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Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Updated: July 10, 8:47 PM ET
In Detroit, Laimbeer's Shock treatment works

By Nancy Lieberman
Special to

Bill Laimbeer couldn't believe it.

They played the game. Some of them even seemed to live for the game. But when it came to actually tuning in to watch their peers play WNBA games on TV, many of his Detroit Shock players wouldn't bother to pick up the remote control.

Bill Laimbeer
So shortly after Laimbeer was hired as Detroit's new coach 10 games into last season, he quickly gave his new team an order: Get DirecTV installed and start tuning in.

The change is just one of many things Laimbeer, a man known for doing things his way, has brought to Detroit. Some are small, such as coaxing his team to become bigger fans and learn more about the game simply by watching it on TV.

Some, however, are much bigger. Since a season-opening loss, the Shock have won a franchise-record seven consecutive games and are perched atop the Eastern Conference. And when Detroit beat San Antonio on June 7 to improve to 2-1, the Shock finally rose above .500 for the first time since the 2000 season, an 85-game streak.

Heading into the season, many critics didn't forecast Detroit in the playoff picture. The Shock were talented, but also young, and after all, the East is better known for perennial contender New York. Indiana was expected to be next in line, and then there was Charlotte and Cleveland to consider in the conference race, not to mention the Washington Mystics, who seemed on the move last season with a new coach, and Connecticut, which had three proven all-stars.

The biggest difference in Detroit this season has been the Shock's up-tempo style of play. They crash the boards, outrebounding foes by an average of six boards a game, which allows Detroit to rebound and run.

The Shock also is shooting 47 percent from the field, which means they're getting quality possessions, and averaging 18 assists, which means they're moving the ball around and getting a lot of players a lot of touches.

Most impressively, Detroit is averaging 18.8 points more a game this season than last summer (82.8 points in 2003 to 66.1 in '02). That's unfathomable. Usually a coach is happy to see a team improve by six, seven or maybe eight points. And after getting outscored by almost five points a game last season, the Shock are outscoring opponents by 12.5 points a game this summer.
-- Nancy Lieberman

No one was slighting Laimbeer or the Shock. Many of the preseason projections came down to experience. New York, Indiana and all the rest had it. Detroit didn't. End of story.

But like Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies, the Shock are proving that a young, relatively unproven and inexperienced team can win, beat the favorites and maybe even take home the big trophy.

That might not happen, of course. Detroit's winning streak is bound to end sooner or later. But right now, the Shock are hitting on all cylinders and might just have enough fearlessness and competitiveness and enough attitude and talent to make it in a year where a lot of teams are struggling. And without a doubt, Laimbeer, a four-time NBA All-Star who won back-to-back championships with the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and '90, is the early favorite for coach of the year.

While Swin Cash and a few other key members of this year's roster were already in Detroit when he arrived, Laimbeer has made some key additions to bolster the Shock. Trading for Elaine Powell last July was perhaps Laimbeer's biggest move.

Wendy Palmer was one of Detroit's most beloved players, and also someone who gave a lot to that community. But in a bold move, Laimbeer sent Palmer to Orlando for Powell, who had battled back from a torn ACL in 2000. Powell had been playing a lot of minutes behind Orlando's Shannon Johnson and Laimbeer took a gamble, bringing her on board to play the point.

Detroit's previous two coaches also had determined that the team needed a better point guard, but they had both tried to convert Dominique Canty, who's 5-8 and a pure 2. Laimbeer knew that wasn't the answer, and instead brought Powell in to manage the team, make her teammates better ball players and allow someone such as Deanna Nolan to play where she's most needed, the 2.

Detroit also made very impressive selections in both drafts. It started with adding Ruth Riley with the top pick in the dispersal draft. Riley is a prototype Laimbeer-like player: a hard-woking big body who's strong and skilled. Riley, who led Notre Dame to the 2001 NCAA title, worked very hard while in Miami to improve her footwork and moves, and passing out of double teams. Riley, who has played against players such as Yolanda Griffith and Tari Phillips at Team USA training camps, also spent a lot of time in the gym every day, toning up her great basketball body. She gives Laimbeer a legitimate 6-5 post who can go body to body with Lisa Leslie.

A day later, Detroit drafted Louisiana Tech's Cheryl Ford with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. After seeing her tear through Conference USA, everyone expected Ford to be a good pro player. But nobody expected her to rank second in rebounding in the league (11.2 boards per game) after eight games.

Likewise, many people were surprised to see Ford drafted so highly. Even Ford's father, NBA All-Star Karl Malone, exclaimed, "Third? Damn. I didn't know third. I thought fifth or sixth," after the selection.

But Laimbeer knew how he wanted to build this team, and who he needed to fill in the holes. And he was smart enough to know that drafting Tennessee's Kara Lawson two picks later would help, too. Laimbeer later traded Lawson to Sacramento for Kedra Holland-Corn, giving him another veteran who had been to the playoffs and can score off the bench.

So all of a sudden, Detroit has an incredible frontline of Cash, Riley and Ford, and a veteran, talented backcourt in Nolan, Powell and Holland-Corn.

Those six have been the core for the Shock, who go seven-deep if you count center Barbara Farris (13 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.5 rebounds per game). But Cash has been the star. She has had the green light ever since Laimbeer arrived; after attempting just one 3-pointer in four seasons at UConn, she hit 13 of 63 treys last summer.

The ever-dynamic Cash is redefining how the 3 can be played, and like Sheryl Swoopes, can get the ball off the glass and take it the other way or back up to the basket. Through eight games, Cash ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 18.5 points per game. She also ranks second in steals (2.25), seventh in assists (4.5), ninth in offensive rebounds (2.5) and 13th in total rebounds (6.8).

Detroit hasn't produced a winning season since its first year in the WNBA. A year-by-year look at the Shock's record:
Year		Record
2003		7-1
2002		9-23
2001		10-22
2000		14-18
1999		15-17*
1998		17-13
Total:		72-94

* Detroit reached the playoffs in 1999; the team missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker in 2000.

Nolan, who leap-frogged Canty and Edwina Brown in minutes and on the depth chart last season, has taken over at the 2. She's very explosive, a great athlete and great defender who's second on the team in points (14.6).

Riley and Powell are each averaging 11 points, followed by Ford's 10.0 average. In 19 minutes off the bench, Holland-Corn contributes 8.3 points.

While Detroit has improved dramatically in several key statistical categories, the club's attendance is one of the most impressive numbers associated with the team.The Shock are one of just four teams averaging more than 10,000 fans on the road. After ranking last in attendance last season, Detroit ranks eighth this summer, drawing 8,569 fans, a 48 percent increase over last year's numbers.

People want to see this team. They want to see Cash and Ford, Riley and Nolan. This franchise finally has a superstar to hang its hat on. (Before you point out Korie Hlede or Sandy Brondello, note that they were more fan favorite than franchise player.) Right now, Cash has given this team someone to market back to the fans to help create the Shock's identity.

And once again, Laimbeer -- and team president Tom Wilson, a loyal and sharp executive who has stayed the course with Detroit and deserves a pat on the back for handing the reins to Laimbeer -- is behind it all. Inherited a winless team last season, Laimbeer immediately instilled confidence, excitement and enthusiasm.

And for the first time since 1998, Detroit's inaugural season that ended with a 17-13 mark, the Shock seem headed for a winning record and have a chance to compete for a championship. Now that's worth tuning in for.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at