Commentary

Edwards takes on Tulsa challenge

Hall of Famer takes over after Nolan Richardson WNBA experiment mercifully ends

Originally Published: July 9, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Nolan RichardsonShane Bevel/NBAE/Getty ImagesNolan Richardson's Shock are 1-10 this season; overall, Richardson is 7-38 in Tulsa.

The idea that "basketball is basketball" has been turned into an advertising phrase, and in a lot of ways it's true. The game is always two hoops on either end of a rectangle, with five people on the floor trying to score and five trying to stop them.

The notion is that, theoretically, if you can coach one group of players, you can coach any group. Whether they be 7-foot pro centers or 4-11 junior high guards, players all basically have to do the same types of things to be successful. And the coach just has to explain to them how to do it.

Of course, we know it doesn't typically work that way at all. Coaches specialize -- picking pro, college, high school, club levels and male or female teams. Some have moved successfully from level to level and worked with both genders. But it's not just about putting the X's and O's in the right places and knowing how to motivate.

You really need to understand how to deal with the differences there are between levels. Actually, that's probably more difficult than adapting to the differences between the genders.

That has been a theory espoused by a lot of observers of the Nolan Richardson WNBA experiment, which came to a merciful end Friday night. Richardson had taken over as coach and general manager of the Shock franchise when it moved to Tulsa for 2010.

[+] EnlargeTeresa Edwards
Shane Bevel/NBAE/Getty ImagesTeresa Edwards will replace Nolan Richardson on an interim basis.Tulsa plays again Sunday at Phoenix.

The Shock went 6-28 last season and dropped to 1-10 this season after Friday's 86-78 loss to Phoenix. Teresa Edwards, who was named director of player personnel during the offseason, takes over as interim head coach.

It will provide a bit of a scheduling issue for Edwards, who is to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame on Aug. 12 in Springfield, Mass. The Shock play Aug. 11 in Seattle and then Aug. 14 at Minnesota.

Edwards will have to make that work, just as she'll have to adjust to her first experience in the WNBA as a head coach. She previously served as an assistant for the Minnesota Lynx, but fully admits the coaching mantle is one she's been slow to grow into, though she did also spend time as player/head coach with the ABL's Atlanta Glory.

I talked to Edwards about this earlier in the season. The word "perfectionist" is used a bit too loosely, but in Edwards' case, it fits. And it's part of why making the transition to coaching has been difficult for her.

"It's tough when you can see a player who's on the cusp of being really good, who's just one switch from understanding they can be great," Edwards said. "But you don't know if they're going to get it.

"The people I talk to about this are mostly former players that don't coach because they feel the same way. They get too frustrated. I really can laugh and talk about it with them. They can make it light again."

Now, that's what Edwards will need to do in Tulsa: lighten things up a bit while still firmly establishing how she wants this team to execute. It's been getting gloomier this season with each passing game -- save the lone victory, June 18 against Washington -- and the drumbeat of unrest was becoming louder. The franchise was not going forward under Richardson.

Was it because of his inexperience in coaching women? I think that hurt him in the talent-evaluating part of his job as general manager. He didn't have a sense of any history with players. And while that hasn't necessarily been a sure indicator for failure with all the men who've come over to coach in the WNBA with no women's hoops background, it's bound to make the job a bit harder.

The team was not making any improvement under [Nolan] Richardson. And the danger was that an even greater malaise would settle in over the franchise. That the fans would give up hope, and even the diehards would stop coming to watch. Richardson did the right thing by the franchise and his players in stepping down.

To me, it's a little bit like the difference between shopping at a store you've gone to regularly for years and a store you've never been to before. It's not that in the latter case, you can't eventually find what you need. But it's almost certainly going to take you longer because of your unfamiliarity, and there might be some things you can't locate on your own. You'll need to ask for help.

Richardson seemed to be doing that by adding Edwards, the five-time Olympian, to the staff. But the results weren't really changing. It wasn't that the Shock weren't playing hard, because typically that's one thing they really did do.

