by Stephen Litel
The Phoenix Mercury were WNBA Champions in 2007. In 2008, they finished with a 16-18 record, tied with Minnesota for last place in the Western Conference and two games out of the Playoffs. How does that occur on a team that features Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and the WNBA’s seventh all-time leading scorer, Tangela Smith?
“We didn’t start the season off on a great note,” says veteran center Smith. “We dug ourselves in a hole from the start and we just couldn’t get on a good enough run to make it into the Playoffs, which was very unfortunate. We can’t make any excuses. We just didn’t get the job done. Yes, we lost Penny Taylor. Yes, we lost Coach Westhead and yes, I had surgery. All those things were bad, but we can’t use them as excuses. We still could have put ourselves in a position to fight to keep the title, but we didn’t and that’s that.”
Whether the team became complacent or learned firsthand how other teams play their best against the reigning champions, Smith is doing everything in her power to lead her team back into the championship hunt. With a now healthy knee, Smith headed to China during the off-season to work her way back into basketball shape.
“China was very interesting,” said Smith. “The season was only four months, but very intense. We practiced a lot and played twice a week, so I barely had time for any sightseeing. My team was number one throughout the entire season and we ended up winning the championship. I won one in Turkey, Korea, Phoenix—that was the best one—and China.”
Playing her college ball in Iowa, as well as WNBA stops in Sacramento, Charlotte and Phoenix over the past decade, Smith is used to certain similarities during all her stops. Although the game of basketball allows Smith to play in a wide range of cities and countries, adjusting to life in China was different.
“I really had to get used to the culture and the way the Chinese did things because it is very different from playing here in the States,” says Smith. “It was a very difficult adjustment for me. For example, we had curfews, we lived in hotels the entire season like dorms and we ate three meals together as a team. Basically, it was more structured and so many more rules. Anything we wanted to do outside of basketball we had to get permission to do, which was sort of useless because the answer was always going to be ‘no.’ I felt like I had joined the army or something similar. It was crazy, but my teammates made it a lot of fun for me because they were the coolest, nicest and funniest teammates ever. I also had a translator that was by my side every step of the way and she was great. The organization really did make my stay in China very comfortable.”
As Smith spent her time winning a title in a different culture, the Mercury organization also showed their commitment to righting their ship. With the WNBA Draft quickly approaching, the Mercury brought in Nicole Ohlde from Minnesota to help in the post. Ohlde’s career averages of 10 points and 5.3 rebounds took a hit in 2008, as her place in the revamped Minnesota Lynx could not find a way to work the talented player into their new mix.
“Nicole Ohlde will be a huge help in the paint,” says Smith. “Nicole is exactly what we need - a big presence down low to take a little bit of the pressure off Dee (Taurasi) and Cap (Pondexter). She will definitely help out me and Le’Coe (Willingham) tremendously on the inside.”
With veteran point guard, Kelly Miller going to Minnesota in the Ohlde trade, the Mercury also acquired Temeka Johnson from the Los Angeles Sparks. Although her regular season statistics do not jump off the page, Johnson sporting a Phoenix jersey is a good move, as her playoff experience will be quite beneficial. Johnson’s statistics in the playoffs jump significantly from her regular season numbers.
“I feel that Temeka Johnson will help us tremendously at the point guard position,” says Smith. “After losing Kelly Miller, we needed to fill the big void that would have been missing in that spot. I believe she’s the type of point guard that fits well in our style of play.”
A decade of playing in the WNBA and overseas. Coming off a knee injury. A franchise bringing in new faces through trades and the draft coming on Thursday. With all the time she has put into the game, as well as the changes in her WNBA home, Smith does not expect much to change as far as her playing time.
“I don’t feel my role will change,” says Smith. “The post position is really interchangeable, so it really doesn’t matter if I’m the four or the five. If anything, my role will become a lot easier now that we have Nicole. I was the one always defending the bigger post players on the opposite team–which I didn’t have a problem with–but sometimes I was just a tad bit undersized, but I still held my own.”
As Phoenix teammate Diana Taurasi plays for a Euroleague championship, the unheralded acquisition of Sequoia Holmes and the fifth pick in the draft on Thursday, Smith looks ahead to the upcoming WNBA season. The veteran and all-time great sees good things on the horizon.
“This year will be different,” says Smith. “I believe everyone wants to redeem ourselves from having a not so good year last season. We’re going to be ready, focused and hungrier than ever. We will also have more depth with the great acquisitions we have coming in. I will be going to Phoenix early to work out with the coaches before training camp starts and try and help get more fans in the stands to watch our wonderful sport and all the great players we have.”
Prepare yourselves, Mercury fans. One of your team’s leaders expects great things during the summer of 2009.