Commentary

Chatman has high hopes for first season

Former LSU boss hasn't coached in the United States since 2007

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Asked her favorite things about living in Chicago so far, Pokey Chatman gives an embarrassed laugh.

[+] EnlargePokey Chatman
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesAfter leaving LSU in 2007, Pokey Chatman landed in Europe, where she coached Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi.

Oh, she has heard there is a lot of great stuff to do. She has just been too busy to really do anything except get ready for the Sky's season.

"I haven't experienced the city," she said. "Everyone is telling me everything I need to do. So I have a list of about 21 things. And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm never going to have time to do this.'

"But it is neat that everyone you talk to, they have something fun to say about the city: a place to go, what to see, a restaurant to eat at. When I'd come recruit here, I'd think, 'I need to get back to this place.'"

Now it's home for Chatman, at least for the summer, but she'll need a day off at some point to start crossing off a few things from that list. The task at hand is to get the Sky into the playoffs for the first time since the franchise began play in 2006. Dave Cowens, Bo Overton and Steven Key combined to coach Chicago to a record of 61-109 in the Sky's first five seasons.

It's hard enough to gain traction for a women's sports expansion franchise in a huge city obsessed with so many other long-established sports leagues. But not winning enough to make the postseason has made it even more difficult.

Chatman knows what she's up against. Unlike so many "new" coaches in the WNBA over the league's first 14 seasons, Chatman is neither new to women's hoops nor to the pro side of the sport. After a difficult and odd ending to her tenure at LSU, her alma mater, in 2007, Chatman ended up overseas first as an assistant and then a head coach for Spartak Moscow.

Among the athletes she coached there were her former LSU and current Sky player Sylvia Fowles and past WNBA champions Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson of Seattle and Diana Taurasi of Phoenix. Fowles obviously was already very used to Chatman from LSU, but Bird really didn't know her before working together in Russia.

"She picked up the nuances of being a pro coach very quickly," Bird said of Chatman. "As a head coach, she was very in tune with all of us as players. Something that I know that Brian [Agler, Seattle's head coach] had to learn kind of the hard way is that you need your players to be fresh, and that sometimes means backing off a bit in practice. Pokey got that right away.

We have an owner who's hungry to win and believes in me, and our players are the same. The biggest emotion is excitement. … It's competitive every game here, and it's a matter of little things: setting the right screen, rotation on help defense. That's how close it is between winning and losing here.

-- Sky coach Pokey Chatman

"And she really understands point guards, which I loved, of course. The way we communicated -- she's always open to talking, and running things by me and vice versa. She was totally cool with that. For us players, it was really easy, rewarding and fun to play for somebody like that."

Needless to say, the Sky could use that positive, we-can-do-this kind of atmosphere to not just be verbalized in platitudes but to exist and last all season. Chatman's familiarity with the personnel in the women's game will help strategically as she adjusts to the coaching styles of her new counterparts in the WNBA.

"It's nice that I had the transition time in Russia with some top American players to get me ready for this," Chatman said. "It was a good segue into what to expect here. And I say this not to undervalue anyone abroad, but out of respect for the coaching here: It's a step up."

Chatman will always have some detractors, and nothing will change that. Her reputation took a hit because of allegations that involved what was deemed an improper relationship while she was at LSU.

But the thing is, I've never talked to any players who've worked with her and had negative things to say about her as a coach.

And I'll repeat the same thing I've said since March 2007, when LSU sent out its ludicrously unbelievable announcement that Chatman was resigning to "pursue other opportunities." The only thing that has ever been completely clear to me about what happened is that nothing was clear.

In all the years I've covered women's basketball, no topic felt more like quicksand than writing about that LSU/Chatman saga. Because the more you struggled to balance accusations, assumptions, denials, innuendo and rumor with what could be confirmed as fact, the more it felt like you were sinking into an abyss. One in which you could simultaneously be accused of unfairly judging Chatman and letting her off the hook, depending on the point of view of the reader.

