Seattle Storm, Basketball Franchise

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 5/21/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20744

The Seattle Storm is a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) team that was formed in 1999 as an expansion franchise. It was originally affiliated with the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association (NBA), but after the Sonics were sold to a group planning to move them to Oklahoma City, four local women pooled their resources and bought the Storm in 2008, pledging to keep the team in Seattle. With standout players such as Lauren Jackson (b. 1981), Sue Bird (b. 1980), and Breanna Stewart (b. 1994), the Storm won league championships in 2004, 2010, and 2018 -- two more than any other Seattle professional sports team.

A Burgeoning Fanbase

Women's basketball in Seattle got rolling in the late 1980s and 1990s with the success of University of Washington teams coached by Chris Gobrecht. Her Huskies regularly won 20 or more games a season and advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship tournament. With average attendance reaching about 4,500, the UW women sometimes outdrew their male counterparts. Local popularity of the women's game made the city a logical landing spot for the American Basketball League (ABL), a professional women's league that debuted in 1996 with the Seattle Reign as a charter member.

Meanwhile, the NBA was preparing to launch a women's league of its own, the WNBA, with significant differences. The ABL offered higher salaries and initially signed more of the country's national-team members. Its games were played during basketball's traditional late-fall and winter months. The WNBA's teams would be on a tighter budget and play in the summer, when NBA arenas had more open dates. And through its NBA affiliation, the WNBA gained television revenue that mostly eluded its rival. The ABL folded abruptly in December 1998, a third of the way into its third season, taking the Reign down with it.

The Storm is Born

There were hard feelings in ABL circles, including Seattle. The WNBA was seen as contributing to the other league's demise, and, largely because of its lower salaries, being less supportive of women. Six months after the ABL went out of business, the WNBA expanded into Seattle. Ginger Ackerley, co-owner of the Sonics with her husband Barry, realized fences needed mending. Her first hire was Karen Bryant, a former University of Washington player who had been the Reign's general manager. Bryant was given the title of senior director of WNBA operations. Her first task was to find a head coach. She picked Lin Dunn (b. 1947), a folksy-sounding southerner who had been a successful coach at Purdue University and 1998 ABL Coach of the Year with the Portland Power. Together Dunn and Bryant worked to drum up support for the new team, which in January 2000 was named the Seattle Storm.

The team's first season was a struggle. Juggling a handful of former Reign and Portland players and first-round draft pick, 6-foot-4 Kamila Vodichkova (b. 1972), Dunn tried 17 different starting lineups. The result was a league-worst 6 wins and 26 losses.

In January 2001 a group headed by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz (b. 1953) bought the Sonics and Storm from the Ackerleys. Schultz added staff to focus on Storm ticket sales and increased the team's marketing budget. Another boost came on April 20, 2001, when the Storm used the first pick in the draft to select 19-year-old Australian Lauren Jackson, a 6-foot-5 power forward from the Canberra Capitals. In her first season, Jackson led WNBA rookies in scoring, rebounding, three-point baskets, steals, and blocked shots. The team managed a 10-22 record, and again landed the first pick in the draft. The Storm used it to select the national college player of the year, point guard Sue Bird, who had led the University of Connecticut to a 39-0 record and the NCAA championship.

A Championship Lineup

With Jackson and Bird in the lineup, the Storm had its first winning season in 2002, finishing 17-15 and making the playoffs but losing in the conference finals. Dunn's contract was up and team management chose not to renew it. She left with a 33-66 record. Hired to succeed her was Anne Donovan (1961-2018), coach of the Charlotte Sting and a natural to help develop Jackson's considerable talent. Donovan had been an All-American center at Old Dominion and an Olympic gold medalist. She already was in the Basketball Hall of Fame when the Storm announced her hiring in December 2002.   

In Donovan's first season, the Storm had a modest 18-16 record and fell short of the playoffs. But with Bird and Jackson, the league's newly crowned Most Valuable Player, Seattle had the makings of a title contender. A decisive piece came from an unlikely source -- the remains of the collapsed Cleveland Rockets franchise. After five other Rockets were taken in a league-wide dispersal draft, Seattle landed high-scoring guard Betty Lennox (b. 1976).

