Mercury coach courts Jackson in Russia
Free agents in most sports often make rounds visiting teams interested in signing them. WNBA players don't have that luxury because most are playing overseas during the offseason.
So when a marquee player like Lauren Jackson hits the open market for the first time and can't come to them, teams hoping to woo the two-time league MVP have little choice but to go to her. And in Jackson's case, that means traveling to Moscow, where the Australian star is playing for Spartak in the Russian League.
"I think five or six coaches have been out there," said Phoenix coach Corey Gaines, who made the visit last month to speak to Jackson and some of his Mercury players. "She's definitely one of the star players in the WNBA -- forget that -- star players in the world."
According to the league's collective bargaining agreement signed last offseason, starting this year teams are allowed to designate only one "core" player -- one fewer than before -- who is automatically paid $2,500 above the maximum. After giving Sue Bird the designation last year, the Seattle Storm were unable to keep Jackson from becoming a free agent this year.
So how does someone wine and dine a free agent in Russia?
"There's no wining or dining. There's more begging," Gaines said. "Maybe in the EuroLeague you can do that, but not in the WNBA. ... They have more money, and they do things a little differently. We have a set salary cap."
Jackson, who will likely command the league's maximum salary -- $97,000 -- regardless of which team she signs with, has often said she enjoyed living in Seattle during the summers and playing for the Storm. However, before now she didn't have a choice where to play.
Gaines offered Phoenix as a destination.
"She knows our style, she's played against us," he said. "She knows exactly how I coach and how I play the game, uptempo. All you can do is sell yourself, sell the team, sell the city. ... I know how Seattle is, how the sun comes out once every 10 days. I told her in Phoenix, you got the sun all the time.
"I wasn't pressuring her. Just telling her how Phoenix was, and she sounded open. I wasn't there for the other five or six coaches that came by. She probably sounded the same way with them.
Jackson, who is also weighing whether she wants to continue playing in the league, has spent her entire WNBA career with the Storm after they selected her with the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. She has averaged 19.4 points and 8.0 rebounds in eight seasons, and led Seattle to the league championship in 2004.
"I think she's just trying to keep an open mind," Gaines said. "It's pretty tough on a player who's played in one spot for so long, trying to leave or wanting to move, or thinking about moving."
Gaines is also relying on Mercury star Diana Taurasi -- Jackson's teammate on Spartak -- to help in recruiting her. Also, Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor -- Jackson's teammate on the Australian national team -- are on another team in the Russian league and can talk to her as well.
Taylor played on the Mercury for four seasons, including the 2007 WNBA championship team, before missing last season to prepare for the Olympics.
"I'm pretty sure Lauren has talked to her and about our style of play," Gaines said, "and how it takes a little while to get used to, but [Penny] enjoyed it. It's one of those things that hopefully Lauren listens to Penny and Penny was convincing."
Though Taylor is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Games, her possible return to the Mercury could be an added incentive for Jackson.
At least that's what Gaines is hoping.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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