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.