These are trying times in Tulsa
Temeka Johnson always heard she was too little, and just never paid any attention. Courtney Paris heard she was too big, and tried to ignore it. Now, here they both are with the Tulsa Shock, the team that wants so much to fit in.
In its third WNBA season in Oklahoma, the Shock's record so far isn't much different than the first two seasons, when they won a combined nine games. Tulsa is 2-12, pretty much the categorical opposite of Western Conference-leading Minnesota, at 13-2.
But is there light at the end of the tunnel? Or is it just a mirage? The Shock has lost four games by three points or fewer. You don't need to be completely delusional to picture Tulsa as 6-8, in which case it would be hanging with Seattle and San Antonio in playoff contention.
At least, I don't think you have to be delusional. There seems to be hope in Tulsa or at least not abject despair.
"We've got a great bunch of people in the locker room, and they're tired of losing," said Paris, who was picked up by the Shock on June 18. "I want to win, too. It's so cool to be a part of something where people are fighting to get better. I think eventually that's going to turn into wins. People are really trying to change things here and be a winning team."
Coach Gary Kloppenburg, the former assistant at Indiana, took over in Tulsa this season and gets high marks from his former boss, Fever coach Lin Dunn. She said she believes him to be not just a good coach, but someone she "really likes as a person." That's not the kind of compliment Dunn just tosses out randomly or insincerely.
"There's not any doubt in my mind he's going to build that into a great franchise," Dunn said. "If the fans will just be patient and give him time "
OK, but a third consecutive year of "give it time" is not necessarily a request paying customers want to hear. However, it's the situation in which Tulsa again finds itself.
Johnson wasn't expecting to be here, having spent the past three seasons starting in Phoenix, where she was part of a WNBA championship team in 2009. But she was traded for Andrea Riley on Jan. 12. The move basically was the Mercury's way of saying, "We just don't want you anymore."
Johnson said she hasn't dwelled on that. Instead, she has focused on the fact that Tulsa did want her.
"Once I heard about the trade, I was in Russia, and I accepted it," Johnson said of getting the news when she was playing overseas. "I'm not sure I really understood what I was getting myself into, but I just believed I was here for a reason.
"When I talked to Coach Klop, it was about leadership. This allows me to grow as a person. I like getting better as an individual."
That's certainly an optimistic way of looking at it. And Johnson says she has been encouraged by the fact that Tulsa supporters have welcomed her.
"The fans are loyal, and they're holding on," Johnson said. "They have told us they're going to stick with us, and believe we're going to turn things around. Everybody is looking for that ray of hope. OKC found it, and Tulsa is looking for it."
OKC, as in the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose trip to the NBA Finals this year gave this football-wacko state a serious and lasting case of hoops fever. The Shock would be happy with just a fraction of that ardor. But to get it, Tulsa will have to give more than the die-hards a reason to notice it.
In that regard, Paris can't hurt, right? The former star at the University of Oklahoma still owns a house in Norman, Okla., with her twin sister, Ashley.
"She's going to always be a crowd favorite anywhere, but particularly here in Oklahoma," said Paris' former coach, OU's Sherri Coale. "This state adores Courtney Paris. It's like their daughter came home."
The question, though, never has been about Paris' popularity, but rather her effectiveness. Drafted No. 7 by now-defunct Sacramento in 2009, Paris didn't make a WNBA roster in 2010 after the Chicago Sky (which took her in the Monarchs' dispersal draft) cut her. Signed and waived by Los Angeles in 2011, she then caught on with Atlanta and played 28 games last year.
She started this season with the Dream, too, but was waived after four games, on June 3. Paris said she was thrilled to have the chance to see if the state that was so magical for her in college could be where she belongs as a pro, too.
"I think that's the story of the entire WNBA: players finding their niche, the place where they fit," Coale said. "There aren't enough teams and enough spots for all the talented players. You have to fit.
"And she's not typical; she is an anomaly. When used well in the right spot, there's nothing you can do to keep her from getting a rebound or receiving the ball with a chance to score. I coached her for four years; I know. But she has to be used correctly and in the right place."
Critics will say that the 6-foot-4 Paris probably won't be effective -- or not to the degree that she could be -- as long as her weight stays where it is. But Coale does have a point. Maybe the right way to look at Paris is by seeing what ways her "weaknesses" could be utilized as strengths.
"Most of the post players in the WNBA are really agile, and I'm bigger and slower, so it's hard to find my spot in the league," said Paris, who is averaging 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Shock. "The No. 1 thing for me is that I had lost my confidence leaving college, thinking of all the negative things, like, 'Maybe I can't do this.'
"But I've got teammates and coaches around me who believe, 'We'll put you in there and you can score -- that's what you do.' I have that confidence back: 'Hey, I can do that.' "
Johnson is one of those who reassures Paris, as is fellow guard Ivory Latta. Johnson and Latta are leading the Shock in scoring at 14 and 13.4 points per game, respectively. Rookies Glory Johnson (11.4) and Riquna Williams (10.6) and veteran Jennifer Lacy (11.4) also are scoring in double figures.
Now, does that really sound like a playoff-caliber starting lineup in the WNBA? Honestly, no.
But consider that the Shock's first-round draft pick from last year, Liz Cambage, is not with the team because she's training with Australia for the London Olympics. Put her back in the lineup, and add in the potential of a high draft pick in 2013. And one full year on the job for Kloppenburg.
Johnson says she picked up a lot from playing behind veterans at her previous WNBA stops in Washington, Los Angeles and Phoenix. She also has reached out to Bob Starkey, her former assistant coach at LSU who now is at Texas A&M.
Johnson is trying to apply all of what she has witnessed and watched.
"I had an opportunity over the years," Johnson said, "to learn and pay attention to things I didn't even know I was noticing -- until I was put in a position to have to make some of the decisions that [veteran players] had to make. I saw how they handled things, and it's carried over.
"And I've talked to Coach Starkey -- one thing he said to me was you have to concentrate on the progress, not just the wins and losses. Because if you just look at the record, you'll go nuts."