- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Happy birthday, Marynell Meadors! You turned 69 years old Monday, and you've given much of your adult life to helping the cause of women's athletics and moving forward the sport of basketball.
You were born in Nashville during the middle of World War II. You fell in love with the sport decades before Title IX, shooting at a rim attached to a tree. For a girl who cherished basketball during what was, essentially, still the dark ages for women's sports, Tennessee was at least one of the better places to grow up in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
You graduated from Middle Tennessee State in nearby Murfreesboro in 1965. You started coaching there, then went to Tennessee Tech, where you were head coach for two decades. Then you were at Florida State for 10 years.
You moved into the fledgling WNBA, where you worked in various capacities for the now-defunct Charlotte Sting and Miami Sol, plus the Washington Mystics. You also went back and spent a couple of years in the college game as a Pittsburgh assistant. You were named coach/general manager of the expansion Atlanta Dream, which started play in 2008.
You were in on building the Dream from scratch, and led Atlanta to the past two WNBA Finals. Just recently, you helped the U.S. team win Olympic gold at the London Games as an assistant to Geno Auriemma.
Quite a résumé, isn't it? You've dedicated yourself to making each passing decade a better one for women's basketball. Congratulations.
Oh one other thing. You're fired.
McCoughtry, er, Williams takes over
So now we know who is really in charge in Atlanta. It isn't Fred Williams, the new head coach who moved up from his assistant's job when Meadors got the boot Monday on her birthday. Williams is another longtime coach who has worked at the college, WNBA and NBA levels. He knows the score.
And it isn't really owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler, either, although in name they are running the show. We are aware now who's really pulling the strings for the Dream: Angel McCoughtry, the former No. 1 draft pick, current leading scorer in the WNBA, Olympic gold medalist, and malcontent who left her team for a few days and now has what she wants: a new puppet to play with.
Sorry, Coach Williams, but if they fired Meadors after she led the Dream to back-to-back Finals and was with the franchise from the ground up, what do you think they'll do if McCoughtry turns on you?
Remember that "Twilight Zone" episode called "It's A Good Life," where a little kid with mystical powers controls an entire town? Oh, and he can read minds, too. If you're thinking something that he doesn't like, look out. He'll zap you into the "cornfield." You sure don't want to be sent there. So you better just keep thinking nice thoughts.
"That's real good that you did that, Angel! Oh, yeah! That's real good!"
McCoughtry can't actually read minds -- at least we don't think so -- but she certainly got it into her head that Meadors was "against her." It's kind of hard to figure, since Meadors drafted McCoughtry at No. 1, always praised her publicly, talked about her growing "leadership," put up with her disrespectful attitude at times during games, and pretty much appeared to let her do what she wanted.
McCoughtry came off the bench for much of her rookie year of 2009, but has started since. She averaged more than 21 points her second and third seasons, and is currently at a league-best 22.2.
But things haven't been quite right all summer with McCoughtry and the Dream. She missed six games in the first half of the season dealing with injuries and/or not being happy.
She was terrific off the bench for much of the Olympics, but behind the scenes she wasn't all that pleased with her playing time. Still, she contributed a great deal to the Americans' gold-winning effort, and I -- for one -- thought maybe she'd really turned a corner when it came to maturity and team-first focus.
But after playing for the Dream in the first two games back after the break, McCoughtry didn't play on Wednesday against visiting Chicago. She was there at Philips Arena, but not on the bench.
Then she didn't make the trip to Washington D.C., for the team's game Friday against the Mystics. The night before, her Twitter feed indicated she was apparently out on the town in Atlanta.
(Memo to all athletes: You do know that nobody is forcing you to share your private business and comings/goings on Twitter, right? You do know how it looks when your team is in a playoff battle but you are elsewhere, right? You do know that even if you have a legitimate gripe about coaching or anything else, a team player would at least try to lay low during the disagreement out of respect for teammates/team chemistry, right?)
