November, 1984. Cheryl Reeve, a freshman point guard for La Salle, is in her first college game, at Delaware, and it’s a disaster.
Nine consecutive times, Reeve turns the ball over trying to pass over a 2-3 zone. Coach Speedy Morris, that irascible Philadelphia legend, is irate, pacing the sidelines. You stink, he screams. You’re horrible.
“Boom, there’s a sub, and I come out and I’m just crying,” Reeve said. “And he goes, ‘You’re crying? You’re crying? I should be crying.’ Speedy is the only coach who made me cry in a game. You hear that, that Cheryl Reeve cried in a game, nobody would believe you.”
No, they wouldn’t.
Reeve, the 46-year-old coach of the Minnesota Lynx, laughed at the memory. Of course, these days Reeve is the fervent one, occasionally volatile, usually wired. Reeve prepares meticulously, reacts emotionally. It happens many days in practice, quite often in games.
Who can forget Game 2 in last year’s WNBA Finals when, after being called for a technical foul, Reeve ripped off her jacket and flung it in a rage, then had to be restrained from running onto the court? One of point guard Lindsay Whalen’s unofficial duties is to gently pull Reeve back when she gets too close to the edge. What play should I call? Whalen will say. What defense do you want to run?
In her fourth season as a WNBA head coach, Reeve’s Lynx teams have been to two league finals, winning once. The Lynx are among the favorites to get back there again this summer. They have the league’s best record at 14-3, and Reeve coached the Western Conference team to victory during Saturday’s All-Star Game in Connecticut.
“I’m a raw, emotional, passionate, fiery person,” Reeve said. “You always know where you stand.”
Her players know that. “She tells the team what it needs to hear,” Lynx All-Star forward Maya Moore said. “The egos? She doesn’t care. She does not care.”
In a quarter-century of coaching in college and the pros, there have been a lot of influences. As a point guard at La Salle — Reeve is still all over the record book; top eight or better in games played, game started, assists and steals — her competitive nature was honed by Morris for two years while her approach to preparation started with John Miller.
Miller hired her as a grad assistant after Reeve’s college career ended in the NCAA tournament when a violent backscreen early in the second half knocked her out of a first-round, one-point loss to a Penn State team led by former Lynx coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. (Reeve still thinks she should have walked it off and returned to the game.)
Even as a player, Reeve was intense. Morris loved that she didn’t back down from anybody. “She feared nobody,” he said.
Miller loved how Reeve maximized her talent with precise execution. Now the coach at an all-girls prep school in Philadelphia, Miller still uses what he calls the Cheryl Reeve set, where the ball is passed to a player cutting through the lane, who then hits an open shooter in the corner on the weak side, a play Reeve ran to perfection. “I tell my players this is how the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx used to do it,” Miller said.
After La Salle, Reeve was an assistant at George Washington for five seasons, working with Joe McKeown, another Philly legend now coaching at Northwestern. And then she was head coach at Indiana State for five seasons, leading the Sycamores to a postseason berth in 1999, the team’s first in 20 years.
But Reeve’s edgy style didn’t fit so well in the Wabash Valley. So Reeve headed to Chicago for a predraft WNBA camp and got a seasonal assistant job with the Charlotte Sting, then coached by Anne Donovan. It paid $5,000.
“Anne didn’t know this, but I would have paid her $5,000,” Reeve said.
In the ensuing years she would work for Donovan, from whom she learned patience. And for Dan Hughes, who taught her defense and how to relate to players. And then, for four years in Detroit, Reeve worked with Bill Laimbeer, where she embraced her considerable edginess and learned to value input from others. Oh, and also how to win; the Shock went to three WNBA Finals, winning two.
And then to the Lynx. After an injury-filled 13-21 season in 2010, the Lynx have gone 68-17 in the regular season.
Along the way, Reeve has learned to balance her intensity with the ability to connect with players.
“They have to know you care,” Reeve said. “In my younger years I was always driving, driving, driving players. There wasn’t enough of, ‘Here’s why we’re doing it.’ That’s an acquired side you have to get in touch with.”
Like father, like daughter
But, more than anything, the Reeve you see comes from growing up the daughter of an Air Force man, the middle child of three with two brothers.
