Reeve guides Lynx once again to playoffs in most challenging of years
MINNEAPOLIS — The outcome was desirable. The execution, inadequate.
As the Lynx worked through late-game scenarios at the end of practice last Thursday, reserve guards Monica Wright and Tricia Liston converged upon the opposing scout team point guard. With their bodies perfectly angled and their inside feet within millimeters of each other, they left him with nowhere to dribble but into their clutches. One player’s arm poked the ball away. The other corralled it.
This was a former collegiate basketball player volunteering his time as a WNBA practice body. But Liston and Wright had just made him look more like he belonged on the Target Center Lifetime Fitness center’s other hardwood floor — the one reserved for dues-paying members that want to play some pickup during their lunch hour.
Cheryl Reeve had all 10 players on the floor freeze in place. While Liston and Wright had done their jobs admirably, the three players behind them had left a gaping hole at the right elbow. The double-team caused a mismatch, no doubt, and a rotation toward the middle of the floor was necessary to mitigate the risk.
"How’d he get so open?" Reeve wanted to know.
Enough small details, seamed together cohesively, can build an impenetrable fortress. Want proof? Take a stroll through the Target Center and take special note of the championship banners hanging from its rafters.
2011. 2013. Another Finals appearance in between.
"Just trying to keep the team together and focused on our goals — our daily goals — and trying not to look at the big picture," said veteran small forward Seimone Augustus, who’s been here since the pre-Reeve days in which Minnesota floundered at the bottom of the league’s standings. "That’s what you guys talk about, the championships and the playoff runs. We kind of just focus on what we need to do in that moment."
Yet Reeve might not have stopped the workout earlier in the year. Coming back from a second title in three seasons, she assumed too much, she said. After all, the core of Augustus, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and company that had spurred this dynastic-scented stretch were all back in place.
Except they weren’t. And it took Reeve a while to realize and accept it.
Stick with what got you here, she had to remind herself.
"I came out of the gates kind of in that mode of ‘well, everybody knows everything. We’ve been together for three years,’" Reeve told FOXSportsNorth.com. "Then all of a sudden, you say ‘wait a second. We’ve got a lot of new people out here.’"
When training camp opened, Moore was the only core returner present. The rest were still concluding their overseas campaigns. Wright and fellow key backup Devereaux Peters missed the start of the season with knee injuries. So did power forward Rebekkah Brunson, whose start against Phoenix on Thursday night will be her fourth this year. Lifetime renovations forced them to relocate for practices during an already jam-packed regular-season schedule.
Later on, Augustus contracted left-knee bursitis and missed eight straight games (nine overall).
"This team has never gone through what we had to go through this year," point guard Lindsay Whalen told FOXSportsNorth.com.
With attrition running rampant and their focus shifting sideways, the Lynx dropped four of six contests during the first 18 days of June. It was the worst sextet under Reeve since her first season in charge, 2010, the last time Minnesota missed the postseason.
Yet after seven straight wins that match their season-high streak that opened the campaign, it seems like a long time ago.
The Lynx’s arsenal is fully available. Moreover, they’ve returned to that cliched, boorish yet ultimately effective mantra of putting things together piecemeal.
"One day at a time."
Reeve’s constant reminder is echoed in her players’ approach to a game they’ve in many ways dominated the past three seasons.
But sometimes, leaders require attentiveness to their own advice.
Reeve still has the newspaper clipping, a grainy photo of Philadelphia hoops fixture William "Speedy" Morris tearing off his suit jacket in frustration during a game.
Sound familiar? It should. Reeve made national, albeit unwanted, headlines when she did the same thing during Game 2 of the 2012 WNBA Finals.
"You must have got that from Speedy," Reeve’s mother Rae, who speaks with her daughter before and after every game, told her then.
