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Saturday, July 20, 2019

How High Will the Sky Fly this Season? Veteran Coach Arrives on a Mission to Instill Attitude

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Photo Caption: Much of the Sky’s success this season will rest upon new coach Pokey Chatman’s ability to hone the talents of the team’s premiere rookie, Courtney Vandersloot. The third overall selection in this year’s WNBA draft, Vandersloot, a 5-9 point guard from Gonzaga, was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year three teimes, a first for any player. Vandersloot is also the first NCAA Division I player, male or female, to have accumulated 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Chicago Sky

By Mike Siroky

It’s all about attitude.

WNBA followers can look at the Chicago Sky and see storm clouds. This is a franchise that has never made the playoffs and is on its fourth coach in five seasons.

Chicago Sky fans see opportunities and an unlimited ceiling.

And the biggest, newest fan is long-time college and European professional coach Pokey Chatman, who begins her rookie coaching season in the WNBA this season as she takes the reins in Chicago.

Chatman saw success as both a player and as an assistant college coach at Louisiana State, where she learned her craft under the legendary Sue Gunter, a Naismith and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the pioneers of the women’s college game.

With Gunter on medical leave, struggling with the emphysema that would take her life a year later, Chatman took her mentor’s place, leading the Lady Tigers to a 15-5 record and the first Final Four appearance in school history while serving as acting head coach in the latter part of the 2003-2004 season.

After Gunter’s retirement at the end of the 2004 season, Chatman received the nod as the team’s permanent head coach and continued her successful run in 2004-2005, guiding LSU to a 33-3 record, an undefeated (14-0) SEC season and with it the regular-season conference title, and the school’s second consecutive Final Four. In 2005-2006, LSU again took the SEC regular-season championship and made its third straight Final Four appearance under Chatman’s leadership, with the young coach raking in the hardware including the Naismith Coach of the Year Award (2005) and Coach-of-the-Year awards from the USBWA, the Black Coaches Association, the WBCA and the SEC, among others. In 2005, Chatman was also named as an assistant coach to USA Basketball’s gold medal-winning Women’s World University Games Team.

Photo Caption: Chatman built her reputation at LSU on four back-to-back NCAA Final Four runs, spearheaded by a young talent named Sylvia Fowles. Today, the 6-6 Fowles is the Chicago Sky’s legitimate All Star, entering her fourth season in the WNBA with a career average of 14 points and five rebounds per game despite repeated injuries. Will Chatman, the Sky’s new coach, and Fowles once again combine to bring their team to national prominence and title contention?
Photo Credit: Courtesy Chicago Sky

But Chatman’s steady march to the top of the women’s collegiate basketball coaching ranks hit a speed bump in March 2007, when, with her team on the cusp of its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four, Chatman resigned in the face of allegations of an inappropriate relationship with one of her former players. In the wake of the charges, Chatman was all but untouchable when it came to college coaching jobs, but quickly regained her footing when she joined the pro coaching ranks in – of all places – Russia.

Chatman said coaching in Russia is not as exotic as it sounds. Starting as an assistant in 2007 and moving on to the head coaching job for the perennially successful Euroleague team Spartak Moscow, Chatman led her squad of international All Stars to a perfect 15-0 Euroleague season and the Euroleague championship in 2010. In 2009, she also took the traditionally unsuccessful Slovakian squad to the EuroBasket in Riga.

Her stint in Russia gave Chatman the opportunity to coach some of the world’s best women’s basketball stars, many of whom play in the WNBA in the summer and in Europe the rest of the year. Chatman cites Lauren Jackson, Jia Perkins, Sue Bird, and Lauren Jackson among the All Stars she has coached, but for Chatman, that list is topped by Diana Taurasi, a player whose abilities fill Chatman with great admiration. 

“If I was starting a team today, I would want Diana as the first pick,” she said. “She is a great player on the court, but more, on the bus, in the locker room, she is a leader. Because she works the hardest. She takes care of her body and her game.”