The Storm got off to a slow start in 2004 but finished with a franchise-best 20-14 record. Seattle beat the Minnesota Lynx and Sacramento Monarchs in the playoffs to earn a spot in the WNBA finals. Its opponent was the Connecticut Sun, and the first two games were nail-biters. The Sun won 68-64 on its home court, and the Storm won Game 2 67-65 before a sellout crowd of 17,072 at KeyArena. The Sun’s strategy was to focus its defense on Jackson and Bird. That created opportunities for Lennox, who demonstrated why she had the nickname "B-Money." Her clutch shooting produced 27 points in Game 2, and 23 in the decisive Game 3. The Storm won 74-60, giving the city its first professional sports championship since the Sonics won the NBA title in 1979. Lennox was named Finals MVP. Donovan was the first woman head coach to win a WNBA title.

New Owners

The Storm made it to the conference semifinals but no further in 2005 and 2006. Of bigger concern was the team's future in Seattle. The Sonics -- and with them the Storm -- were sold by Schultz to a group headed by Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett (b. 1959). The NBA approved the deal in October 2006. Bennett wanted roughly $300 million of taxpayer money for a new arena, and when city government refused, he got NBA approval in April 2008 to move the team to Oklahoma City, where it was renamed the Thunder.

Three months before the move, Bennett sold the Storm to four women, all season-ticket holders, for $10 million. Calling themselves Force 10 Hoops LLC, they were former Seattle deputy mayor Anne Levinson (b. 1958), Microsoft executive Lisa Brummel (b. 1959), former Microsoft employee Dawn Trudeau (b. 1957), and investment business owner Ginny Gilder (b. 1958). The sale was announced February 28, 2008.   

"Wow! I never thought that this would be a possibility," Trudeau said. "It's not just keeping the team in town, it's the fact that we're doing it with women leadership" ("Four Storm Fans ... ").

Rebuilding

Donovan had announced after the 2007 season that she was retiring as head coach. Her replacement under the new ownership was San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Brian Agler (b. 1958). Bryant, who worked with Bennett to land Agler, remained as Storm CEO.

Next came an influx of established talent -- Yolanda Griffith (b. 1970), Sheryl Swoopes (b. 1971), and Swin Cash (b. 1979). Griffith and Swoopes were former league MVPs on the downward side of extraordinary careers. Griffith was an eight-time WNBA All-Star, Swoopes was a six-time All-Star, and both had been on championship teams. They would be with the Storm only for the 2008 season, but signing them showed fans that the new owners were serious about winning. Cash, unlike the other newcomers, was in her prime. She was a two-time All-Star and two-time WNBA champion with the Detroit Shock.

In each of Agler's first two seasons (2008 and 2009), the Storm won at least 20 games but lost in the conference semifinals to the Los Angeles Sparks. That made five consecutive years of being stuck in that playoff rut. But there were signs of improvement, notably in the forms of guard Tanisha Wright (b. 1983) and forward Camille Little (b. 1985). With them ready to start alongside Bird, Jackson, and Cash, the Storm was poised to take its next big step.

Champs Again

Seattle dominated the 2010 season from start to finish. The Storm won 22 of its first 24 games, clinched homecourt advantage for the playoffs by July 27, and despite giving more playing time to reserves after that, finished with 28 wins, which tied the league record. Agler was named Coach of the Year. Jackson, recovered from two years of accumulating injuries that included stress fractures in her lower back, was the unanimous choice for her third regular-season MVP award.

In the playoffs, the Storm swept past the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury, emphatically ending its string of postseason flops. While Seattle had momentum heading into the finals, so did its opponent. The Atlanta Dream was seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket but was unbeaten in the playoffs, beating Washington and New York by an average of nearly 12 points as it rode the shooting of one the league’s rising stars, Angel McCoughtry (b. 1986).

With more than 15,000 fans rocking KeyArena, Game 1 was a battle to the end. Bird provided the winning shot with 2.6 seconds remaining. McCoughtry barely had time for a three-point try and missed, sealing a 79-77 victory for the Storm. Game 2 was another cliffhanger, with the Storm making six of eight free throws in the final 30 seconds to win 87-84. Jackson led the way with 26 points, matching her output from Game 1, and Cash added 19. The series then moved to Atlanta's Philips Arena, and yet another fight to the finish. The Storm had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, but McCoughtry, on her way to 35 points, kept the Dream alive. Atlanta trailed by only three points with 31.7 seconds to go but couldn't come closer. McCoughtry missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, and the Storm had another 87-84 victory and its second league championship.

