Relocation has reason to succeed
College fan base, Richardson's reputation bode well for Shock's relocation to Tulsa
Nolan Richardson sounds excited, Kara Braxton sounds hopeful and Tulsa, Okla., sounds like it's at least going to give the WNBA a chance.
Quick story: When I was a kid, several times my family took the Ford Country Squire station wagon from Missouri to California and back. We did not have video games, iPods or DVD players to get us through six days of round-trip driving but, hey, we did have an AM radio.
Once -- I might have been about 8 -- I distinctly remember noticing Tulsa. It was one of those overcast days where late in the afternoon the sun was still fighting to show itself. It wasn't quite going to make it, but added that pretty orange-crimson tint to the clouds. The wind was blowing a bit, and it felt like we were about to enter "the West," where I imagined maybe a few miles outside of the city, real Indians still lived and ponies ran freely across the prairie.
"I like Tulsa, Dad," I told my father. And so that was that, permanently set into my mind.
Three-plus decades later, that impression has stayed with me. I like Tulsa.
So does Braxton, who has played for the Detroit Shock for five seasons. With the franchise moving to Oklahoma, she's looking at it more from an optimistic perspective than a regretful one.
Braxton grew up in Michigan, though she finished her high school career in Oregon before going to college at Georgia.
"I'm from Michigan, and it was home for me," Braxton said. "The friendships, the Shock fans there -- I'm going to miss them. But this is good in another way, because we open up in a new place, and it's in a great city. My twin sister lives in Tulsa, so it's a place I'm already familiar with."
Braxton will soon be headed to China, where she is playing during the winter. Most of her Shock teammates are already overseas. She has communicated with them, and said while all were pretty surprised at what happened, they are mostly looking at it the same way she is.
"I'm kind of a softie, and I used to take things personally," Braxton said. "But this is a business. We're gaining a new fan base and going to a new community where a lot of people may not have been introduced to the WNBA before. And there's a great venue there."
Now, we won't pretend that Braxton doesn't carry some baggage with her. She was suspended six games at the start of this past season for a second DUI offense. I think anyone who has ever dealt with Braxton would tell you the same thing: She's a nice person who has been too prone to making bad decisions. Everyone hopes we've seen the last of those; this year she was the most productive she has ever been for the Shock.
I'm tired of how so many college coaches keep wondering aloud if the WNBA is going to survive. Look, nobody is going to deny the league has its struggles, but it has lasted 13 seasons now, folks. As I told one coach, it's hard for me to understand how the same people known for calling timeouts with 4 seconds left and down seven points don't have some of that same "Never give up" optimism for the WNBA.
We also need to acknowledge some baggage for Richardson. In 2002, he had an acrimonious end to a successful 17-year career at Arkansas, where he won the men's NCAA title in 1994.
Richardson had a contentious relationship with then-athletic director Frank Broyles and filed a discrimination lawsuit against the university after he was fired following a frustrated outburst near the end of the 2002 season.
In 2004, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Arkansas had let Richardson go because of his remarks that he'd leave if the university would buy out the remainder of his contract, not because of discrimination.
Since leaving Arkansas, where he still has a farm, Richardson has coached the Panamanian and Mexican men's national teams. And it seemed his relationship with Arkansas (if not Broyles) was mended when he was honored along with members of the '94 team at a game in Fayetteville this past March.
Richardson retains popularity in Tulsa, where he led the University of Tulsa to the NIT title in 1981. Richardson will be 68 years old this December, and he hasn't coached on the women's side before. But like most of those who've come over from men's basketball, he insists it's simply not that much different.
"Coaching is coaching and teaching is teaching," he said. "You must be challenged to continue to do the things you enjoy doing, and I realize how much I enjoy doing this. And I'm ready for the challenge.
"I talked to some of the men's coaches who are now women's coaches, and most of them said the same thing, 'You may enjoy coaching these women more than men. Because they don't bring a lot of egos with them.'"
Perhaps no coach ever had a better nickname for a system than Richardson's defense-oriented "Forty Minutes of Hell." Certainly, the Shock under Bill Laimbeer and then, this season, Rick Mahorn, knew how to play defense. It was one of the principal reasons the team won three WNBA titles.
