Sunday, August 20, 2006 Updated: August 23, 2:22 PM ET
Whisenant embracing never-ending season
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
Has your summer flown by?
It has been a long, sad, difficult summer in many ways for coach John Whisenant. But Sacramento's team effort helped him deal with it.
Doesn't everyone always say that every year? However, it hasn't been that way for Sacramento coach John Whisenant.
"It seems like this season has been going on for a year," Whisenant said last week during a teleconference.
Whisenant lost his mother in June, was a candidate for the Sacramento Kings' job and dealt with various injuries/illnesses/life situations with his players during the Monarchs' still-ongoing attempt to repeat as WNBA
champions. He even missed the wedding of his youngest son, Justin, to attend the Monarchs' season opener back in May.
And there were times, understandably, when he felt close to being overwhelmed.
"I knew it was going to happen," Whisenant said of his mother's passing, but added that, like anyone who has lost a loved one to sickness knows, there really is no such thing as being fully prepared.
"It was hard to keep my focus," he said in one of those euphemistic understatements you're not surprised to hear from a man in his 60s, trying to live up to the perceived expectation that he's supposed to be able to handle anything with stoicism. "I had to [wonder] whether my situation in the early part of the season affected me mentally as far as being a leader to this group. I've tried to fight through all of that."
Seattle coach Anne Donovan was up next on the teleconference and had listened in to Whisenant.
"I ache for him, knowing what kind of toll that takes," Donovan said. "I give him credit getting through the season dealing with that loss. I think our emotional roller coaster [in Seattle] pales in comparison to that."
She was, of course, referring to the multiple injuries the Storm have dealt with and the concerns about the franchise's future in Seattle under new ownership. But Donovan also does know what it's like to grieve the loss of a parent throughout a season; her mother died in January 2004 -- the year the Storm won the WNBA title. And last year, Connecticut coach Mike Thibault lost his mother during the season.
Head coaches typically feel as if they have to be emotionally infallible -- which, of course, none ever actually are. Because no one is. But in Whisenant's case, he probably understood deep down that this was a team that really could absorb the tough times right along with him.
Because from a life-maturity standpoint -- along with basketball maturity -- the Monarchs are about as strong a group as a coach could hope for.
Consider that there are three mothers who play for Sacramento. Yolanda Griffith had her daughter more than a decade ago while she was in college; Scholanda Dorrell had a daughter three years ago while she was at LSU. DeMya Walker just joined the mom club this year. She, too, had a daughter, born in April. Walker is also aunt to seven nieces and three nephews, so she already had "mom" practice.
So does Sacramento's Old Dominion duo. Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, a native of Mali, thoroughly understands how tough a mom's job is; she has 18 siblings. And in her ninth season in Sacramento -- she has been there longer than anyone -- Ticha Penicheiro of Portugal has been a "mom" figure to her fair share of younger players, like current point guard protégé Kristin Haynie.
Also in the "handles responsibility well" category, there's Rebekkah Brunson, who used to be a lifeguard. Seriously, could you imagine any safer feeling than knowing Brunson was patrolling the pool? The way Brunson snares rebounds, you know anybody in trouble would get scooped out quickly with her around.
Nicole Powell and Erin Buescher are the past two most improved players in the league, meaning they understood -- and undertook -- the work needed to make themselves noticeably better.
Buescher, of course, marches to a different drummer -- in fact, she seems to have her own personal orchestra.
"In the 1960s, she'd be called a flower child, I guess," Whisenant said. "She went off to surf in New Zealand or something."
He talked about how Buescher was the "throw-in" in the trade that brought Powell to Sacramento last year. With Walker out on pregnancy leave for the first part of this season, Whisenant didn't have much choice but to give Buescher minutes.
"Crazy Coach Whiz couldn't pull her out," he said, "and she developed into a very good player."
And then there's Kara Lawson, one of those athletes who always will find a way to impact games. At the beginning of the season, though, Whisenant wasn't sure how much Lawson would be able to contribute on court because she
was dealing with a fatigue-inducing illness.
"We've missed Kara a lot, especially through some of those early losses," Whisenant said. "The 'old' Kara -- the one who has played the last half dozen games -- she loves big shots and big pressure.
"She'd play any position. She'd be OK as a starting guard or the 10th player off the bench. If I wanted her to coach, she'd probably do that better than the rest of us, too. She loves sports; she's a sports junkie. Nobody's told her she's not tall enough, long enough or quick enough to be in the WNBA. So she keeps showing us that she can do it."
Yeah, it has been a long, sad, difficult summer in many ways for Whisenant. But a team effort helped him deal with it.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.