Lynx's championship foundation built upon perseverance, harmony

BY foxsports • October 16, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS -- For the second time in three years, Roger Griffith's head was swirling.

Seated next to Cheryl Reeve on Monday atop a bright-turquoise Buick Roadmaster, the artillery-like sound of drums pounding in his ears, the Minnesota Lynx executive vice president wasn't anywhere near able to absorb it all.

"It's just the blur element," Griffith told FOXSportsNorth.com the next day. "It goes by so quickly, and then all at once, it's over."

First, a locker-room rager, champagne and dry-cleaning bills included. Next, a hearty welcome home at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. A weekend to keep the party rolling, then Monday's parade through the streets of downtown Minneapolis and a multimedia, firework-accented pep rally to cap it all off.

Then the women whom Reeve and Griffith brought here to win championships were gone. Off to their home cities, then foreign countries for the next leg of their professional basketball journeys.

But not before providing a once-downtrodden franchise a continually overwhelming return on investment -- one that dates back to the organization's roots and has the Lynx poised to become the next long-running dynasty in American professional sports.

The accomplishments and milestones have been regurgitated ad nauseam the past few days: two titles  in three seasons, the WNBA's best record three years in a row, 99 wins from 2011-13.

"It's one of great satisfaction," Lynx and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said of his feelings toward this remarkable run. "I feel terrific."

Around the Target Center, they call Griffith "The Architect."  That'd make Reeve the forewoman.

Under the watchful and generous eye of Taylor, they've constructed a powerhouse.

***

The most noticeable adornment in Griffith's neatly-organized office is a large, National Geographic-style photo of a live lynx stalking through the snow. Around it rest several overhead team photos from years past, all of them predating the current core.

They're a daily reminder of both hope and disappointment.

When the WNBA was formed in 1997, Taylor immediately jumped at the chance to bring a team to the Twin Cities. He'd purchased the Timberwolves two years prior and thought a sister club could serve not as an additional revenue source but rather a way to give back -- to the community and women's athletics in general.

"We knew starting a women's league was not going to be profitable, and therefore not everybody was going to jump on it," Taylor told FOXSportsNorth.com. "But we thought it would be something we could bring to Minnesota and help get started. Our state has always been a progressive state in that we're always out front trying new things."

In an effort to phase in its markets piecemeal, the league told Taylor he'd have to wait until 1999. In the meantime, Griffith -- already the Timberwolves' executive vice president and chief financial officer -- teamed up with CEO Rob Moor to dig into the particulars of founding a women's franchise.

Once they gave him the go-ahead, Taylor kept Griffith on board as the Lynx's COO.

"When I was working on that project, I just kind of found that I was really becoming enamored with it," said Griffith, who became the team's executive vice president in 2009.

So were the locals.

The new league's freshness -- remember those "We Got Next" commercials on ABC? -- fueled early momentum. Minnesota drew an average of 10,494 fans during its first season and finished Years 1 and 2 with identical 15-17 records, just missing the playoffs.

In 2003 and 2004, they broke through to the postseason, falling in the Western Conference semifinals each time. But that drummed up enough area interest to have Griffith and Taylor amped about the future.

Then the latter half of the 2000s happened.

From 2005 to 2009, the Lynx never won more than 16 games in a year and never made the playoffs. Injuries rocked the roster, and postseason appearance orchestrator and 2004 WNBA coach of the year Suzie McConnell Serio resigned during the middle of the 2006 campaign.
Minnesota cycled through three coaches the next four seasons. The league's struggles for respectability and exposure accentuated the Lynx's plight; after the 2009 season, it retracted from 14 teams to 12.

Attendance dipped, though never below an annual average of 6,000 -- a good draw today is between 8,000 and 9,000.

But Taylor never lost hope.

"We lost money every year, but we never even considered to quit the team or to sell the team," Taylor said. "We always built it in our plan for the next few years. We were always thinking to try to get the right players in the long run."

Fortunately for their hopes of rebuilding, one other constant remained throughout those dark years.

Her name is Seimone Augustus.

***

As Reeve vehemently thanked fans -- some of whom got an upfront seat for purchasing season tickets all 15 years of the Lynx's existence -- at Monday's championship celebration in the Target Center, perhaps the past week's most endearing image popped up on the giant projection screen behind her.

It was taken inside the Gwinnett Center Arena locker room last Thursday, amid the postgame melee following Minnesota's 86-77 Game 3 series clincher. Taylor stands to Reeve's right, laughing his balding head off as the coach dumps an entire bottle of bubbly upon it.

The idea of such intimacy with her boss used to irk Reeve.

Until she got to know the guy sitting a couple chairs down from her on the sideline at every home game.

"We've gone from me being a little leery about having the owner four seats away to me bantering with the owner during the game and him traveling to Seattle (for Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals this season) and taking the team to dinner and going to his house," Reeve said. "He's been amazing."

Taylor didn't know Reeve well, either, but was immediately struck by her fire when she interviewed for the vacant Lynx job ahead of the 2010 season. There was little hesitation on his and Griffith's part in giving Reeve her first WNBA head coaching job.

"I liked her determination," Taylor said. "I liked the way that she said she was gonna go about it and the high standards she set for herself. I figured that was going to follow through with the players."

Bingo.

