- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Not many coaches can survey a basketball court with the same field of vision as 7-foot-1 Tree Rollins. Maybe those few extra inches of perspective for the WNBA's newest and tallest coach were all it took to figure out what was wrong in Washington.
Rollins took over the Mystics after former coach Richie Adubato quit the morning of the team's fifth game, in what was widely viewed as a protest, or alternatively a fit of pique, over the trade that brought talented but unproven second-year wing Monique Currie from Chicago in exchange for veteran post Chasity Melvin. Since assuming head coaching duties, Rollins has opened up an offense that was last in the league in scoring and returned a team that began the year 0-8 to the edge of the playoff race in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
And in a league that has too often turned to former male players more familiar at best, and more interested at worst, in the last three letters of the league's acronym -- for every Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper there was a Dave Cowens and Darrell Walker -- Rollins already casts a classy shadow on the sideline.
As a player, Rollins was most known as the post presence on the high-flying Hawks teams that battled the Celtics and Pistons during the 1980s. He averaged 2.2 blocks per game in a career that stretched 18 seasons, topping out at 4.3 blocks and 9.3 rebounds per game with the Hawks during the 1982-83 season. But without a similar interior threat among his charges in Washington, at least until massive rookie Gillian Goring develops, Rollins has relied on the kind of offensive freedom that surrounded him during his playing days alongside Dominique Wilkins, Doc Rivers and others.
"What we're trying to do is push the ball and get opportunity breaks, as we call them," Rollins said before a recent game against Connecticut. "And if we don't have a break or we don't have an advantage, we bring it out and set the play up. But with the eight-second call now in the backcourt, I think all the teams are trying to push the ball more. With us, the majority of our team are all athletes anyway, so I feel that's the way we need to play."
After averaging 71.2 points in their first four games under Adubato, the Mystics averaged 82.4 points in the first 10 games with Rollins at the helm. The team's offensive production peaked when it averaged 91.2 points per game during a recent six-game stretch that netted Washington its first four wins of the season and included a four-game road trip that took the team from Phoenix to Connecticut, by way of Houston and Chicago, in the span of 13 days.
Rollins is quick to credit Adubato for laying a foundation of success for the franchise, and he seems to hold back any judgment on the latter's sudden departure from the sideline. It was Adubato, after all, who was with Rollins during the big man's transition from player to coach in Orlando and who convinced him to give the WNBA a whirl last year after successful stints as an assistant in the NBA and a head coach in the NBDL.
That loyalty aside, there is little doubt that Rollins had his work cut out for him in doing damage control after replacing his former boss.
"I think the mood when Richie left, I think it was a whirlwind for everyone," said Alana Beard, who is scoring more than 18 points per game for the Mystics. "We had the trade and then we had Richie leave, so the mood was just unstable. No one was sure of anything. And the one that I continued to hear in the locker room was we have to stay together. But everyone was still kind of shaky on not knowing what was really going to happen, as far as a new coach coming in or something like that."
Just a few weeks later, on the final leg of a road trip that might have been a basketball death march under different circumstances, there were few signs of such tension. Seconds before the game against the Sun, a team that has long had Washington's number, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nikki Teasley and Nakia Sanford shared a laugh near half court, undaunted by either the long road trip or the prospect of winning at Connecticut in the regular season for the first time since 2003. Seconds later, Teasley nailed a 3-pointer to give Washington an early lead in a game it would control throughout and win by 16.
"The mood now is just really chilled and relaxed," Beard said. "We have fun, you know, everyone is walking in and smiling every single day. And that's fun to see."
It's amazing what a little winning will do for a team. But if the smiles and good vibes are a product of winning, the winning appears to be a product of Rollins opening up the offense and letting an undersized team exploit its strengths rather than cover its weaknesses.
"I think he continues to remind us that it's just basketball and the coaches can only do so much," Beard said. "I think Tree does a great job of just giving us a little structure but allowing us to go out there and really take control out on the floor as players. And we didn't have that the past couple of years. You know, he gives us a little bit of structure and it's our time."
The coach is quick to point out that he's not just rolling the ball out on the floor and taking a seat on bench to see what happens. "We still have structure," Rollins said. "Don't be misled that because we run it up and down, we don't have structure."
Rollins made that point with quiet emphasis in his voice, which is pretty much the adjective that applies to everything he does and says. In stark contrast to fellow Eastern Conference coach and former NBA rival Laimbeer, Rollins is a quiet giant, described as a "teddy bear" by Beard.
Whether it's teasing a ball boy who brought him a requested dry eraser but forgot the pen before the game, sharing a moment of bemusement about a foul call with the fans sitting next to Washington's bench or sitting in a nearly empty coach's locker room after the game talking about the new trapping defense he hopes to perfect by the All-Star break, Rollins is the picture of someone at peace with himself. He's the kind of guy you want to sit and watch a game with, if only he wasn't busy coaching it.
And so it's no surprise that he's loathe to take much credit for what has happened.
"As we tell the players, the league's not going to wait on us," Rollins said. "And the same way with coaches; the next coach will come in, whether I'm here as head coach or not, the next coach will come in here and keep it going and keep getting the players to play hard. That's what it's all about. When you become, quote-unquote, head coach of the team, that's all it is. I have a great staff alongside of me in Marynell Meadors and also Crystal Robinson, who brings fresh, fresh coaching to us, because she just finished playing. So she can tell us a little bit better what can and can't be done on the court. It reminds me of when I stopped playing professional basketball and became an assistant coach."
But there's no mistaking who is running the show these days, no matter how much credit he deflects or how quietly he carries himself. When you're 7-1 and one of the best shot blockers in the history of basketball, it turns out you don't even need to carry the stick to get your point across. You just speak softly and stand up straight.
"He's got that NBA mentality," Beard said. "He's a great person and he's really nice, but when it's time for business and when he's not happy with us, he lets us know. And when Tree steps up and his voice gets a little higher than what it is, we know that it's time and he's about business."
And as for the notion that he's a teddy bear? Well, it doesn't take Stephen Colbert to know a bear is a bear no matter how cuddly it appears.
"There's definitely two sides to him; he's a teddy and he's a bear," Beard said with a wry smile. "You've got the teddy part, and you don't want to see the bear very often. But we have seen it a few times."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.