They have already done right by the WNBA.
Zierden said his two seasons in the WNBA taught him to appreciate the league. He acknowledges the obvious: the NBA assistant’s job offers a higher salary and contractually more security. (I assume everyone would have guessed that, so I don’t think I’m revealing any secret info.) And there’s the NBA’s pension plan, plus his friendship/comfort level with Saunders. But … Zierden also points out the important personal reasons he had wanting to stay with the Lynx: His wife and children are remaining in Minnesota, his native state. And he said he did like the job.
“I loved my time in the WNBA and was very proud of what we accomplished trying to rebuild a contender,” he said. “I think we’re a respectable contender for a playoff spot this season. I enjoyed coaching the WNBA players and wish it would have continued. My son and daughter are still going to be ballkids for the team, and I know Jen will do a great job.”
Some may not really buy Zierden’s description of what happened – or even if they do, they may have been ready for him to go. Lynx fans have been through a lot – with the worst trade in league history (Katie Smith for essentially nothing in 2005) being near the top of that list – and you couldn’t blame them if they’re just inclined to be generally skeptical or disillusioned.
Probably the one thing everybody agrees on, for the good of the franchise and the league, is hoping a former WNBA player has success as a head coach. Ultimately, the Lynx players and fans are ready to get behind Gillom.