During the first two years of Reeve’s collegiate career, La Salle head coach Morris helped stoke her fiery persona. Morris’ replacement John Miller instilled the value of preparation during her final two seasons and brought her back as a graduate assistant for two more years. Five years as an assistant at George Washington represented the first "pay your dues" portion of her coaching tenure. Then came her inaugural experience running the show during a half-decade as Indiana State’s head coach from 1995-2000.
"Then," Reeve said, "this WNBA came along."
It was a winding road for the daughter of an Air Force officer who was born in Omaha, grew up in Georgia and attended high school in New Jersey. She’d earned a computer science degree from La Salle and at one point had internship with the IRS configuring its digital systems.
Around that time, she also helped run a girls basketball clinic put on by women’s basketball pioneer Cathy Rush.
"I thought, ‘this 9-5 stuff, I don’t know about this,’" said Reeve, who left La Salle with a master’s in business administration. "’This basketball stuff is pretty cool.’"
So the coaching seeds were sown. And during her final year in Indiana, she was one of the Fever’s first season ticketholders when the franchise was founded in 2000.
After that year, she took a job on Anne Donovan’s Sting staff for $5,000 — "I would’ve done it for free," Reeve said — and sandwiched two stints in Charlotte around a season as a Cleveland Rockers assistant. In 2006, Detroit Shock assistant Bill Laimbeer brought her on as an aide. Two years later, she added player personnel duties to her title.
Detroit reached the WNBA Finals each of Reeve’s three seasons there, winning it all in 2006 and 2008.
She applied to succeed Jennifer Gillom as Minnesota’s head coach in 2010. When executive vice president Roger Griffith interviewed her, he was awestruck by her honesty.
"She answered questions in a way I’d never heard them answered before," Griffith said. "A lot of people come to you and recite what they think is the right answer; she just made it clear she’d do what she thought was right."
So Reeve got the gig. It took one rebuilding year for her to help assemble a roster featuring Moore, Whalen and Augustus that won the 2011 championship. Last year, that same Olympian threesome produced the same result.
No coaching road is without its challenges. For Reeve, they were leaving behind a comfortable, well-paying career, the grind of the college recruiting trail, working for a four-figure salary and waiting more than two decades for her first head coaching shot in the WNBA. They all built her into the coach that halted practice for the most minute of adjustments last week.
But no hurdle appeared quite as daunting — or formative — as the one Reeve stumbled upon this past spring.
Reeve isn’t exactly sure when it started.
When she ran around the lake with her two dogs once the snow melted in 2013, her legs felt abnormally heavy. Walking up stairs began proving a more and more difficult task. Occasional toe numbness was attributed to sitting in the same position for too long or shoes that were too small. "I thought I was just out of shape," Reeve said.
Then, while rebounding for a player during a workout in mid-March — right around the time the Lynx announced their jersey-sponsor partnership with the Mayo Clinic — Reeve moved horrifically slow to fetch the ball. She immediately decided to have some blood work done. An MRI, too.
Two days later, on April 2, 2014, she was in surgery to have a benign tumor removed from her spinal region.
Reeve was scheduled to travel to the Dominican Republic that same day. Upon receiving the MRI results, team physician Dr. Mumtaz Kazim asked her "do you have to go on vacation?"
"I knew she knew something was up," Reeve said.
A pre-surgery briefing with her surgeon brought even worse news. She needed the operation immediately, and she’d be in the hospital for at least a week, followed by a 12-week recovery period.
"From that point on, I just sat back," Reeve said, "and in my mind I’m going ‘OK, how’s this going to work?’"
It worked swimmingly. Doctors were able to remove the entire tumor, and she was out of Abbott Northwestern Hospital three days early.
Then came the real challenge.
Reeve began having painful back spasms. Fluid started dripping from her spine. A week after her operation, she was back in a hospital bed for nine days to deal with post-surgery complications — most of which was spent on flat bed rest.
"I didn’t do well on that one," Reeve admitted.