McCoughtry was back in action for Saturday's game against defending champion Minnesota. Oh, and let's quickly look at that contrast, by the way. The Lynx have two players who were No. 1 draft picks: Seimone Augustus (2006) and Maya Moore (2011). Augustus and Moore are their leading scorers, but it's a team that shares the ball and the credit.
Augustus went through some tough times with coaching changes and the franchise's overall struggles during her first five years in the league, but she stayed committed to her team. And it paid off last year with a WNBA championship, and a lot of well-deserved individual glory for Augustus. It can work like that: You can be the star who gets the accolades while also empowering everyone around you.
Or you can conjure imagined slights and make others walk on egg shells, uncertain what kind of mood you're in that day.
McCoughtry scored 14 points off the bench Saturday in the Dream's loss to the Lynx, but it was clear that nothing was resolved. Now it is: The owners went with McCoughtry and dumped Meadors. That it happened on Meadors' birthday was just a bit of darkly comical happenstance. The Dream will move forward under McCoughtry, er, Williams.
Meadors deserved better
Auriemma tweeted out the news Monday afternoon. His words: "marynell meadors gets fired atlanta owners cave in inmate in charge #coachingisabitch"
So I wonder how he feels about this.
Seriously, Auriemma said what many are thinking. He uses the term "inmate" as it would be used for an asylum, and the truth is that sometimes teams/organizations can be like that. But that doesn't necessarily mean, though, that a team with some (or even a lot of) dysfunction can't win.
Because sometimes they do. And other times, volatile mixtures blow up. It happens in every sport.
If you're a professional athlete/coach, you've surely worked with all kinds of people and learned to deal with them. Players figure out how to handle teammates they can't stand, and also how to compete hard against other players who might be very dear friends. They learn to say, "It's a business," even when their feelings are hurt and they wish it wasn't like that.
Any honest assessment of Meadors would conclude that there were things she was better at than others. Isn't that the case with everybody? Her GM abilities seemed stronger than her in-game bench coaching, but she knew that and delegated some important responsibilities to qualified assistants. It's not a weakness to know what your strengths and weaknesses are; we all have both.
Meadors understands how to put a basketball team together. She knows how to scout, how to game plan, how to spread responsibility, and how to step to the side to let others do their thing.
She entered the profession when you could make about as much money working a fast-food job as you could coaching. She has adapted and changed with the times, been willing to learn new skills and take on different roles.
She's old enough to be a grandmother to some of the players she has coached in the WNBA -- all of whom, if they are Americans, came up through a college system where they got scholarships and perks that Meadors never imagined as a young woman. Only the most thoughtful among them truly understand how much those of Meadors' generation did for them.
Does all that mean Meadors should just be guaranteed a job in the WNBA? Of course not. But she sure didn't deserve what happened Monday.
However, the Atlanta owners made their choice. Williams takes the helm, and he will have Joe Ciampi -- the longtime Auburn coach in his first year with the Dream -- remain as an assistant.
The rest of the Dream players -- whether they like what went down or not -- still have a lot to play for. Atlanta is 12-12 but firmly in third place in the Eastern Conference. What matters is making the playoffs, because then anything can happen. Atlanta certainly has the talent to go back to the WNBA Finals.
Whether they will be able to get past this disruption and simply focus on winning games remains to be seen. Players sometimes have amazing ability to shut out distractions and just play ball.
But make no mistake: This is a sad time for the Dream. Whatever your opinion of Meadors or McCoughtry, it shouldn't have ended like this. Meadors was jettisoned from the franchise she wanted to end her career with, and McCoughtry looks like a villain to a lot of observers. Which is a terrible shame for one of the best, most talented players in the world of women's basketball.
At least Meadors can look at it like this: Keeping McCoughtry happy is somebody else's worry now.
Hope I don't get sent to the cornfield for thinking that.
13dBonnie D. Ford