As his players huddled before practice last week at the Palace in
Auburn Hills, Bill Laimbeer stood among them, holding a stuffed
yellow garbage bag behind his back. After a few words the Detroit
Shock coach pulled out a 12-by-8-foot red-white-and-blue banner
that proclaimed the Shock the 2003 WNBA champions. Soon it would
hang from the arena rafters alongside the Pistons' title banners
from 1988-89 and '89-90--which Laimbeer helped secure as a
player. As his charges admired the fruit of their labor, Laimbeer
looked around. "Where are the rooks?" he said, and when
first-year players Chandi Jones, Isabel Sanchez and Iciss Tillis
stepped forward, he handed them the giant swath of nylon. "Fold
this up," he directed.
"I wanted them to touch the banner," says Laimbeer, who played 14
seasons in the NBA. "Hopefully they'll get to be part of another
If all goes according to Laimbeer's plan and the WNBA's tradition
of repeat champions (the Houston Comets won the league's first
four titles, the Los Angeles Sparks the next two), Detroit's
rookies will stake their claim to a banner by the end of the 2004
season, which starts on Saturday and runs until October, with a
monthlong break in August for the Olympics. As good as the young
Shock team was last September, when it upset L.A. two games to
one in the finals, the defending champs should be better this
year. All five starters--guards Elaine Powell and Deanna Nolan
and the bruising front line of 6'2" Swin Cash, 6'3" Cheryl Ford
and 6'5" finals MVP Ruth Riley--return to a team that led the
league in scoring, rebounding, three-point shooting and field
goal percentage. "Last year we showed what the future of this
league looked like," says Laimbeer. "We were big, athletic,
strong, physical and young, and we could run, shoot, score and
block shots. In Cash, Nolan and Ford we had players who were
redefining their positions. We had the whole package, and now
that's what everybody else wants."
Accordingly, most other teams used the dispersal draft from the
dissolution of the Cleveland Rockers' franchise and an
exceptionally deep college draft to get bigger and more athletic.
"Detroit is the team to beat, and everyone is trying to match up
with them," acknowledges New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato,
who for size chose 6'4" center Ann Wauters in the January
dispersal of the Rockers and to match Cash's height and
athleticism took 6'1" small forward Shameka Christon of Arkansas
with the fifth pick in the April collegiate draft. "This is going
to be a very competitive year because I think every team has
improved through the drafts."
No team has improved enough to overtake the Shock, which despite
its lofty finish landed two first-round college picks. Thanks to
some astute dealing, Laimbeer, who's also director of player
personnel, got exactly what he needed: a versatile backup for
Riley in the 6'5" former Duke All-America Tillis (with the 11th
pick, which he had acquired in a trade that sent guard Kedra
Holland Corn to Houston) and an athletic combo guard in the 5'11"
Jones of the University of Houston (with the No. 8 pick, which
Detroit received as part of a four-player trade with the Phoenix
Mercury). According to Laimbeer, Jones so perfectly suited the
Shock's needs that he would have chosen her first overall--even
ahead of Connecticut superstar Diana Taurasi, who was taken by
Phoenix with the No. 1 selection. "There are very few players who
can play both the one and the two," says Laimbeer. "Kedra did it
for us last year, but Chandi is three inches bigger. We knew she
was athletic and talented, but her poise has surprised us. We got
her for the future, quite frankly, but she is working her way
into our present."
As for Tillis, Laimbeer was not displeased to find that she
carries one of the psychological weapons he was noted for as a
player: something to prove. "People have given her a lot of abuse
over the years, saying she's too soft, that she played in the
shadow of [college player of the year Alana] Beard, so she has a
good little chip on her shoulder," says Laimbeer, smiling. "We
Laimbeer, 47 this week, says his young team is "positioned
perfectly for the next four or five years." He's a big part of
its future. Having taken over the Shock when it was in the midst
of a 9-23 campaign two years ago, he has not had to deal with the
personnel clashes or locker room cancers that can disable even
the most talented teams, and given the respect his players have
for him, he may never have to. He doesn't yell, and he keeps his
practices famously short. Sitting courtside before a 90-minute
session last week, Tillis said of Laimbeer, "He is very confident
in who he is as a person, and he makes you confident because he
wants you to shoot the ball, he wants you to do all these
things...." Suddenly, Laimbeer was looming over Tillis,
pretending to point a microphone in her face. "How did it feel to
go 1 for 8 in the last game?" he said with mock curiosity and a
barely suppressed grin.
