By Alex Chambers, May 8, 2014.
When the Phoenix Mercury landed Brittney Griner with the No. 1 pick in last year’s WNBA draft, it was an exciting time for the organization as well as the fans. Prospects for the 2013 season were bright, and the expectations were soaring. A star rookie added to a roster of premiere talent; nowhere to go but up, right? Not exactly.
A recap of the LGBT community’s favorite team’s 2013 season starts with the opener against the Chicago Sky, where the team got shut out by 22 points. While Griner put up two history-making dunks of her own, the hype bubble for the Phoenix Mercury had officially popped.
There were flashes of hope. Taurasi hit the 6,000 point mark, Griner put up the winning shot in a tense and exciting game three of the Western Conference semi-finals and the Mercury ended with a winning 19-15 season.
However, the season as a whole was a much bumpier ride.
Fans would see Griner on the bench with both a knee and then later an ankle injury for a good chunk of the season.
Penny Taylor who sat out the entire 2012 season due to a left knee injury was sidelined once again after knee surgery on her right knee just weeks after her return.
As the Mercury hobbled along, the situation sometimes looked pretty grim.
When the wins weren’t stacking up, the Mercury relieved head coach Corey Gaines and replaced him with former Grand Canyon University men’s coach Russ Pennell. At the end of the 2013 season however, Pennell announced he would return to collegiate basketball.
The organization also saw Amber Cox leave her job as chief operating officer to join the Big East conference as their associate commissioner of women’s basketball.
This series of events led to big question marks hanging at the end of the 2013 season. However, it didn’t take long for the Mercury organization to start making key decisions to secure a fresh start and a strong foundation for 2014.
Here are five things that could lead to success this summer:
1. New leadership.
New president of business operations Jason Rowley and general manager Jim Pitman (both with years of executive experience with the Phoenix Suns) joined the Phoenix Mercury knowledgeable of the team, its players and their potential. The Mercury made a smart move hiring within the Suns/Mercury organization, eliminating any learning curve that outside hires could have experienced.
2. A seasoned head coach.
Once new leadership was established, the Mercury added Sandy Brondello as head coach. Brondello has quite the resume: four time Olympian, WNBA veteran, former assistant coach for the LA Sparks (2011-2013), head coach (2010) and assistant coach (2005-2009) for the San Antonio Stars. She’s also the assistant coach of the Russian team UMMC, the team that Diana Taurasi played for this off-season. Brondello comes to the organization with a desire for success, and has been making moves to put together a stellar roster.
3. Get “on point.”
In 2013, the Mercury had a point guard problem; they didn’t have an efficient one. Former point guard Temeka Johnson was traded to Tulsa in early 2012, and rookie Samantha Prahalis didn’t exactly make waves when the Mercury drafted her with the sixth overall pick that same season; she was waived mid-season in 2013. The Mercury has remedied the situation by acquiring six year veteran Erin Phillips from the Indiana Fever for forward Lynetta Kizer, signed San Diego State point guard Chelsea Hopkins, and drafted Oklahoma State point guard Tiffany Bias with the 17th overall pick in this year’s WNBA draft.
4. A new marquee sponsor.
Who needs to worry about revenue when you are trying to win a championship? The Mercury certainly doesn’t have to after signing a multi-year deal with new marquee sponsor Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort. The deal will secure a healthy revenue stream of the organization, ensuring that the team only has to focus on what they do best — playing and winning.
5. Change up the roster.
Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” While the Mercury aren’t claiming perfection (yet), several changes to the roster have been made to bring in new blood. The Mercury signed veterans Eshaya “Shay” Murphy and Mistie Bass, acquired the rights to Polish center Ewelina “Ewa” Kobryn from the Seattle Storm for Charde Houston, signed Latvian guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, drafted Penn State’s Maggie Lucas with the 21st overall pick and Australia’s Stephanie Talbot with the 33rd overall pick. With former Mercury guard Alexis Gray-Lawson and former LA Sparks forward April Sykes added to the training camp roster, Phoenix will have plenty of talent to choose from when they solidify their final roster.
Griner wins fans for advocacy off the court
In a short time, Brittney Griner has made a big impact on the LGBT community as well as women’s basketball.
It was just a little over a year ago that Griner, 23, came out publicly during the WNBA draft, where she was selected as the first pick to join the Phoenix Mercury.
And since then, there’s no doubt that the former victim of bullying is having a moment. She’s been called the world’s most famous female basketball player by ESPN and she’s been profiled everywhere from Sports Illustrated to USA Today.
The community quickly embraced Griner for her prowess on the court as well as her advocacy. Her No. 42 jersey became a WNBA best seller.
Shortly after coming to Phoenix last spring for her first season with the team, the former Baylor star advocated for LGBT youth by recording an “It Gets Better” video.
Griner was on last summer’s WNBA All-Star team and plays during the off-season in China, where last year she reportedly made 12 times what the Mercury paid her.
Griner’s sexuality didn’t scare away endorsements, as Nike signed her up for a reported $1 million to model the menswear she prefers to cover her 6-foot, 8-inch frame.
In April, Griner served as celebrity grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade, and at the Pride festival she handed out temporary “BU” tattoos.
Recently, Griner promoted BG BU, a mobile app to battle bullying by encouraging empowerment, strength and creativity for youth. It gives young people a forum to talk about their issues, get advice, ask questions and find resources.
It’s all been noticed. In its May edition, Out magazine ranked Griner as No. 31 on its annual list of most influential LGBT voices in American culture. – Glenn Gullickson