Every once in a while, there are personnel moves in sports that are so unfair, so wrong-headed and so contrary to progress that I have a hard time sitting down long enough to type in my thoughts about them.
Because what I feel more like doing is rampaging around and screaming. Witnessing sheer stupidity has that effect on me.
But since that is definitely not a good way to communicate publicly, I’m forcing myself to sit down so I can write that Sacramento’s firing of Jenny Boucek as head coach is as dumb a decision as anything I’ve seen in following the WNBA since its 1997 inception.
(And that covers a lot of idiotic ground, especially when you consider some of the Mystics’ coaching moves, the Lynx’s trade of Katie Smith, and the Henry Bibby “era” for the Sparks.)
Monarchs general manager John Whisenant announced Sunday that Boucek had been fired and he will return to the sidelines.
He took over as coach in 2003 and remained in that role through 2006, winning the WNBA title in 2005. Whisenant said in a statement Sunday, “The team is 3-10 overall; we still have over half the season left and we felt it necessary to make this change. We feel like this is a playoff-caliber team that can compete, and to dig ourselves down any further wouldn’t be prudent.”
( MUST STAY SEATED! MUST KEEP TYPING!)
What the #%X&$ is he talking about? This “playoff-caliber” team has been riddled with injuries and did virtually nothing to upgrade personnel for this season anyway (which is Whisenant’s job, not Boucek’s).
Ticha Penicheiro is playing with her thumb about half torn off. DeMya Walker is playing on 85-year-old knees. Kara Lawson and Rebekkah Brunson both have been playing injured as well. No worries … Nicole Powell can score 35 points every game, can’t she?
Penicheiro, Chelsea Newton and Scholanda Robinson are all on this squad at the same time because apparently in Whiz’s world, no team can ever have enough 5-foot-11 guards who can’t shoot 3-pointers. The team’s only rookie was its top draft choice at No. 7 overall, Courtney Paris, and everyone expected this season would need to be a learning experience for her.
Sacramento played eight of its first 13 games on the road, including five in a row. In the last of those five straight away from home, the Monarchs beat Minnesota despite the Lynx coming in on a little hot streak. Then Sacramento went home and beat Chicago.
Next was an 11-point loss at Seattle, which had won 15 consecutive regular-season games at home until Sunday’s loss to Chicago. Finally, Boucek’s last game was a 107-105 loss at home to Phoenix, which at 10-4 appears to be the best team in the league (all due respect to 9-2 Indiana and its nine-game winning streak). That loss to the Mercury came on a buzzer-beating shot.
Temeka Johnson hit the game-winner, later saying (as if this needed confirmation) that the final play wasn’t designed for her. Meaning Sacramento had successfully defended Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter. Hard to blame a coach when the other team’s fifth option manages to get a runner to drop.
But it’s hard to blame Boucek for any of what’s gone on this season in Sacramento. And for heaven’s sake, why panic like this now? There are reasons, not excuses, for why the team is 3-10.
Besides, this has been the most consistent WNBA franchise over the last decade, appearing in the playoffs nine of the past 10 seasons. The only “miss” in that time was in 2002. All of which means that the Monarchs haven’t had the poor results to bring a bunch of top draft picks their way. Sacto, in fact, has never had a No. 1 pick.
The upgraded talent would have needed to come mostly from trades and free agency, but Whisenant didn’t do much to change things. He went to the GM-only role after the 2006 season, and Boucek was hired. She’d been an assistant at Miami and Seattle, and also a scout with the former Seattle SuperSonics, before taking over as Monarchs’ head coach.
Boucek’s record with Sacto was 40-41, but her team made the playoffs both the past two seasons, losing to San Antonio. Last season, the Monarchs forced a Game 3 with the Silver Stars, losing in overtime. San Antonio, of course, went on to upset Los Angeles in the West finals and then fall in the WNBA finals to Detroit. In 2007, Sacto also lost in three games to San Antonio in the playoffs’ first round.
In the back of my mind, I’d speculated that if the Monarchs didn’t make the playoffs this year, Boucek might be fired, even though I didn’t think that would be a smart move then. But … I didn’t suspect the organization would pull the plug on her now, when there was still time for her to rally a team that finally has most of its pieces in working order – although is still far from being totally healthy.
I talked to Boucek by phone for about 20 minutes Wednesday after the Monarchs had arrived in Seattle. I’d spoken to Powell a day earlier and written a story for ESPN.com about Sacto’s tough start and how things were turning around. I spoke to Boucek about some of the same things, but also her philosophy on getting through tough times. I was planning on turning that into a blog entry here this week.
But instead of a story about how Boucek planned to approach the rest of the season, this is instead about how Whisenant and the Monarchs organization cut loose a coach fully committed to doing things the right way. A former WNBA player who was well-regarded for her X’s and O’s, her enthusiasm, the trust she earned with players and the popularity she had with fans.
Boucek genuinely believes in the larger lessons of sports, how playing/coaching basketball is about more than just winning. She fully understands that as professionals, she and the players are paid to win. But that was never the only thing she was trying to do. She wanted them – and herself – to keep getting better as people, too.
I won’t deny that I’ve always been fond of Boucek going back to when she was an 18-year-old kid out of Nashville, Tenn., busting her tail for Virginia and earning a starting spot on sheer guts. Boucek did not have much of a perimeter shooting touch, no matter how hard she worked on it, but she got her playing time based on hustle.
I worked at a newspaper in Virginia then, so I saw her entire college career. And in 25 years now of covering women’s college basketball, I’ve never seen anybody play not just every game but every practice with more passion than Boucek did. She had no “off” switch. Believe me, Cavs coach Debbie Ryan tried to find it, just for Boucek’s own good. She worried Boucek would wear herself ragged and burn out. But that didn’t happen. Boucek’s light is inextinguishable.
However, I’m not saying this was a bad move just because I like Jenny Boucek. It was a bad move because she’s a good coach.
I’ll have more about my conversation last week with Boucek in an ESPN.com story later today, but suffice to say, she did not complain about what she didn’t have at Sacramento. She didn’t gripe about the injuries. She didn’t sound shrill or angry. To the contrary, she said she believed in her players and knew they were in a big hole, but they were starting to find their way out. She was well aware that the trip to Seattle followed by a game with Phoenix was a 1-2 punch that could knock over the Monarchs again, but there was nothing to be done but keep battling.
Many of the Sacto players have been together for quite a while now, and they have a lot of professionalism. Even if they see Boucek’s firing for the lousy decision that it is, they know they need to focus on winning games. Plus, several of them played previously for Whisenant and assistant Tom Abatemarco (who was also an assistant for Boucek). As far as I could tell, Abatemarco did a lot of the strategizing when he was with Whiz. The players will adjust because they have to.
Anybody who follows the WNBA knows that someone else will be smart enough to bring Boucek on board. (For instance, the Sparks will need a new coach after Michael Cooper’s departure to Southern Cal at season’s end.) Boucek will move on to the next thing and work just as hard at that. Hopefully, she’ll be working with people who share her beliefs.
“I believe you win with principles that go a little bit deeper,” she told me. “Too many people now are missing what athletics are really supposed to be all about. You may call me crazy, but I’m a purist when it comes to sports and competition and what they’re for. I love the developmental process and committing to a team, problem-solving. Not just ‘what have you done for me lately,’ with no commitment, no loyalty.
“I’ve been around and seen coaches who panic – how they act and how they make it worse and impart that into their team. I don’t want to be that, either. I want to be stable and solid, and someone the players can look to for confidence. I hope that I can be that and show what I’m made of.”
From what I can tell, she did all that. Boucek didn’t fail the Sacramento organization. It failed her.