And the fact that this is a team that is relocating, not an expansion team, is good for both Richardson and the fans in Tulsa. Detroit's franchise proved to be a consistent contender for the WNBA title the past several years, and made a push at reaching the WNBA Finals again this season despite losing key players to injuries.
"There's an advantage for us moving when we've been together so long," Braxton said. "This could be overwhelming to some people, but because we're coming in all together, it won't be."
Wednesday when the Big 12's women's coaches gathered for their annual media day, which this year was in Kansas City, I asked several about their feelings on having a WNBA franchise now in the heart of Big 12 territory.
Most especially, I was interested in the reactions of Oklahoma's Sherri Coale and Oklahoma State's Kurt Budke. Nobody has done more to boost the popularity of women's basketball in Oklahoma than Coale, who has taken the Sooners to the Final Four twice. And Budke is determined to build a suitable "rival" program to OU, having taken some big steps in that direction in 2008 with a Sweet 16 appearance.
Their "Bedlam" series always has the potential of being important just because all OU-OSU matchups can catch the attention of fans there. Further, there is a noteworthy history of girls' basketball in the state, led by the achievements of Hall of Fame coach Bertha Teague, who won more than 1,000 games at Byng High in Ada, Okla.
Coale is a native of Oklahoma, and Budke is originally from just north in Kansas. So they have their lives and careers rooted in this part of the country.
"I'm excited for the BOK Center and the city of Tulsa," Coale said. "I think anytime you can have people in your state thinking about and talking about women's basketball for 365 days, that's a great thing."
Budke said, "I'm anxious to watch it myself."
The Big 12 coaches whom I've actually heard talk the most about the WNBA -- unsolicited -- are Texas' Gail Goestenkors, Kansas State's Deb Patterson and Texas A&M's Gary Blair. They clearly do watch WNBA games.
But in the bigger picture, I think there is a lack of initiative on the part of college coaches in general to really help sell their fans on the WNBA. I suppose a lot of them don't feel it's their job, and technically it isn't. But the success of the pro league is only going to help grow the popularity of the college game.
I'm also tired of how so many college coaches keep wondering aloud if the WNBA is going to survive. Look, nobody is going to deny the league has its struggles, but it has lasted 13 seasons now, folks.
As I told one coach, it's hard for me to understand how the same people known for calling timeouts with 4 seconds left and down seven points don't have some of that same "Never give up" optimism for the WNBA.
I hope for the good of women's basketball, there is some real attempt at synergy among the Tulsa, OU and OSU women's programs and the new WNBA franchise. It just makes sense.
Ultimately, Tulsa's chances for success with its WNBA endeavor are about as good as they could be for these rocky economic times. For all these reasons:
• Fans have come out to see both Oklahoma's and Oklahoma State's women's teams in big numbers. There's a lot of "school loyalty" in that, but it's also because many of them really do like women's basketball. And if you do already like the sport but are not yet into the WNBA, you should be.
• Tulsa doesn't have the competition of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB the way Detroit did. The only franchise from one of the "big four" leagues in the state is the fairly recent relocation of Seattle's NBA team to Oklahoma City.
Certainly, there are sports fans who are not going to give the WNBA a chance, but there are plenty who will. It's imperative that the WNBA players blitz the community with goodwill appearances, which they are known for, because it really can make an impact in Tulsa.
• Richardson has drawing power. Regardless of how things ended at Arkansas, you can't argue with how much success he had there, and he's inheriting a team that already knows how to win.
Blair, who directed the Arkansas women's team during nine years of Richardson's tenure in Fayetteville, believes that Richardson can be a success in the WNBA.
"He is a very good coach," Blair said. "His wife was one of our biggest fans at Arkansas, and they would come to our ballgames.
"If he's got Detroit's team, that's a ready-made team to compete. I really believe for him to get the legacy he deserves, he needed to get back into the game."
The WNBA has succeeded in some cities where I thought it might not, but it has also not worked in some places where I thought it would. But, as I said, I like Tulsa. It really should have a chance to work there.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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