Karen Bryant pulls a poster out of a half-full box. It’s an 18-year-old Seattle Reign ad promoting the defunct American Basketball League.
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IT’S ABOUT !&+%*! TIME.
She laughs at the audacity. She finds another ad.
On October 27th, God will look down from the heavens and see women playing professional basketball.
There are so many boxes, so many memories. Cards from Seattle Children’s Hospital patients. Letters from dads who took their daughters to a WNBA game for the first time. Thank-you notes from women proud to watch other women live their dreams on a basketball court.
“This reminds me of when my parents moved out of the house they’d lived in for 40 years,” says Bryant, the Storm CEO who announced in January she would leave the organization July 31. “It took us several weeks to move. Every box was an hour of memories, of laughing and reminiscing.”
This time, Bryant is moving herself. The longtime professional women’s basketball executive and advocate is packing her life’s work and leaving behind the mission.
She sees the exit and weeps. Happy tears, she says. But she wonders what more she could have done to advance a game she still considers “in our infancy.”
She worries she didn’t do enough.
Devote a lifetime to women’s basketball, and you’re still left searching for meaning. For all the joy the game provides and all the obstacles these women overcome, for all the strides the WNBA has made in credibility and longevity, it remains a difficult pursuit to create a profitable American women’s league.
Bryant walks away gingerly, looking back, not always recognizing what she accomplished. She has hired Hall of Fame coaches, drafted legends, contributed to two WNBA titles, connected a rabid fan base and made the Storm’s game-day experience better than any other in the WNBA. Six years ago, she gave birth to her daughter via C-section and returned to work without taking maternity leave.
But it bothers her that she’s leaving before achieving the ultimate goal: financial sustainability. It bothers her that she’s leaving just as she began to understand how to delegate better and channel her passion properly.
“In the wake of my decision, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about where I missed,” says Bryant, who will be honored Thursday, her last day, when the Storm hosts Indiana. “I’m not sure if I could’ve done more. It feels like I left everything out there, but it’s hard not to think about where I could’ve done better.
“It’s hard not to go out on top.”
There is no walking off into the sunset, yet. This would be true even if the Storm had won a championship on Bryant’s final day.
Instead, the franchise is about to see its record streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances end. For certain, it’s hard not to go out on top.
Even as Bryant reminisces about the good times, she comes across a thought that haunts her. The last time she saw Lauren Jackson, the Australian superstar the Storm drafted 13 years ago, the 6-foot-5 forward was in a Minneapolis locker room, exhausted, crying.
This was Oct. 2, 2012. Jackson missed a short jumper in the closing seconds of a Game 3 playoff thriller, concluding what would’ve been a miraculous Storm series victory over the star-studded Minnesota Lynx. She was playing hurt and later had a hamstring surgery that forced her to miss the entire next season. She had been pulled in too many directions — playing for the Australian national team in the London Olympics, playing in Europe, playing in the WNBA — and her body couldn’t take it anymore. She left that night with a red face and with the admission that her body was “at the end of its rope physically.”
She has yet to return to the WNBA. This is her second straight season on the mend.
“One of my greatest disappointments will be that I didn’t get to finish with her because of what she’s meant to my ride,” Bryant says of Jackson.
In this game, pain is inevitable. If the body isn’t worn from all the competing demands, then there will be a mental toll. This is true of all sports, except women’s pro basketball carries a trailblazer’s burden. Until the path is certain to remain paved, there’s always a larger responsibility.
The 46-year-old Bryant feels it. She will forever be known as the first executive of Seattle women’s professional basketball. She was the first hired with the Reign in 1996. After the ABL folded in 1998, she was the first hired to run the Storm.
She has contributed to progress. She has experienced thrills. And with Jackson and point guard Sue Bird leading the Storm, Bryant has witnessed greatness and helped create a trustworthy brand around it.
On a Tuesday afternoon at a coffee shop, Bryant is telling Jackson stories and calling the three-time WNBA MVP “the greatest player I’ve ever watched.”
Thirteen years ago, Bryant rode in a limousine with former Storm coach Lin Dunn to pick up Jackson, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2001 WNBA draft. Bryant ordered the driver to play a Savage Garden CD — it was the only Australian music she knew — as soon as Jackson got into the car. She laughs now because Jackson’s musical tastes are much edgier than Savage Garden.
Then Bryant realizes again that she won’t get to see Jackson, who is rehabbing in Australia, before she leaves.
“She’s meant so much,” Bryant reiterates, “and I know she wishes she could be here to do more.”
No matter what women accomplish in this game, they wish to do more. The challenge is so vast.
Bryant takes a long pause.
Finally, she says, “I should call and tell her that before I leave, shouldn’t I?”
Former Sonics president Wally Walker could never beat Bryant to work. He remembers coming to the office early every morning, and Bryant already being there.
Walker worked with Bryant for five years, until the Clay Bennett ownership group took over the Sonics and removed him from the front office. During his tenure, Walker promoted Bryant from Storm chief operating officer to the dual role of Storm COO and Sonics senior vice president of communications.
“I can’t use enough superlatives for Karen,” Walker said. “From Day 1, her voice was respected. Her work ethic was fantastic. Her judgment was sound. She would never hide her emotions, but she always had a plan, and she stuck with her plan. Her discipline was always solid.”