So I've approached it this way: People can make up their own minds about what they think took place. The most just way to go forward is to evaluate her as a WNBA coach, and that's only beginning.

"It's still a learning process, but I'm happy with where I am and where she is and with the team we're about to have," Fowles said. "That's a feeling nobody can take away, because I'm comfortable."

[+] EnlargePokey Chatman and Sylvia Fowles
AP Photo/Rod AydelottePokey Chatman coached Sky center Sylvia Fowles at LSU.

Chatman adjusted to how she could still incorporate teaching/motivating -- such hugely important factors in the college game -- with respecting that pro players become more opinionated and independent-thinking as they get older.

"The biggest thing is communicating," Chatman said. "You still help develop them as players. But it's identifying a couple of things they need to work on, and they're more in tune with how to do that. They already know their strengths and weaknesses better.

"It's a big difference: You don't have to motivate them to put in the work. Their motivation is their paycheck and their professional pride."

Chatman had spent her life in Louisiana, growing up, going to college and working there. Then being so far from home, there were times overseas when things seemed a bit surreal for Chatman -- in good and bad ways.

"Seeing as much of the world as I did the last few years -- I hadn't planned for that," she said. "Like being in Russia when it was so cold I didn't want to walk to my car. But you're also going to these amazing places in Europe like Venice, Madrid, Paris, Prague.

"I spent time with USA Basketball, so I got to travel abroad a little as a player and coach. But that was staying in a place nine or 10 days and coming home."

Whether Chicago really becomes home for Chatman will depend on whether she succeeds enough to stay there. Pro coaching is more a bottom-line endeavor on the women's side of the game than is typically the case in college.

The 6-foot-6 Fowles remains the Sky's centerpiece, and she should have a fair amount of height around her, too, including 6-5 Michelle Snow, obtained in a trade with San Antonio. Guard Dominique Canty, 34, is one of those players who has been around the league forever (12 previous seasons) but keeps contributing. Chatman knows Snow and Canty from her days coaching against them in the SEC as both an assistant and head coach at LSU.

Chatman will have to deal with the uncertain status of guard Epiphanny Prince, who has a contractual obligation to the Russian national team and will need to go overseas for the EuroBasket Women tournament in Poland later this month.

"We're still waiting for when Epiphanny will have to depart from us," Chatman said. "I planned for it when she started playing well in Europe, and she became a focal point of what they wanted to do with respect to the contract that she had. That's a day-to-day situation."

Chatman also has a rookie point guard in Courtney Vandersloot whom she expects will play a significant role and will have to learn/grow on the fly.

"We have to be tougher and more disciplined as a team," Chatman said of her early impressions of the Sky. "Execution has to be at a premium.

"With Courtney, because she will be put in position to get extended minutes from the start, it will be telling. I think she will learn rather quickly: the speed of the game, the physicality, talking the game. That will help her.

"So will having a savvy veteran like Dominique Canty working with her. She's been in this league for as long as she has because she's been able to run the point. She was a scorer at Alabama; I remember trying to figure out how to stop her back in the day. But she's been really good, and you can put her on the floor with 'Sloot and help ease some of the pressure."

Chatman herself doesn't sound like she's feeling much pressure; instead seems exhilarated. Of course, the season hasn't started. And she knows how difficult it has been for Chicago to crack one of the four playoff spots the Eastern Conference. But she's eager for the challenge.

"We have an owner who's hungry to win and believes in me, and our players are the same," Chatman said. "The biggest emotion is excitement. I've still been doing what I love the last four years, so it didn't stop. But there are more eyes on it here.

"It's competitive every game here, and it's a matter of little things: setting the right screen, rotation on help defense. That's how close it is between winning and losing here. We talk to the players about finishing things: possessions, quarters, games."

The finish she wants this season is a playoff berth. So there's no time for just sight-seeing around Chicago. At some point, she'll do some of that. Right now, being in the gym with a clear task at hand is the perfect way for Chatman to spend the summer in the Windy City.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.