As the Seattle Storm look ahead to the WNBA playoffs, head coach Dan Hughes reflects on his difficult—but inspiring— personal journey over the course of the season.
As Seattle Storm head coach Dan Hughes walked out onto the field at T-Mobile Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Mariners on April 17, the announcer rattled off the team’s lengthy list accomplishments over the loudspeaker: a third WNBA championship; league and Finals MVP honors for Breanna Stewart; and a transformation from middling playoff squad into a juggernaut that won the title during Hughes’ first year at the helm.
But the moment wasn’t purely joyous. Hughes was holding in a secret, one only his wife—who clutched the Storm’s trophy next to him as he approached the mound—the team, and close family knew of at the time. One that he would reveal to the public just days later. And one that would change his life completely.
After capturing his first championship in 17 years of coaching, Hughes should have been celebrating. But while working for ESPN as an announcer during the women’s NCAA tournament in Stanford in March 2019, he started to feel poorly. Something was off. By the time he finished his assignment, he told his wife that he had pain in his stomach and difficulty eating.
After returning home, he was rushed to the emergency room and diagnosed with appendicitis. But following the appendectomy surgery the next day, Hughes, 64, woke up to distressing news.
“The doctor had said to my wife coming out of the surgery, ‘The appendix was very different. We're gonna check it out,’” Hughes says. “I didn't necessarily know what that meant.”
The discovery was a cancerous tumor in his appendix. In search of a second opinion, Hughes called Storm team doctor Adam Pourcho and he connected Hughes with an oncologist, surgeon and cancer rehab doctor. Hughes and his wife made the decision to return to Seattle and begin treatment there.
Knowing that the news would impact the preseason at the very least, Hughes told his family and the team before figuring out what the Storm would need to do in his absence. In order to help put a plan together, Hughes delayed the his tumor removal surgery for a week.
Hughes put assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg in charge of the team while he was away, knowing that Klopp’s voice would be impactful and that the transition would be fairly seamless. The plan didn’t stop the team from worrying, though.
“Everybody was really concerned because obviously if anybody goes through that—your family, your friends, colleagues—it's disconcerting,” Kloppenburg says. “Coach was really good. He was like ‘Just take it, do whatever you need. We have our system in place, just put your stamp on it.’ And that's really what I tried to do.”
The team went 5-4 behind Kloppenburg, but Hughes was hardly absent from the team’s proceedings. To the complete surprise of his doctors, he returned to non-game team activities a little over a week after the removal of his tumor.
“The doctors were amazed,” Hughes says of his recovery. “I had a much harder time with my appendectomy than I did with the cancer surgery. And they kept telling me, Dan, that's not normal.” Hughes says his cancer rehab doctor actually advocated for him to be around the team during his recuperation, which was a relief for a coach who found it especially difficult to be away from his team as the season began.
But what really sustained Hughes while he was officially away from the team for nine games was the support he received from his friends, colleagues and the Seattle community after his diagnosis and during his recovery. From supportive texts from Becky Hammon, whom he coached in San Antonio, after a tough Storm road loss he wasn’t able to attend, to listening ears and encouraging words from Pourcho, who provided a familiar face through a tough process, Hughes felt it from all angles.
“[Pourcho] was huge,” Hughes says of the team physician. “When you go into that unknown, having someone that you trust to help coach you [and] guide you…is pivotal. He was that guy. When things didn't make sense to me, that's who I talked to.
“He would check on me periodically. He was almost coaching me.”
The solace was both comforting and humbling, with people Hughes hadn’t talked to in years offering kind words and encouragement. A self-described “faithful guy,” Hughes says he felt that there was a higher power watching over him as he recuperated.
“Powerful, I'll just say it that way,” Hughes says of the timing of people’s outreach. “It just seemed to come at the right times. It was almost like it was planned.”
Looking back, that outpouring of support was far down the road when Hughes was asked to throw out the first ball at Mariners–Indians in mid-April. Since then, Hughes returned to the team on June 21 and the Storm clinched a playoff spot on Aug. 25—a feat that seemed incredibly unlikely at the beginning of the season, after Hughes’ sudden absence, Stewart’s Achilles injury and Bird’s knee surgery that would keep her out indefinitely. It’s been an emotional journey for Hughes, one that started on the mound in T-Mobile Park.
“I threw that pitch and in a very personal way—that was a strike against cancer right there,” Hughes says. “You go on with life as you deal with things like cancer, but on a very personal basis, that really defined that moment for me.”
The night ended with a Mariners loss, but it was a massive win for Hughes. This surely isn’t how the Storm coach expected the year to play out, but he’s shown just how strong he is over the past few months. And while his pitch was a little outside, he certainly got his strike against cancer.