With Taylor's blessing, it's been mostly a two-person crew that's built the organization into what it is today. Griffith has the final say on all personnel matters, but all of his assessments include heavy input from Reeve, who spent most of 2009 as the now-defunct Detroit Shock's general manager.

"Roger has been terrific about whatever it is that I express we may need of figuring out how to go get it done," Reeve said. "I appreciate the heck out of that."

Thanks to Augustus' perseverance through a combined 63-107 mark and an ACL tear during her first five years in the league, they had a pillar around which to build. She was signed to a four-year contract extension before the 2010 season after scoring 21.3 points per game her first three years (the ACL injury kept her out of most of the fourth).

The Lynx stuck with Augustus, and she stuck with them, thanks in part to a conversation with her grandmother after her rookie deal expired.

"She was like 'If you have any decision to stay or go,' she was like 'I just want to say that the grass isn't always greener on the other side,'" Augustus said. "'You don't know what's going on on other teams or organizations or how you'll mesh with the teammates. At least you'll know here that you have a fan base and an organization that really loves and cares for you, so stick with them and you'll see great things happen.'

"And, sure enough."

That same offseason, Minnesota picked up power forward Rebekkah Brunson in the WNBA Dispersal Draft, traded for do-everything point guard Lindsay Whalen and drafted versatile backcourt threat Monica Wright. The next year, it landed Maya Moore with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft and signed veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin.

With Moore's ascendance toward best-ever status and Whalen's Minnesota-bred grit, defense and distribution, fellow 2012 Olympian Augustus didn't have to drop 20 points a night anymore. Sharing the load evenly, they took a team that hadn't won a playoff series to the top of women's pro hoops.

They almost did it again in 2012, falling just short in the Finals against Indiana.

McWilliams-Franklin retired, so Reeve and Griffith went after Janel McCarvile, a former University of Minnesota star like Whalen. Monday, she stood with her new teammates on the Target Center stage, celebrating her first ring in eight professional seasons.

While Reeve quickly led the core quartet of Augustus, Whalen, Brunson and Moore -- all All-Stars this season -- in raising expectations to a championships-or-bust level, the organizational mind frame never really changed, Griffith said.

Bring in the required players, and pay them what they're worth -- nothing more, nothing less.

"We spend a lot of time making sure that we're gonna get good value for the way that we structure our salaries for each player," Griffith said. "We want to pay the players that are really helping produce wins and make sure that we've got mid-range or lower-end salaries for the people that are in lesser and lesser roles as you work your way through the roster."

Sounds common-sensible enough, but it requires tough decisions in a league where salary levels are rigidly structured based upon experience. Minnesota managed to do it all with, according to Reeve and Griffith, the WNBA's lowest payroll this year -- thanks in large part to the presence of three rookies, whose maximum earnings are considerably lower than their veteran counterparts.

Which adds even more luminosity to an already shimmering future.

***

After the word "dynasty"  flashed on the big screen Monday, Reeve and her players asked fans to hold off on such discussion. "No pressure, guys," Moore joked before sharing a few words with the crowd.

Yet a dynasty, or something close to it, is exactly what Reeve and Griffith had in mind at this current jaunt's outset.

"We said it when Roger and I were kind of talking and shaping the team and we were able to trade for Whalen, we got Brunson," Reeve told FOXSportsNorth.com shortly after the team's flight back from Atlanta last Friday. "We kind of got the whole thing together, and we had success. We felt like it was a five- to seven-year window of championships, given the age of the players and what the plan was. We're smack dab in the middle of it."

Moore, the 2013 Finals MVP, is getting somewhere close to the prime of her career. Augustus is still in the latter stages of hers. Brunson and Whalen are both 31, and McCarville is about to be, but all three held up remarkably well this season.

McWilliams-Franklin, though unique, played past the age of 40.

 "You've got a core group," Reeve said Monday, "and as long as that core group's intact and healthy, we can keep moving this thing."

So Minnesota signed Whalen and Augustus to multiyear extensions toward the end of the season. The roster won't look exactly the same next year, Griffith said, but he and Taylor remain committed to keeping the centrifugal forces in place.

"When you're trying to stay ahead of people, you can never just stand pat," Griffith said. "However, when you just won a championship, it's also hard to think you're gonna have the opportunity or the need to make significant moves."

The WNBA's new collective bargaining agreement will keep the Lynx's front office members further suspended on their toes. The current deal just expired, and Griffith sits on the committee representing the league's side of things that will soon begin negotiating with the players' association.

Griffith couldn't comment on specifics, but outstanding issues thought to be on the table include roster size and salary structure, among others.  The league as a whole, though, is on somewhat stable ground after landing a lucrative TV contract with ESPN and undergoing a branding makeover before the season. 

"This is becoming part of the American sports landscape," Griffith said.

***

This week's Minnesota Education Association conference and statewide school off-days allowed Griffith to take his family to Arizona. Taylor's back working at Taylor Corporation and readying for the Timberwolves' season, which begins Oct. 30. Reeve will stick around Minnesota, lie low a bit before scouting college prospects and taking some time off of her own.

At some point this fall, each will have a chance to sit back and realize what a monumental machine they've put together. Any retrospect, of course, is tempered by thoughts of continuing the run as long as possible.

But if they need any current perspective, they only need give McCarville a call.

"Oh yeah, it's sunk in," the powerful post said at the airport Friday. "The season's over. It better start sinking in. We accomplished a lot of things -- pretty much everything we wanted to do."


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