Jackson was the unanimous choice as MVP of the finals, but Game 3 was remarkably balanced. All five Seattle starters scored at least 13 points -- Cash had 18, Jackson and Little had 15 each -- as the Storm became the first WNBA team to go 7-0 in the playoffs.

Back on Top

Injuries limited Jackson to 13 games in 2011 and nine in 2012, the last season of her WNBA career. Bird also was wearing down; she finally had knee surgery, causing her to miss the 2013 campaign. Meanwhile, the Storm struggled. It managed to win 21 games in 2011, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. That began a slide to mediocrity and worse. The team had a combined record of 33-35 the next two years, both times losing in the first round of the playoffs, and then tumbled to 12-22, falling short of the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Agler was replaced in 2015 by Jenny Boucek (b. 1973). She was fired late in the 2017 season, the team’s fourth straight losing campaign.

The losing paid off in one way, giving Seattle the first picks in the 2015 and 2016 drafts. The Storm used them to land Notre Dame guard Jewell Lloyd (b. 1993) and Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart, a three-time national Player of the Year.

While the roster and coaching staffs churned, the front office also underwent a major change. Karen Bryant, who had been the team's top executive since its birth, announced in January 2014 that she was leaving in July. Her replacement as president and general manager was Alisha Valavanis. She coaxed former San Antonio coach Dan Hughes (b. 1955) out of a one-year retirement to become head coach in 2018. That season, a year after going 15-19, the Storm posted a franchise-record 26-8 record. Stewart broke Jackson's season scoring record and was named the league’s MVP.

In some ways, the 2018 team resembled the one that captured the 2010 championship, with Stewart playing the role of Jackson and Bird, at age 37, still running the offense. The other starters were Lloyd, Natasha Howard (b. 1991), a rugged forward acquired by trade from the Minnesota Lynx, and Alysha Clark (b. 1987), a defense-minded forward signed as a free agent in 2012.

One More Title 

Seattle faced the Phoenix Mercury in the best-of-five game playoff semifinals. Phoenix had a superstar of its own in guard Diana Taurasi (b. 1982), the league's all-time leading scorer. She made it close in the first two games, both at KeyArena, before the Storm prevailed each time, 91-87. The series then moved to Phoenix, and the going got tougher for Seattle. DeWanna Bonner (b. 1987), the Mercury’s All-Star forward, led Phoenix to an 86-66 rout in Game 3, and All-Star center Brittney Griner (b. 1990) had 29 points and sank a hook shot in the closing seconds to give the Mercury an 86-84 victory in Game 4.

If not shaken as the series went back to KeyArena, the Storm was at least bloodied. Bird had broken her nose midway through Game 4 when she collided with Stewart. The veteran guard returned for the deciding game wearing a protective mask. The Mercury jumped to an 11-2 lead and stayed in front, holding a 73-69 edge with six minutes remaining. But Bird saved the day and the series. Shaking off another blow to her nose, she scored 14 points in the final five minutes, giving the Storm a decisive 94-84 win.

Seattle’s opponent in the championship series was the Washington Mystics, who got there by beating Los Angeles and Atlanta, but also had a problem. Their best player, forward Elena Delle Donna (b. 1989) was hobbled by a knee injury. Compared to the rough series with Phoenix, the finals were relatively easy for Seattle. The Storm coasted to an 89-76 win in Game 1 as Lloyd scored 23 points and Stewart scored 22. Game 2 was a different story with Seattle needing 25 points and two late steals by Stewart to eke out a 75-73 victory.

Purging memories of its last two playoff games on the road, the Storm dominated Game 3 in Fairfax, Virginia. Howard had a career-high 29 points and 14 rebounds, and Stewart led all scorers with 30 points as the Storm romped to a 98-82 win and its third league championship.

Hughes said his players weren't satisfied until they won the title. And all five starters were expected back for the 2019 season. That included Bird, the WNBA's oldest player but still an All-Star. "So much can happen in this league, so I'm hesitant to say it. But the pieces are there" to repeat as champs, she said ("Storm Appears ... ").