The season was less than a month away. She spent the April 14 draft communicating with Griffith and assistant coach Shelley Patterson via Skype. Assistant Jim Petersen, also the color analyst for FOX Sports North’s Timberwolves broadcasts, was in Golden State with the NBA team and Skyped in from his courtside spot inside Oracle Arena.
"That kind of derailed the way that we prepare for the draft and the way that she prepared for the season," Peterson said. "It was very difficult. It was very challenging.
"We didn’t know if Cheryl was going to be able to do training camp."
Eventually, she was. But not fully.
Petersen and Shelley did most of the early-May directing while Reeve sat back and watched. Her mobility was limited, and she had strict doctor’s orders to keep her heart rate down. She took prescription pain killers at home and was usually on muscle relaxants while at work.
Not exactly a comfortable existence for a coach wired against passivity.
One day at a time. "I remember laying there just telling myself ‘this will all be a distant memory soon’ and that before we knew it we’d be in season and I wouldn’t even be thinking about it," Reeve said.
Her doctors gave her a "pick stick" with a handle she could use to pick things up around the house bending over and straining her healing back. Wright gave her a special whistle to use during practice instead of shouting.
Now, all that’s left is a half-foot scar on her back she refuses to look at, and some brief muscle twitches in the region.
"She toughed it out," said Whalen, who’s developed into a close confidant for Reeve during their time in Minnesota together. "Really a credit to her determination and will to be here with us every day when she was fighting through that. It had to have been very painful and a stressful time for her, but when you see that from your coach, you can’t help but work hard."
Moore, currently on track for her first WNBA MVP award, took the on-court leadership reigns early while Whalen, Brunson, Augustus, Wright, Peters and Janel McCarville finished their overseas campaigns. Once Whalen and Augustus returned, they took it upon themselves to assume even more of the locker-room slack.
Their presence would’ve been felt either way. But it was especially imperative, Reeve said, till she could claim a full recovery early last month.
"Man, that seems like so long ago," Moore said of Reeve’s surgery. "But it really wasn’t. It was a few months ago, which speaks to her and her professionalism and her sacrifice to want to give us everything that she can."
Today, Reeve says she’s pain-free. She can move about freely, yell at practice and during games all she wants, and has returned to that meticulous-yet-energetic approach to her work.
In turn, so has her team.
"We’ve just done a great job of that — forgetting the past, not thinking about the future, only focusing on what’s right here, right now," Peterson said. "It’s been the best team I’ve ever been around in terms of being able to do that.
"I think it’s all a testament to Cheryl Reeve setting the tone."
A former NBA player himself, Petersen likens a season to gazing at the underside of a tapestry. On the visible side, it’s blank, but its design is being woven on a daily basis.
"It isn’t till the season’s over when you turn it around and see what the season actually turned into," the one-time Rocket, King and Warrior said. "You can focus in and see ‘that helped us and that helped us and that’s part of the tapestry that is beautiful.’"
When the parable is applied to the Lynx’s 2014 go-round, they’ll see images of Reeve during preseason games, barely able to rise out of her chair. They’ll see Brunson, Augustus, Wright and Peters with extra bags of ice on their once-injured knees. They’ll see cramped practices at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center.
And, no matter how this particular work turns out, they’ll see Reeve guiding them through it.
Thursday night, the Lynx will take on West frontrunner Phoenix with a chance to climb back into contention for a third straight conference crown and the playoff home-court advantage that comes with it. If they don’t, they’re comfortable with their chances, having gone 43-21 away from home the past three seasons — the best road record in the league during that span.
In the playoffs, they’re 6-4 outside of the Target Center. Two of the defeats came at Connecticut in the 2012 finals.
"We’ve handled (adversity) well," Whalen said. "That’s because of coach, and then we just try to lead from her example."
Said Brunson: "Throughout the time I’ve played for her, she’s always told us that the road is never going to be easy, nor is it always going to be the same. Right now, our road has been a little bit rocky.
"I think that just makes it a little bit more fun knowing that you have to get there through a few challenges."
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