During her time in the WNBA, Bryant has worked for four owners: the Ackerley Group, Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett and now Force 10 Hoops, the trio of local businesswomen — Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau. Through the different leadership styles, she has thrived, accepting new challenges and remaining focused on what mattered most to her — the growth of her sport.
“She’s the flag bearer for the cause in Seattle,” Storm coach Brian Agler said. “She’s been the constant. The reason she’s so respected in the community is because of how she’s presented the product to the Northwest. She’s proven to be the best in the business with work ethic and all that she’s accomplished.”
Walker respects Bryant the most for how she handled their most trying time together. Eight years ago, Schultz sold the Sonics to Clay Bennett and his group of Oklahoma businessmen. It led to the 2008 departure of Seattle’s NBA team after 41 years in Seattle. Though Force 10 would buy the Storm from Bennett and save women’s basketball, that period remains one of the ugliest in the city’s pro sports history.
As a senior vice president of communications, Bryant was in the middle of it all. There were weeks of meetings about how to present the news to the media and how to handle the backlash. It was a contentious time, with competing interests to manage and disappointment throughout the organization. Walker recalls Bryant being a good friend throughout the process.
“She was always a positive light,” Walker said. “I talked to her a lot during those months. She was a really good sounding board. No, actually, she was a really good adviser.”
But the news was just as difficult for Bryant. She was torn, wondering what the move would mean for the Storm. On the day the sale was announced, she had to lead the Schultz/Bennett news conference while the Storm played a game at KeyArena. It meant that her team heard the news secondhand.
“The news broke, and there was confusion, and everybody wanted to know what was going on, and I wanted to be there, with the Storm,” Bryant said. “Instead, I’m taking questions from the media on the sale of the SuperSonics. It was a surreal day and a tough day for me.”
But just as she did after the ABL folded, Bryant stayed true to the mission. She fought so that the Storm wouldn’t get the shaft during the transition. She made sure a good product remained intact. And eventually, a local ownership group saved the team — and promoted Bryant from COO to CEO.
“You’d be hard-pressed to pick anybody — for all the great teams, great athletes, great executives that we’ve had in this city — who has done more for a sport,” Walker said. “And she’s done it from all angles, basketball operations, the business side, the urging of a passionate fan base bordering on cult status.
“I can’t picture a Seattle professional women’s basketball team without Karen Bryant. I don’t know if anyone can given the impact and influence she’s had.”
For nearly all of Bryant’s 46 years, her family has united in support of her basketball jones. When she was a young phenom with a game that even older boys envied, the Bryants were there. When she became a star who helped Woodway High School (now Edmonds-Woodway) win a state championship, they were there.
They were there to volunteer for the Reign. They passed out T-shirts. Trisha Bryant, Karen’s little sister, made a mixed tape for the team’s first event. Michael Bryant Jr., Karen’s brother, led the family in shaking an aluminum sheet to mimic the sound of thunder during introductions.
On a hot July day, the entire family gathers for Sunday dinner. The group is even bigger now, with spouses and children. But they are still united by basketball.
The family isn’t surprised Karen is leaving the Storm. Her father, Michael Bryant Sr., has listened to his daughter hint at moving on for a few years. It’s going to be strange without having Karen’s games to attend.
“It was a huge part of our family,” Michael Jr. said. “It was cool to be there for the pinnacle of her career.”
What would Karen Bryant be without basketball? She’s never had to ask that question until now. Gratitude dominates her final days.
“It sounds kind of silly to say it, but I owe a lot to the game of basketball,” she says, crying. “I’m the product of two of the greatest parents you could ever have, but in some ways, the game has raised me, too. My relationship with the game will always be strong. I will always see the greater platform that shaped me.”
Bryant cries the most when she tries to explain why she’s leaving to her 6-year-old daughter, Lindsay. She’s not tired of basketball. She just wants to live differently. She doesn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and run to the computer. She wants more time with Lindsay and her partner, Merrily Wyman. Quality time, with less stress.
“Mommy, I’m gonna miss the Storm,” Lindsay says.
Bryant cries again.
“We’ll still go to the games,” she assures her child. “And when we do, Mommy won’t have to work.”
As the sun sets after dinner, the Bryants sit in the backyard and reminisce. It’s the original group that lived together in Edmonds: Michael Sr. and his wife, Catherine; Karen, Michael Jr. and Trisha. They enjoy the company in silence for a few minutes.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Karen finally says. “What are we going to do next, guys?”
“I’m going to spend the next 25 years living off the memories,” the father says.
Karen Bryant, the eternal first executive of Seattle women’s professional basketball, looks at her dad and nods.
|Karen Bryant’s life in basketball|
|Bryant, 46, grew up in Edmonds and played for the Huskies, then went on to a coaching and front-office career in basketball.|
|1982-86||Standout guard at Woodway High School. Won state title in 1984|
|1986-91||Played college basketball at three stops: Green River Community College (1986-88), Seattle University (1988-90) and Washington (1990-91)|
|1993-96||Head girls basketball coach at Woodinville High School|
|1996-98||Chief operating officer of the Seattle Reign of the American Basketball League|
|1999-2014||Started as chief operating officer of the Seattle Storm, later added title of Sonics senior vice president of communications; promoted to Storm chief executive officer in 2008|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277