Sources:

Jayda Evans, Game On! How Women's Basketball Took Seattle by Storm (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2006); Earl Gustkey, "Women's League Is Calling It Quits," Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1998, p. 1; "Seattle Storm," Basketball-Reference website accessed February 22, 2019 (www.basketball-reference.com/wnba/teams/SEA/); Sam Farmer, "How the Sonics Became the Thunder: A Timeline," Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2012 (https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-xpm-2012-jun-16-la-sp-0617-sonics-thunder-timeline-20120617-story.html); Tim Korte, "Seattle Wins WNBA Title," The Columbian, October 13, 2004, p. B-1; Wendy Carpenter, "Queens of the Court; Storm Routs Sun in Game 3 to Claim WNBA Title," Tacoma News Tribune, October 13, 2004, p. C-1; "Women’s Basketball Will Return to Seattle," The Seattle Times, June 7, 1999, p. A-1; Jayda Evans, "Bryant, Ex-GM of Reign, Joins Local WNBA Franchise," Ibid., Jun 18, 1999, p. D-4; Jayda Evans, "Experience Wins Out: Dunn Already at Work," Ibid., July 23, 1999, p. D-1; Nunyo Demasio, "'Dream' Deal Realized -- NBA Commissioner Stern was Middleman for Starbucks' Schultz," Ibid., January 12, 2001, p. A-1; Percy Allen and Jim Brunner, "Sonics, Storm Sold: On Their Way Out?" Ibid., December 19, 2006, p. A-1; Jayda Evans, "Four Storm Fans Take Over -- WNBA Group Has a Deal to Buy Franchise and Keep it Here," Ibid., January 9, 2008, p. D-1; Jayda Evans, "Longtime Storm Exec is Promoted to CEO,” Ibid., March 7, 2008, p. C-9; Jayda Evans, "The New Faces of the Storm,” Ibid., April 20, 2008, p. D-1; Jerry Brewer, "Making an Entrance  -- New Storm Owners Stock the Roster With Star Power and Reenergize Fans, Putting Uncertainty and Worry Behind Them," Ibid., April 22, 2008, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Powerful Seattle Storm Acts Like Champion in Playoff Opener," Ibid., August 26, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Storm Finds Proper Way to Complement Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson," Ibid., September 1, 2010; p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Lauren Jackson, Brian Agler Sweep WNBA Awards," Ibid., September 2, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Bird Buries Clutch Shot, Wins Opener," Ibid., September 13, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "2 Down, 1 to Go," Ibid., September 15, 2010, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Hail, Storm," Ibid., September 17, 2010, p. C-1; Jerry Brewer, "Struggles Make Title Sweeter," Ibid.,  September 17, 2010, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Sue Bird vs. Diana Taurasi: Friends and Rivals' Oncourt Duels Are Always High Drama," Ibid., August 30, 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Imperfect Storm," Ibid., September 1, 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Storm on the Ropes," Ibid., September 3, 2018, p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Finally, They Clinch," Ibid., September 5, 2018, p. C-1; Matt Calkins, "Storm Wins One for the Ages," Ibid., p. C-1; Percy Allen, "Super Storm," Ibid., September 13, 2018, p. C-1; Larry Stone, "Stewart's the MVP, but Bird's the Heart and Soul," Ibid., September 13, 2018, p. A-1; Percy Allen, "Storm Appears to be Built to Win Multiple Titles," Ibid., September 19, 2018, p. C-7; "Dan Hughes New Coach of the Seattle Storm," USA Today, October 4, 2017 (www.usatoday.com); Ava Wallace, "Washington Mystics Swept up by the Storm in First Trip to WNBA Finals," The Washington Post, September 12, 2018 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/); Gene Wang, "With Finals MVP Breanna Stewart Front and Center, Seattle is Primed For a Dynastic Run," Ibid., September 13, 2018; Kevin Pelton, "Path to a Championship," October 20, 2004, WNBA website accessed January 6, 2019 (https://www.wnba.com/archive/wnba/storm/history/2004recap.html); Brian Martin, "Dan Hughes Gets His Elusive Championship," September 15, 2018, WNBA website accessed February 12, 2019 (https://www.wnba.com/news/dan-hughes-gets-his-elusive-championship/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Storm wins WNBA championship on October 12, 2004" (by Cassandra Tate), and "Seattle Storm wins its second WNBA championship on September 16, 2010" (by Glenn Drosendahl), "Seattle Storm wins WNBA championship for third time on September 12, 2008" (by Glenn Drosendahl), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 22, 2019).


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