Larry and Rae Reeve were both from the Philadelphia/New Jersey area, but his career took them to Omaha, where Cheryl was born, to Georgia, where she grew up, then back to New Jersey before she entered high school.
Reeve’s love of competition began in her back yard.
“She was always self-motivated,” Rae Reeve said. “Always driven to be the best, no matter what. … And, of course, she wanted to outdo her brothers.”
Larry Jr. is the older brother; Tom is the younger. Cheryl and Tom grew up competing in everything, including epic games of home run derby that always ended with Cheryl ahead. “She being older, she’d say, ‘Sorry, it’s time to eat,’ ” Tom Reeve said.
Her dad encouraged it all. At a time when girls competing in sports was not yet completely mainstream, Larry Reeve treated his kids equally. And that wasn’t always a fun thing. He used to coach Cheryl in softball. One time she sprained an ankle sliding into second base and came up limping. You have two ankles, he said, so walk if off. One time an error cost her team the game, and Reeve remembers walking through the parking lot, her dad yelling at her over one shoulder, her mom by the other telling her it was OK if she didn’t want to play anymore.
“My dad was in the military and his motto was, ‘This is what we need to do, what we’re going to do, and this is how we’ll do it,’ ” Tom Reeve said. “Very organized, planned, methodical. Disciplined. Not a lot of room for discussion. … Cheryl was very close to him. Everybody says I’m the clone of my dad. I look like him. But she has his personality.”
Tom recalls Cheryl coming back after her freshman year at La Salle and declaring she was going to eat nothing but mac and cheese; she needed to gain some weight so she wouldn’t get pushed around on the court. He remembers the two playing 1-on-1 in the single-lane driveway with a hoop bolted into the side of the family’s ranch-style house.
But his favorite story? The dunk. Cheryl kept saying she wanted a net for the hoop. Finally her dad got one, then backed up his truck so she could climb on top and attach it. Once it was on, she turned to her brother and asked for the ball.
She took a few steps, then dunked the ball, reverse-style. “I hung on the rim and pulled it out of the wall, right out of the house,” Reeve said. “I came crashing down, the rim hit me in the head.”
Said Tom: “She got up, went in the house and told my dad, ‘Tom did it.’ We weren’t allowed to play for weeks.”
When Reeve went to college, her dad picked her major (computer science). After she got her masters after two years as a grad assistant (she was a Rhodes Scholar nominee), her dad discouraged her from coaching, preferring she’d pursue a more stable career path.
“It was always, ‘When are you going to get a good job?’ ” Reeve said. “That was his thing. It became a joke, because the longer I was in it, the more lucrative it was getting and I was able to support myself, and that’s all he wanted.”
In 2008 Larry Reeve, who had fought ill health for two years, died at age 68.
“He would be so proud of her today,” said Rae, who talks to her daughter before and after every game. “He never got to see Cheryl be a head coach in the WNBA.”
When told what her mother had said, Reeve paused for a moment to brush away a few tears. “She said that?” she asked.
And now Reeve and the Lynx are on their own influential run.
Every day, things she has learned come into play. Having worked with Laimbeer, Reeve encourages and sometimes demands input from her staff, inviting discussion.
“She wants the argument,” assistant coach Jim Petersen said. “And she doesn’t want you to back down. I did that early on, because I didn’t want to be confrontational. But she wants the debate. I don’t know if I’ve been around a head coach who is really smart, really confident, who also allows other options to shape what the team is about.”
Reeve also listens to her players. Go to a practice and you will see Reeve and Whalen huddling between nearly every play.
At the same time, though, there are bedrock values about how she wants the game played. Team defense, unselfish offense. Execution. And when that’s not happening, the players hear about it.
But she never loses them.
“It’s a respect thing,” Laimbeer said. “Most quality players like that. She has become much more confident in her ability to manage players, to command players’ respect and attention.”
After the team’s first loss of the season, Reeve called out Whalen, Moore and Seimone Augustus, saying they hadn’t played like Olympians. During a blowout loss in Los Angeles, she benched her starters in the second half.
Each time, the team came back stronger.
“She tells you want she wants, and you’re either going to do it or you’re not,” Augustus said. “If not, you’re going to sit.”