Boucek ready to take next step as WNBA head coach
On a March night a decade ago, Jenny Boucek was lying facedown on the floor in Virginia's locker room at University Hall. Her final college game had been over for hours. But her jersey was still tucked in, her shoes still tied. She had no idea when she might get up. Neither did anyone else.
I was in Charlottesville that night and saw the Cavaliers get "Holdsclawed" in the Elite Eight against Tennessee, losing a 17-point lead and a trip to the Final Four. I wrote my story, then watched the other regional finals on a TV in U-Hall. I left well after midnight, knowing Boucek was still in that locker room and really not even a little surprised at that.
I wouldn't have expected her to take that last loss any other way. Boucek poured as much of herself into her sport as anyone I'd seen. Of course she was shattered. I felt bad for her and thought while driving home, "Poor kid. Wonder what she'll do now?"
I should have guessed. It made so much sense. Boucek would become a coach.
However, what was pretty obvious to many people who knew Boucek was not always so clear to her. There were a lot of doors she could have walked through. Medicine, like her father. Social work and counseling, like her mother. What about running a business? Teaching? Why not be a stunt woman in Hollywood?
Back in her days with the Cavs, she dated a guy who wrestled alligators. He thought that might be a good gig for Boucek, too.
"The scary thing is," she says now, laughing, "I actually considered it."
But coaching is, indeed, what Boucek was most drawn to. And after being an assistant with the Washington Mystics, the now-defunct Miami Sol and the Seattle Storm, she recently was named the new head coach for the Sacramento Monarchs.
WNBA assistants toil in anonymity that doesn't often correspond with their actual large value to a team. So who is Jenny Boucek? If you saw her play for the Cavs, you definitely remember her. If you didn't, let me tell you about her.
Boucek grew up in Nashville, Tenn.; her father, Bob, is a doctor and used to work at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. It might have seemed likely Boucek would end up with her hometown Commodores, but she didn't. She went to Charlottesville.
I worked in Virginia during Boucek's college career from 1992-96, going to many of the Cavs' games then. And I'd bet there are U.Va. fans who still consider Boucek their favorite player.
She was known (affectionately) as the Garbage Queen because she scored so many of her points "cleaning up" missed shots and was always scrambling on the floor after every loose ball. She didn't have great shooting form and she wasn't exceptionally gifted athletically in a basketball sense. And yet she started and played constantly, because she willed herself to be good.
She'd tell you that basketball was her worst sport, the one that came the hardest for her. Tennis came easily, but Boucek didn't love it the same way. Not even close.
Virginia's Debbie Ryan used to say that she'd never coached anyone quite like Boucek, who not only did not have an "off switch" but also didn't have "neutral" on her gearshift. Boucek even relished those hideous conditioning drills that make most other players wonder if it wouldn't have been better just to get a student loan.
So Ryan was worried about how the end would be for Boucek, as was anybody who'd watched her play. There are kids who go 700 mph their whole careers; that's how they're hardwired. They can't let up even to protect themselves. And so when that last game comes, bless their hearts, they never so much as tap the brakes. Emotionally, they hit the wall at full speed.
After everyone else -- including Boucek's mother, Barbara, and her best friend and teammate, Wendy Palmer -- had tried to get Boucek to leave that locker room, only one person was able to do it. That was Ryan, who'd already gone home herself but then drove back.
It took awhile for Boucek to get past the grief that comes for many athletes when life as they've known it for so long is over.
"It was about eight months, to be honest, that I really struggled with it," she said. "I had another year left under my scholarship because I was completing my undergrad major. I was living on the Lawn [a residence area of great academic prestige at U.Va.] and trying to fill that void, because basketball had become a bigger part of me than I ever could have realized."
Boucek didn't expect to be in uniform again, but the WNBA came along and she made the Cleveland Rockers and then played in Iceland. However, a severe back injury ended her competitive playing career for good.
"I think everyone around me was expecting I was going to break down again, that the same thing would happen," she said. "But by then, I'd had time to get the proper perspective and had come to peace with it. So I was OK."
However, it was time to really figure out what her next passion would be.
At the beginning of this past WNBA season, I wrote about how few female head coaches were left in the league. And that part of what needed to happen to improve the number was the development of women as pro coaches instead of college ones.
"I think it is different," Boucek said. "Anne Donovan has evolved into a great pro coach, and there are other women who are evolving. There are different dynamics at this level."
With the WNBA having been around now for nearly a decade, we're seeing the gradual growth of the pool of female coaches whose careers are rooted in the pro game. In Boucek's case, her entire coaching career has been at the pro level. She got her start when Nancy Darsch, then head coach of the Mystics, hired her.
"I didn't have a day's worth of experience coaching, but she gave me a chance," Boucek said. "I owe her a lot."
Boucek remembers and is grateful to every coach along the way who has tutored her. Ron Rothstein, when he was with the Sol, not only shared his NBA experience, but also introduced her to NBA coaches such as Pat Riley. Boucek said other NBA coaches have allowed her to sit in on meetings and practices and get the chance to really understand professional basketball.
"I have been blessed," Boucek said. "I've been around some great teachers and been around the pro ranks for a while."
In Seattle, Boucek also became an advance scout for the Sonics, something she'll continue to do until officially stepping into her role with the Monarchs in January. This last season, she didn't work in the WNBA, taking the time off to really think hard about whether coaching was her future.
Some people questioned that -- why would she walk away for a while? But she felt she had to, and for someone like Boucek, it made sense.
"I opened myself as best I could to other things," she said. "And I kept asking, 'If I could be doing anything, what do I really want it to be?' It became more and more clear that I really wanted to coach in the WNBA."
Boucek will be 33 in December; she's almost four years younger than the leader among the Sacramento players, Yolanda Griffith. Certainly, Boucek will need to prove herself as a head coach at this level. That's the way it is in the pros. But she's ready to try.
"I love coaching more than playing," she said, "and I never thought I could love anything more."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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