Plain-spoken McCoughtry readies for Dream season

ATLANTA – The exhaustion in Angel McCoughtry’s bearing was palpable.

She had returned to the United States 10 days earlier from an eight-month season in Turkey in which her team Fenerbahce won its eighth consecutive championship. It was Wednesday and within a few hours she was scheduled to practice for the first time this season with her WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, which had begun training camp about two weeks earlier.

“Just got to stay mentally tough,” she said. “Just came from a long season in Turkey. Whew!”

The 6-foot-1 guard/forward, the league’s leading scorer last season at 21.4 points per game, spoke of the need to “clear my mind.”

“It’s good to get away from the court,” she said, “so you come back fresh.”

With the WNBA Finals ending in the early fall and the Turkish season starting around the same time, it’s virtually a year-round season for elite players like McCoughtry. Few other professional athletes have to endure the demands that women’s professional basketball players do to maximize their earnings.

The NFL’s regular season is played over 17 weeks. Major League Baseball and the NHL probably have the longest seasons at about nine months, including the playoffs. But those players still get months away from the game. Elite soccer players probably come the closest with national team commitments, particularly in World Cup years.

For now, McCoughtry is trying to squeeze that rest and relaxation into 10 days. The situation is something that coach/general manager Fred Williams is sensitive to.

“I think Angel and a lot of the other players that have been overseas internationally, they get a few days rest and stuff,” he said. “Sancho (Little)’s got a lot of rest and so did Erika (de Souza), coming back from her Brazilian team and got a few days there, but they’ve been going straight through nonstop in the offseason so to get them that rest early pays off early because in the midseason that’s when you hit that wall. So we want to make sure they get all the rest they can and today will be the first day for them to get on the floor so that’s a good sign.”

To preview the season, which starts for the Dream on May 25, McCoughtry discussed a wide range of issues, from the acceptance of openly gay players to the challenges the team will face this season.

She was asked about the decision of No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner, the former Baylor star, to come out casually in a press interview. McCoughtry said, to her, a player’s sexual preference is irrelevant.

“She came out, she’s free and open to do that,” McCoughtry said. “It’s great that people accept it.”

McCoughtry’s stance was slightly more controversial when she was asked if men received more credit in the media than women do when they come out. The reference was to former Hawks center Jason Collins, who gained enormous national acclaim recently when he became the first active male athlete in a North American team sport to announce he was gay. McCoughtry evidently was unaware that Collins played for the Hawks, even though they both played in Atlanta during the same time period.

“I don’t know because I’ve never really heard a lot of men coming out,” she said. “I’ve heard more women come out than men but since that one guy, that NBA player Collins, has come out, he seems to be getting all the press. It just seems like they’re praising him but when it seems like when Sheryl Swoopes came out (in 2005), she lost her endorsements and this guy Collins – who really knew Collins before he came out?

“And then it’s like they’re praising him. Well, why didn’t you praise Sheryl Swoopes when she came out? Why was she just left in the dust? And you can quote me on that.”

Speaking of Griner, McCoughtry also discussed her alma mater Louisville’s run to the national title game, as the fifth-seeded Cardinals upset Griner’s Baylor team in the regional semifinals. Some have called it one of the greatest upsets in the history of the women’s tournament. Louisville’s coach Jeff Walz also coached McCoughtry, providing a tangible connection for her to the program.

She said stayed up until 3 a.m. to watch both the national semifinal and championship games via satellite at her home in Turkey.

“I had to do it from afar but I really enjoyed it,” McCoughtry said. “Wow. It’s rare that both men and women go the same year so that was just great. I was so proud of the girls. Because, of course, the men are expected to get there but no one’s expecting the women to get there. I was just so proud of them and the teams they beat. I didn’t even care that they lost to UConn (in the title game). It was like they won the championship.”

While McCoughtry has claimed championships in Turkey and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, they have eluded elsewhere, such as in the ’09 NCAA championship game and in ’10 and ’11 in the WNBA Finals. Both times the Dream was swept.

McCoughtry lamented those missed opportunities.

“We’ve been there before in Atlanta,” she said. “We’ve tasted it but we haven’t completed our mission. I think we have a great team here in Atlanta. We just have to finish it. To go two times back to back, you at least want to get one them.”

In those two seasons, Marynell Meadors served as the Dream’s coach. Last year, the franchise tested the idea that any publicity is good publicity when it received more than its fair share late last August as the organization parted ways with Meadors, the only coach/general manager in its history until that point. They replaced her with Williams and then suspended McCoughtry for two games for violating team rules.

McCoughtry was critical of Meadors’ game plan shortly before the firing, leading to speculation that the star and the coach were feuding. On Wednesday, McCaughtry expressed nothing but admiration for Williams and praised the players he had to put together for the team.

“I really love Fred, man,” she said. “I think Fred he knows the game. He knows the Xs and Os. He thinks the game. One thing I really love about Fred is his communication skills are really great. He always tells me what he wants and talks to me and lets me know what he needs and I do it.”

“So he wants to get up and down, continuing to play like we’ve been, playing fast.”

The Dream return four starters and McCoughtry said she thinks the bench is deeper. Perhaps this is finally the season they get over the hump.