Now Chatman is in sweet home Chicago, a woman of the South ready to rock the home of jazz in the big city. Chatman is enthusiastic about her new venue. She had been in and out of Chicago on various recruiting and business trips.

“And I always thought, ‘Man, I gotta come back here. The restaurants, the jazz . . . ‘’’

“One thing I learned as I matured is to designate time for yourself,” Chatman continued. “Everyone thinks coaches have no life. Sure, we’re busy, but we do have a life. Chicago is a great city in which to have a life.”

She may have a life, but Chatman will also have her work cut out for her in taking the helm of the Sky, an expansion franchise that has underachieved since joining the league in 2006. But as Chatman braces for her coaching debut in the WNBA, she harbors expectations but no preconceived notions about her team’s chances for success. Thanks to trades and acquisitions, this will be a new team—with a new coach—and a chance to grow together, says Chatman.

“This is a work in progress,” Chatman said of the Sky. “That’s obvious with the coaching changes, the trades . . . there’s a lot of newness.”

“I think, in all fairness, give us time and we’ll be a more-disciplined team.”

She refuses to be discouraged by her team’s failure to make the post-season in recent years.

“Before I took this job, I watched 29 games on film. Four of those came down to one possession. Win those and you’re in the playoffs.”

She said a few weeks into the season she will know how much more work needs to be done.

“It’ll be telling us quickly in terms of where we are and where we need to go.”

Though Chatman will not have a Diana Taurasi at her disposal in Chicago (Taurasi plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the league’s Western Conference), she has demonstrated the ability to recruit and develop high-level talent. Moreover, Chatman has the advantage of familiarity when it comes to Chicago’s legitimate All Star, LSU product Sylvia Fowles, a 6-6 frontline player with a career 14-point and five-rebound per-game average. Fowles, who is entering her fourth season in the WNBA, was the cornerstone of the Final Four teams Chatman coached in Baton Rouge.

The new coach is also well-acquainted with another of the Sky’s key players, Rutgers guard Epiphanny Prince, whom she coached at Spartak. Prince averaged 9.8 points in a little less than 20 minutes per game for the Sky last season coming mostly off the bench, but is expected to take on a more significant role for the team this year in light of the departure of Jia Perkins, the Sky’s second-leading scorer (and, coincidentally, another player whom Chatman coached in Europe), for San Antonio.

Prince’s very success in Europe led to uncertainty for the Sky as the new WNBA season approached. Indeed, just days before the season tipped off, Chatman said she did not know how long she would have Prince, who took on an obligation to play for the Russian National Team when she applied for Russian citizenship, available to her as the Russians prepared for this year’s Eurobasket tournament, as well as the 2012 Olympics.

Fortunately for Chatman, word came late last week that the Russians would on Prince for Eurobasket this summer, though they may still require her presence for Olympic preparations next year. The news could not have come at a better time, since the Sky lost the services of starting wing Shameka Christon, who underwent knee surgery last week for an injury sustained in training camp and was subsequently waived by the team.

Prince got the start in the Sky’s season opener, a 57-65 loss to the Indiana Fever, but her performance was promising: 20 points, two assists and three steals in 35 minutes on the floor.

Also returning to the Sky line-up this season will be Dominque Canty, like Prince a 5-9 guard. Canty, an Alabama product, is a dozen years into her pro career and brings discipline and experience to the team.

New to the squad will be Michelle Snow, the 6-5 center from Tennessee, will will join Fowles in anchoring the middle.  Completing her first decade in the WNBA, Snow is a former All-Star with the now-disbanded Houston team, who comes to the Sky by way of San Antonio, where she averaged 10.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season.

Photo Caption: Michelle Snow, formerly of the Houston Comets and most recently the San Antonio Silver Stars, is a Chicago Sky addition this season. Interestingly, rather than using the 6-5 center from Tennessee in relief of Fowles, Chatman has thus far started both, deploying them as twin towers to make a formidable tandem in the post.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Chicago Sky


Backing them up will be 6-2 forward-center Lindsay Wisdom-Hilton, a Purdue product in her second year in the pros, in a last minute trade with Los Angeles.