But they sometimes seemed like the plastic players on the old-style electronic football games where vibration was supposed to move them down their metal field. What the little plastic guys really did was spread out chaotically in all directions, eventually running helplessly into the sides of the game.

There is no way to avoid that mess in electronic football. Or at least I don't think there is, although I spent countless hours of my childhood trying. But in real basketball, especially at the professional level, it's not supposed to be that way.

Which brings us to that word: professional. As mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of speculation that Richardson's biggest problem was not adjusting from coaching men to coaching women, but adjusting to coaching at the pro level. I actually think it was both things.

Richardson coached high school ball for a decade before moving to the junior college and then Division I ranks. He won a juco national championship, an NIT title and, in the zenith of his career, an NCAA tournament crown.

His dispute with the administration at Arkansas escalated into his dismissal in 2002, after which Richardson coached for the Panamanian and Mexican men's national teams before taking over the relocated Shock.

Stepping into that kind of new experience is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone someone who was 68 years old and set in his ways. Yet Richardson's ties to the Tulsa community -- he won the NIT title with the University of Tulsa -- and his past success convinced the new Shock owners he was the right person for the job.

But last year, Richardson made a series of trades throughout the summer that didn't seem to necessarily make the Shock any better. He kept saying he had to get players to fit his system, but at some point it seemed like he probably needed to amend the system to fit the players he had.

Coaches who've made the transition from college to pro ball will tell you that it is very different. You have less control of professionals. You have to trust them more. You need to have faith that they know best how to prepare themselves. But you also have to know when they need discipline. It can be like walking a tightrope.

It wasn't that the Shock weren't playing hard, because typically that's one thing they really did do. But they sometimes seemed like the plastic players on the old-style electronic football games where vibration was supposed to "move" them down their metal field. What the little plastic guys really did was spread out chaotically in all directions, eventually running helplessly into the sides of the game.

Admittedly, it was a tough hand dealt to Richardson and the new Shock owners when three of the most important players on Detroit's roster -- Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith -- did not make the move to Tulsa. Still, there are only 12 teams in the WNBA, so there is a good bit of talent out there. Even despite the setbacks, people expected the Shock to be better than they've been.

There are young stars-in-the-making with the team now, and you do have to credit Richardson for drafting Liz Cambage and Kayla Pedersen with the second and seventh picks in April. Guard Ivory Latta has done as well as she can trying to lead the team in both scoring and playmaking. Tiffany Jackson has competed hard. The 40-year-old Sheryl Swoopes has done what she can at this point in her career.

But there's not much else going for the Shock. Amber Holt might be a contributor, but she has been out all but two games with an injury. Marion Jones remains on the roster, defying explanation. There is just a feeling that the Shock, even when playing at their very best, do not have the depth of talent to win games in this league. And when they're not at their best, they get totally blown off the court, as was the case June 30 in a 30-point loss to Minnesota.

The team was not making any improvement under Richardson. And the danger was that an even greater malaise would settle in over the franchise. That the fans would give up hope, and even the die-hards would stop coming to watch. Richardson did the right thing by the franchise and his players in stepping down.

I believe the Shock really do have a chance to be a success in Tulsa, but there has to be a sense that they are making progress. People need to feel hopeful about the team. The BOK Center needs an energy boost.

Whether Edwards can achieve all that remains to be seen. She doesn't have much coaching experience on the sidelines, although you can't discount the many years she spent "coaching" teams while in her point guard role on the floor.

Edwards is a very proud person who has had to work on her patience in order to become a coach. She's still working on that. She'll have to be a lot of things to the Shock. You might say this is the greatest challenge of her career.

But something Edwards told me when discussing her upcoming Hall of Fame induction is important to mention here.

"I love challenges, and I love going against the odds and coming out on top," she said. "That's how I'm built; I'm not afraid of the tough stuff. I don't appreciate easy."

Well, then she should find a lot to appreciate about the rest of this summer. It's going to be an uphill battle, the antithesis of easy, but Edwards could give the Shock a fighting chance.

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

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