The Lynx were set for a preseason game at Washington when James Wade gave his first team presentation to players who had succeeded plenty without him.
He felt “shock” addressing Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, winners of three WNBA titles in six years. Recalling the moment more than a month later, Wade put his hands on his knees and exhaled.
After longtime assistant Jim Petersen resigned, Minnesota tapped Wade to take his spot and hired Walt Hopkins as a full-time player development coach, a role the Lynx didn’t previously have. Hopkins wanted the job the moment he became a candidate, and Wade, a former San Antonio Stars assistant who also coaches in Europe, compared the opportunity to learn from Cheryl Reeve to being in school again.
They were entering higher-pressure jobs while trying to ingratiate themselves.
“Any time you have change, you think it’s not going to be great,” seventh-year Lynx assistant coach Shelley Patterson said.
Key player input
Before the Lynx offered Wade the job, he flew to Minnesota and met with Whalen and Brunson.
Fowles said Reeve consulted her, too. And Hopkins said Reeve told him there were “a lot of people involved in the decision.”
Reeve always wants her key players’ opinion, and if that group doesn’t think someone will fit, the team moves on.
“She just does not make her decisions in a vacuum,” Petersen said.
“That’s one of the best things about working with Cheryl Reeve. She’s the smartest person in the room, but she doesn’t act that way.”
The only way to assimilate into the group, Petersen said, is to be prepared and respectful of the team’s past accomplishments.
Hopkins said he’s “scared not to be ‘on’ ” for a single day of work because “Cheryl will notice.”
Wade spent two months before the season, when he was living in France, watching every possession Fowles played during the past few years, as well as some games in full. He’d break the sessions up into 30- to 45-minute segments.
He took occasional two-day breaks when he had “Syl overload.”
He had no intentions of changing Fowles’ game, only to further improve her footwork. Before games, Wade, who stands about 5-8, is sweat-drenched from pushing Fowles around in the post with two foam pads underneath the basket.
“He’s got little man’s syndrome,” Fowles joked. “He thinks he can just boss me around because he’s way smaller than me.”
Fowles said the physical practice sessions make games easy, although Wade is uncomfortable claiming credit for her best professional season. He also doesn’t like the notion he’s replacing Petersen, who still shows up to Lynx games and even gave Fowles a hug during a recent game.
“I’m not Mr. Miyagi,” Wade said. “I just give energy.”
New voice, new ideas
As a coach in Europe during the WNBA offseason, he’s also providing a greater depth of scouting knowledge, both in upcoming games and the draft, because he’s involved with women’s basketball year-round.
The Lynx loved Petersen, but his offseason was spent working as a broadcaster for the Timberwolves.
Reeve knows it’s possible to get locked into a single approach. Petersen said the Lynx coaches sometimes wondered aloud why other teams would run the same plays when they hadn’t worked in the past.
So Reeve welcomes the new coaches’ fresh perspectives, even if they don’t bring grand changes to a winning process. Different voices can make the same messages resonate.
Patterson tells fellow assistants to repeat instructions to players who might have already heard the same point from her.
She compared it to a child dismissing a parent only to follow the same advice once someone else offers it.
“It doesn’t matter that I said this to Maya 100 times, or that to Seimone,” Patterson said. “Sometimes you saying it once is that light bulb that goes off.”
The new staff members knew from the start of the season that Reeve wanted them to speak up, but they first needed to learn the players’ personalities, on and off the court.
Early in his time with the team, Hopkins approached Whalen as she walked off the court after practice. He wanted to talk to her about the pick and roll, but before he spoke, she told him to give her a moment to gather herself after a workout.
He didn’t take offense. And he’s abided by the request since.
“I didn’t try to come in acting like I knew everything,” Hopkins said.
Whatever resistance to the new coaches that once existed had evaporated by the end of training camp, Patterson said. Hopkins and Wade greeted players they didn’t know well with hugs.
Wade joked that his greatest challenge with his new job has been learning to be a good “road husband” to Patterson. That requires taking turns going to the bathroom in airports, so that one person is always watching the other’s bags. Still, some routines are hard to break.
“Sometimes,” Wade said, “she calls me Jim.”