Three rookies made the final roster, including Courtney Vandersloot, the Sky’s top pick and the No. 3 overall selection from the 2011 WNBA draft. Vandersloot, a 5-9 point guard from Gonzaga, was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year three times, a first for any player. While keying the ‘Zags’ deep NCAA Tournament run this spring, Vandersloot also became the first player in NCAA Division I history, male or female, to accumulate 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career.

“So, with ‘Sloot, there is a lot of talk. But we have to bring her along, put her in positions to be successful and watch her grow,” said Chatman.

Also making the final cut is another SEC alum, Tennessee’s Angie Bjorklund, selected 17th overall in this year’s draft. Bjorklund, a 6-0 wing, averaged 14.5 minutes, 3.0 points and 1.5 assists in the Sky’s two preseason games with Chicago. She did not play in the Sky’s season opener. The Sky also kept, at least for the time being, 6-6 center Carolyn Swords out of Boston College, the No. 15 pick in this year’s WNBA draft, but Swords’ production in the early going has been unremarkable.

Chatman likes the energy she has seen in her team’s preseason workouts and early games.

“It’s a small time frame, but we need to grab some of that excitement and newness and really hold on,” she said.

“It will be a nice transition into the ideas we are trying to set. Obviously, you see the see ultimate goal: The playoffs and the championship. First, there is a level of anxiousness and the usual frustrations.”

Chatman is undaunted at the prospect of making the transition from her college and European coaching background to the WNBA. From Gunter and her own experiences at LSU, she brings a deep sense of appreciation for the women’s game. Her time in Europe has underlined her fundamental belief that the pro game has its natural roots in the college game and that some skills and lessons are transferable.

“Obviously, a difference is you don’t have to recruit players in the WNBA,” she said. “And players know that if they can’t perform, there is a line waiting for the chance. So maybe there is a little more pressure on their lifespan as a player. But, being a good recruiter means you can communicate, so, even more so, you have to be a really, really good communicator here. It’s knowing when to talk, knowing how to talk to each player.”

The players in the WNBA, she says, are a little more talented than the upper-echelon in the NCAA game.

“But then you have more mature players. In college, maybe you can hide someone who are only screeners and not scorers. Not here. The game is faster, better and so are the players. You have fundamentally better players.”

“And they better be self-motivated,” Chatman added. “They have to own their game, be responsible for themselves.”

Unlike many rookie WNBA coaches, Chatman has been around awhile and at every WNBA stop, she will see familiar faces among coaches and players. Still, while she will enjoy seeing her friends in the profession, she knows job one will be to install the winning tradition she enjoyed at LSU and at Spartak in the struggling Chicago franchise.

Chatman also knows it is tough to jump-start traditions.

“We gotta go to work,” she said. “While I enjoy seeing my friends, I am seeing them because we gotta play these guys, gotta beat these guys. It is not gonna to be easy.”

“But that’s a compliment to those other coaches and other players in the league,” she adds. “I was fortunate to have come from the best team in Europe. To be a contender, first you have to want to be the best.”

“For the past six years, the naysayers have been predicting each season will be the last,” Chatman observes of her team’s rough ride since its inception in 2006.

Mindful that this is the 15th season for the WNBA and that she is joining a league rapidly assembling its own historical significance, Chatman adds: “They do not understand the process of it. We’re here, making strides. I am tired of the natural assumption women’s basketball is only a niche sport.”

“Everyone has an opinion of where we could prosper. Well, women’s basketball fans are everywhere. They’re loud and passionate.”

In a sense, the passion is what she wants most in her players this season.

“I hope we can an impact,” Chatman said of her own rookie WNBA season. “We need to start building on something.

“This will be exciting,” Chatman added. “I expect to learn a lot. I expect the team to grow a lot. There are challenges and it will be difficult.

In the end, however, “It’s gut-check time,” said Chatman. “I can spread my wings in terms of using my coaching knowledge and that’s fun for me.”

Originally published Tue, June 07, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.