The night before the 2019 WNBA draft, Cheryl Reeve went home convinced she was not going to get one of the two players she craved with the sixth overall pick.
Then, a call from an agent: There might be a chance.
Word was spreading that Napheesa Collier or Arike Ogunbowale might be available at six. The next night, in the team's draft room, the wait was excruciating. But then, four picks in, both Collier and Ogunbowale were still there.
"We were like, 'It's happening,' " recalled Reeve, the Lynx coach and general manager. "It's true."
At No. 5, Dallas chose Ogunbowale. Moments later Collier — the player Reeve said she loved the most in the draft — was on her way to Minnesota.
This, really, is where the rebuild — no, scratch that; let's use the word "reload" — began. In the draft room, where months of work had the Lynx ready, and luck came along for the ride.
The Lynx open their season Friday against Phoenix. The late arrivals of Collier and Kayla McBride from Europe have complicated things. This week Reeve stressed this year's team was still a work in progress.
But recent draft success — yielding back-to-back rookies of the year in Collier and Crystal Dangerfield — and the free agent signings of McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa have Reeve, who also gets back a healthy Sylvia Fowles, optimistic. A year after finishing fourth and advancing to the WNBA semifinals largely without Fowles, Reeve acknowledged her 2021 team has the potential to challenge for a league crown.
When was the last time she felt that way?
"It was 2017,'' Reeve said. "So it's been awhile.''
The Lynx will open the season with just one player, Fowles, from that 2017 team that won its fourth title in seven years. Since then the Lynx have rebuilt without falling below .500 or missing the playoffs.
"That is hard to do,'' Washington coach Mike Thibault said. "Look at them now. They'll be the most, or one of the most, improved teams in the league. They are going to roll out a bunch of veteran, tough, good players.''
You have to have both. Nobody knows this more than Reeve. It was a decade ago that a championship run started when Reeve inherited Seimone Augustus and traded for Lindsay Whalen. She got Rebekkah Brunson in a dispersal draft and won the lottery for the right to draft Maya Moore.
"This is a testament to them being prepared,'' Thibault said. "They have made good decisions on draft picks. Collier. And Crystal Dangerfield. I don't know that they knew she would be as good as she was. But she was there in the second round, and they took her when others hadn't. You have to have planning. But you also need a little luck.''
Reeve knew change was coming. She traveled to Boston years ago and met with Celtics GM Danny Ainge, who talked about what happened there when the great Larry Bird-led era ran its course, how, as that era faded, the team wasn't broken up in order to keep the team's success going.
But Reeve couldn't do it. Her players had won so often, invested so much, that Reeve promised them they'd be kept together until the run was over.
"They were going to write their own end of the story,'' Reeve said.
It came in 2018. After an 18-win season and a first-round playoff exit, Whalen and Brunson's careers were over. Moore left to pursue social reform. Limited by injuries to seven starts in 2019, Seimone Augustus then left for L.A.
But the bottom didn't fall out.
Reeve traded Alexis Smith to L.A. for Odyssey Sims, who had her only all-star season here. She re-signed restricted free agent Damiris Dantas — who had started her career in Minnesota before leaving as part of the trade that brought Fowles here in 2015.
Keyed by Collier's stunning rookie season, the Lynx returned to the 2019 playoffs. Last year Dangerfield became the first player taken in the second round to win rookie of the year. Bridget Carleton emerged as a reliable rotation player. Collier became a top-10 league talent.
Even without Fowles for much of the season, the team reached the league semifinals.
"It's remarkable, for sure,'' said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. She recalled a text conversation from a couple of years ago, where she mentioned to Reeve the idea of a rebuild. That was a text to which Reeve didn't respond.
The implication: "That we don't do that here,'' Lobo said. "To lose the players they did and do what they did, it's something I don't think we've seen [in the WNBA].''
Center of attention
Fowles' influence cannot be understated. The finals MVP in 2015 and 2017, Reeve gave Fowles the option of being traded to a contender after 2018. Fowles chose to stay, and she has become a bridge between eras.
"You have to have a cornerstone,'' Thibault said.
Fowles has taught new players what Reeve expects, extending a winning culture. The fact Reeve also stocked her staff with former players Katie Smith, Brunson and Plenette Pierson, does that too.
"She gets me involved,'' Fowles said. "When it comes to getting players, she wants to know everything about 'em. Attitude, fit with the team.''
Culture is an overused term in athletics. But there is no question Reeve assesses both talent and fit when assembling a team.
"There is a standard in Minnesota, and you have a player like Sylvia carrying it over," Lobo said.
Achonwa remembers her first time in Reeve's offense, when on a recruiting visit.
"First, I was just absorbing the legacy, the basketballs, the trophies, the champagne bottles. And then, just talking basketball with her," Anchonwa said. "She's the coach, but she's making all the decisions. There is no such thing as a rebuild, just a reload. Yes, you lose the legacy of those great players, but you have to see who's coming in as well.''
Patience pays off
A year ago, with the new collective bargaining agreement prompting more free agency movement, Reeve tried to sign several big names. She made an effort to get both DeWanna Bonner and Kristi Toliver, who ultimately ended up in Connecticut and Los Angeles, respectively.
But when that didn't work out, Reeve largely waited instead of panicking and overpaying for someone else.
It worked out. With some other teams hamstrung by questionable contracts signed a year ago, and with an unprecedented number of players available, Reeve mined free agency for McBride, Powers and Achonwa.
Yes, late arrivals might make for a rocky start. But this Lynx team has Reeve believing. Reeve never expected the team to hit rock bottom. But, looking at what has happened since Minnesota won its last title on the Williams Arena floor?
"We knew it would be an uphill climb,'' she said. "And maybe I was being too ambitious in terms of what I wanted to get done. It was a heavy lift. And absolutely we feel proud.''