Nolan Richardson's foray into the WNBA has been a Shock to some

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Days after he traded away nearly every player with ties to the storied Detroit franchise that relocated to Tulsa before the 2010 season, Nolan Richardson reaffirmed his commitment to building a winning WNBA team out of an abysmal first year.

Regardless of a 4-21 record and the steady stream of trades he's engineered to search for "his players" since being named the Tulsa Shock's general manager and coach, the outspoken Richardson is more determined than ever to make the long-term result of his foray into women's basketball a successful one.

"This team has fired me up more than I ever thought it could," said Richardson, now 68 and eight years removed from the University of Arkansas. "At the beginning, I hoped I could get in here, give them a program and step back in a year or two. Now, I'm more fired up than I've ever been in my coaching career. I see what I'm missing to win [in the WNBA] and that gives me more energy to win. There's building to be done here and I want to put it together."

Richardson's coaching success is well documented, as is his fall from college basketball's grace. He won 500 games and is the only coach to ever win an NCAA tournament (1994 with Arkansas), a National Invitational Tournament and a junior college national championship. But after he lashed out and alleged racism in a 2002 news conference, Richardson was dismissed from his position after 17 years with the Razorbacks.

That was the last time he coached in the United States until agreeing to lead the Shock this summer after the organization was sold and moved to Tulsa from Detroit, where the team won three championships and was among the WNBA's perennial contenders.

That Richardson never coached women or at the professional level before, raised doubts about how much the team could achieve. Several of Detroit's most prominent players -- Katie Smith, Cheryl Ford, Deanna Nolan and Taj McWilliams-Franklin -- opted to not make the switch, leaving a shell of a team in Tulsa that many including Richardson called "less than an expansion team." The Shock still retains the rights to Nolan, but she has chosen not to play this season. Smith, who was a free agent and will help the Mystics (14-10) host Tulsa on Sunday at Verizon Center, said she didn't want to go through the transition with a coach completely unfamiliar with the women's game this late in her career.

"At that point, I was just scraping, trying to get players into camp that might fit," Richardson said. "There were some players that didn't play a whole lot on someone else's team and they get new life coming to something different. I've just tried to find people that will fit into what I'm trying to do."

Richardson has attempted to install his "40 minutes of hell" system that relies on players' instincts to create pressure defense and a furious pace. Tulsa went 3-3 to start the 2010 campaign before dropping 12 straight. The team continues to struggle with a style unlike anything the players have executed before.

The Shock is second-best in the league when it comes to forcing steals (10.12 per game) but it gives up more turnovers (18.68) than any other team and its opponents shoot at a league-high 46.4 percent overall and a scorching 40.5 percent from behind the three-point arc.

"Most of us are used to so much structure, with so many sets and reads that when you're free to read off each other it's an adjustment," Shock guard Shanna Crossley said. "This year has almost been one of deprogramming each individual player and everything we've known. But if we can continue to get people to buy into this system, we can be dangerous. Just because it's rough right now doesn't mean it won't work."

Heading into Sunday's contest, the Shock has lost 18 of its last 19 and is close to the dubious honor of the worst winning percentage ever -- a mark set by the Mystics, who went 3-27 in 1998, their inaugural season. Richardson has completed more transactions than any other WNBA team and the Shock has undergone a constant rotation of players through trades, injuries and even a stint where four were stricken with a staph infection.

"We're a team trying to create chemistry with each other and get a feel for each other, and when there were injuries or a trade and someone gets yanked from the family, it's tough," said Crossley, who is one of only five players remaining on the roster from the season opener.

"I don't think that I've played with the same 10 other people on the floor for more than one week," Crossley added. "With all the changes we're dealing with, then we try to compete with teams that have been together for five or six years, it's tough."

Eventually most of the remaining members of the Detroit squad -- Shavonte Zellous (now with Indiana), Plenette Pierson (New York), Kara Braxton (Phoenix) and Alexis Hornbuckle (Minnesota) -- were traded away. Richardson says he believes the team he has now can compete.

Players and league officials wondered if Richardson's plan was to purge the team of Detroit ties all along.

"When I came in I had no intention of doing any of this," Richardson said. "I knew there was work to do, but I made my Detroit people -- Plenette and Hornbuckle -- captains. You don't make people captains and plan on moving them out. But you have to have a community and start a team that wants to be here. If they didn't want to be here, I couldn't keep them here, not if I wanted to build a team that would stick together win, lose or draw."

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