After steep falls from grace, both Nolan Richardson and Marion Jones are making fresh starts in Tulsa— with a team that's also starting over
This is an article from the June 7, 2010 issue
Marion Jones and Nolan Richardson might be the most accomplished members of the Tulsa Shock, but in the eyes of their teammates they're still WNBA newbies. Despite her fame and her status as the oldest member of the team, Jones, 34, has not been spared rookie hazing rituals. "Just because she's an Olympic track star doesn't mean my car's gonna wash itself," cracks eighth-year pro Plenette Pierson. And Richardson, 68, may have coached men's basketball on every level over the past four decades—most notably at Arkansas, which he led to a national championship in 1994—but he has had to learn the nuances of coaching women. When he suggested holding a practice on the team's official media day, he heard loud objections from his players, who feared they would ruin their hair for the team picture. "I got you, girls," said the chastened coach, who backed down with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
Both Jones and Richardson are in for more learning experiences as they move through their inaugural WNBA campaigns. Because, all joking aside, the Shock is a serious reclamation project. But the silver-haired coach and the still-youthful-looking player are competitors at heart, and while the WNBA is a far cry from March Madness and the Olympics, it offers them a last chance to right once glorious careers that have veered offtrack.
"I'm enjoying seeing how I can piece this team together," says Richardson, "taking this rough draft that looks like holy hell and cleaning it up until it becomes a beautiful picture."
The Shock certainly was a mess in October 2009. In its previous 12 seasons, all in Detroit, the team had been a perennial Eastern Conference power and had won three WNBA championships. But in part because of a crowded sports marketplace and the beleaguered Michigan economy, the franchise lost $20 million over the last decade. The Shock probably would have folded if not for an Oklahoma City--based group led by businessmen Bill Cameron, part owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, and David Box, who bought the team and relocated it to Tulsa.
With a population of 385,635, the Shock's new hometown is the smallest WNBA city behind Uncasville, Conn. But Tulsa boasts the $196 million BOK Center, a glittering downtown arena built in 2008 that attracts top music acts such as Paul McCartney and draws robust crowds for AFL2 and minor league hockey games. The Shock sold all 7,806 available tickets for its season opener, an 80--74 loss to the Minnesota Lynx on May 15, but attendance has sunk to an average of 4,247 in the three games since.
Approval ratings for Richardson remain strong in Tulsa, even though it's been almost 30 years since he guided the hometown Golden Hurricanes to the 1984 NIT championship. In 1985 Richardson decamped for Arkansas, where in 17 years he won 389 games and that NCAA title. But he was fired near the end of the 2001--02 season after he accused Arkansas administrators of racism and lashed out at fans and the local media. Richardson brought a civil rights complaint (which was ultimately dismissed) against the school, and the episode made him radioactive to potential college basketball employers.
After stints coaching the Panamanian and Mexican national teams, Richardson was hired last October to be coach and general manager of the Shock. In Tulsa he has installed the same system as in his previous coaching stops: a fast-break offense and full-court-press defense known as 40 Minutes of Hell, which he developed while coaching undersized immigrant sixth-graders in his hometown of El Paso back in the 1970s. But he's trying to adapt the scheme to a league that he's learning about on the fly.
"He's a great coach with an uncanny ability to get the most out of his players," says former president Bill Clinton, who befriended Richardson while the coach was at Arkansas and Clinton was the state's governor. "The WNBA, the Shock and Tulsa are lucky to have him."
With only three players left over from the Detroit team, Richardson set about building a roster with the flexibility to play his intense transition game. The Shock gained size in a predraft trade with Connecticut, swapping this year's seventh pick and a 2011 second-rounder for 6'5" center Chante Black and 6-foot reserve forward Amber Holt. Richardson also snagged one of the league's best markswomen in free agent Shanna Crossley, a fourth-year guard who shot 44.4% from three-point range in '09.
"It seems like he has got a lot of athleticism," Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn said of Richardson before the season began. "I'm just curious to see if he's got enough depth to play the 40 Minutes of Hell night after night, back-to-back, traveling all over America. Because if he does, we better watch out."
Of course, Jones is the Shock's most intriguing acquisition. She suffered an epic fall from grace that began when she was linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) doping ring in 2004. In '07 Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and her knowledge of a check-fraud scheme involving a former boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery. She was sentenced to six months in jail and banned from track and field for two years. She also lost her five Olympic medals, as well as endorsement deals worth millions of dollars.