Tillis cracked up. "You see?" she said. "He'll remind you of
going 1 for 8. He keeps it in your head, he jokes about it, but
at least he says it to your face. What you see is what you get
Cash, the hardworking team captain and a newly minted Olympian,
is the perfect floor leader for this coach. A starter on two NCAA
title teams at Connecticut, she likes having a target on her
back, and she's teaching her teammates to wear it too. "I changed
some things with the team at the beginning of last year," says
Cash, who's entering her third WNBA season. "The atmosphere here
wasn't a winning atmosphere. I learned at Connecticut that
there's a way you carry yourself, a way you act, if you're a
champion. If we're going to be in the airport, we need to be
dressed like we're champions--no sneakers, no holey jeans.
Because that becomes habit."
The Shock's popularity is surging around Detroit. The team draws
the highest percentage of male fans in the WNBA and has already
surpassed last year's ticket sales revenue by 40%. After a
practice last week a Detroit News photographer showed up to shoot
a team photo--with the banner as backdrop--for a sports section
wraparound, an honor usually reserved for the Pistons or Red
"These players have become superstars in Detroit," says Kristin
Bernert, the Shock's vice president of operations. "When they
walk into a restaurant now, owners want to pick up the tab.
People who couldn't name our five starters a year ago now ask
about Isabel Sanchez, the rookie from Spain. When the players
were presented at halftime of a Pistons game, they got a standing
ovation. It's so different from before. This town really does
love a winner." Imagine how much it will like a dynasty.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN EINSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES MONEYBALL Cash, a two-time champion at UConn, has instilled a winning attitude in her teammates.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN EINSTEIN/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) DOCTOR DETROIT On the sidelines Laimbeer is as much psychologist as tactician.
COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Taurasi
2004 Predicted Order of Finish
There was plenty of movement in the off-season, but signs point
to a Detroit-L.A. finals rematch
1 DETROIT SHOCK With five starters back and two first-round draft
picks on the bench, the defending champs will be tough to topple
2 CHARLOTTE STING The additions of rookie Nicole Powell and vet
Olympia Scott-Richardson will provide Charlotte with much-needed
youth and rebounding.
3 NEW YORK LIBERTY Newcomers Ann Wauters and Shameka Christon
will help make up for the loss of starters Teresa Weatherspoon
and Tamika Whitmore to free agency.
4 WASHINGTON MYSTICS First-round draft pick Alana Beard of Duke,
the reigning collegiate player of the year, should help improve a
team that went 9-25 last season.
5 INDIANA FEVER Tamika Catchings does it all, but she and veteran
Natalie Williams will need more support inside against bigger
6 CONNECTICUT SUN Trading away Olympic point guard Shannon
Johnson to get No. 4 pick Lindsay Whalen will hurt for now but
may strengthen the team down the road.
1 LOS ANGELES SPARKS If DeLisha Milton-Jones's knee is
functional, the two-time champs will have arguably the best
starting five in the league.
2 SACRAMENTO MONARCHS Despite picking up Georgetown's Rebekkah
Brunson in the draft, they'll likely lose in the playoffs to L.A.
for the third time in four seasons.
3 HOUSTON COMETS New combo guard Kedra Holland-Corn will nicely
complement a frontcourt of Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and
4 SEATTLE STORM Veterans Sheri Sam and Betty Lennox should
relieve the offensive pressure on Olympian Sue Bird and league
MVP Lauren Jackson.
5 SAN ANTONIO SILVER STARS Frontliners like 7'2" Margo Dydek and
her Polish countrywoman, 6'2" European player of the year
Agnieszka Bibrzycka, will keep San Antonio out of the cellar.
6 MINNESOTA LYNX With lots of new faces joining the league's
oldest player (Teresa Edwards, who is almost 40), the Lynx may
take a while to find their identity.
7 PHOENIX SUN Top pick Diana Taurasi and young forward Penny
Taylor will improve the Mercury but not enough for the team to
finish above .500.
FINALS Detroit over Los Angeles in three games