Despite her forced admission, Jones continues to insist that she never knowingly took PEDs—she claims she believed she was ingesting flaxseed oil—an assertion that is disputed by Montgomery, BALCO mastermind Victor Conte and Jones's ex-husband C.J. Hunter, a former shot putter who tested positive for steroids in 2000 and was also linked with BALCO. When discussing her past mistakes with schoolkids as part of the 800 hours of community service that she must complete during her two-year probation, she emphasizes not that the decisions themselves were wrong but that she rushed into them.
The WNBA, meanwhile, is giving Jones a clean slate. The league says it will not subject her to any testing beyond what's outlined in the collective bargaining agreement, which mandates a maximum of three random tests per season and imposes a one-year ban on first-time offenders.
After Jones was released from prison, in September 2008, she returned to Austin, where she lives with her husband, sprinter Obadele Thompson of Barbados, and her three children. (Jones has a son with Montgomery and a son and a daughter with Thompson.) When her longtime attorney and adviser, Ron Nichols, texted her last May to gauge her interest in playing in the WNBA, Jones, then eight months pregnant with her third child, replied LOL. But three months later, after mulling over the notion with Thompson, Jones traveled to New York City to meet with league brass and make her bid official.
WNBA president Donna Orender says she was keen to "look [Jones] in the eyes [and] listen to her story" and was won over when Jones "demonstrated that she has a true passion for this game." Orender effectively ended her vetting there and gave Jones her support—with the caveat that making a team wouldn't be a layup.
"I walked away from that meeting with even more motivation," Jones says. The 5'10", 150-pound Los Angeles native is hardly a basketball neophyte. As a freshman at North Carolina in 1994 she averaged 17.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists while leading the Tar Heels to a national championship the day before Richardson's Razorbacks won the men's title. Jones played two more seasons in Chapel Hill before abandoning basketball for a full-time sprinting career. On the court, as well as the track, she distinguished herself as a fierce competitor, a tireless worker and a quick study. "Show her something one time," says Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell, "and she'll not only pick it up right away but do it better than anybody else."
In June 2009 Jones gave birth to her daughter, Eva Marie. By August she was commuting to San Antonio three times a week to train with Silver Stars assistant Olaf Lange, who helped pare her body down to its current, apparently fat-free, form. Her first tryout, with the Seattle Storm, was in December, but the second, with the Shock, had to be delayed for six weeks after Jones injured her right ankle. Once recovered, she worked out for Richardson three times, compensating for her rusty dribbling skills and balky jump shot with sharp defensive instincts and a knack for finishing at the rim. Richardson was most enamored of Jones's intangibles. "She's a leader and a winner," says the coach, who signed her to a one-year, $35,880 deal in March. "You don't go wrong with that."
And yet the fact that so much has gone wrong for both Jones and Richardson in the past makes it easy to be skeptical about their prospects. Jones's credibility issues call her commitment into question—not that she cares about winning over her detractors. "There are certainly a lot of people who would like to see me disappear," she says, "but I [also] have a large number of people who want to see me succeed. I felt that by crawling into a hole and disappearing, I'd be letting them down. I let them down once. I wasn't planning to do it again."
Richardson is equally determined to make his breakneck system work in the WNBA. "I love proving people wrong," he says. "I love saying, I. Told. You. So."
None of the naysayers are eating crow just yet, however. At 2--3 the Shock is still a work in progress. Rotations are unsettled; the players suffer mental lapses and labor to sustain the level of intensity demanded by 40 Minutes of Hell. Still, while some players, such as Jones, are struggling—she averaged 0.4 points and 4.6 minutes through the first five games of the season—others, such as Black, have flourished. A rookie in '09 whose modest contributions off the bench belied her status as the 10th-overall pick out of Duke, Black has become a mainstay in the starting lineup, thanks to boosted averages in scoring (9.0), rebounding (10.8) and blocks (2.0). She had a career-high 17 rebounds in the Shock's 94--82 win over Minnesota, its first victory of the season.
"We're just learning how to put a whole game together," Black says. "We want to be one of those teams that is never out of [contention]."
It might be awhile, however, before the Shock is running with the big dogs again. It's a good thing for Richardson and Jones that the chase alone is challenge enough.
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