The 62-year-old Dan Hughes on the Storm: 'It wasn't something I set out to do, but it was something that undeniably was the next thing I wanted to do with basketball.'
Dan Hughes couldn’t stay away.
He left basketball and a distinguished 16-year WNBA career in 2016. He had served as coach and general manager of the San Antonio Stars but walked away, saying he was ready for new challenges after more than a decade with the team.
Hughes tried his hand as a TV analyst and worked basketball clinics from Canada to Mexico in 2017 in what was “a year of giving back to basketball.”
But retirement didn’t sit well with the 62-year-old self-described “basketball lifer.”
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So when the Storm offered him a chance to get back in the game, Hughes consulted with his wife Mary — they celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next spring — and their two kids before agreeing to become the franchise’s sixth coach.
“We all just amazingly saw a fit,” Hughes said. “It wasn’t something I set out to do, but it was something that undeniably was the next thing I wanted to do with basketball.”
Hughes, who was twice named WNBA Coach of the Year (2001 and 2007), has coached more WNBA games (524) than anyone in league history and ranks third in all-time wins after stints with Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio. His teams have made 10 postseason appearances and one trip to the WNBA Finals, in 2008 when San Antonio lost to Detroit.
But Hughes, who has a career record of 237-287 (.453), isn’t worried about tarnishing a legacy as one of the league’s most accomplished and perhaps underappreciated coaches.
Instead, he’s focused on sending 36-year-old Sue Bird into retirement — whenever she’s ready — with another WNBA title. He likens the 10-time WNBA All-Star and the league’s all-time assists leader to former WNBA great Becky Hammon, who played her final eight seasons under Hughes in San Antonio before retiring in 2014.
“To have a chance to coach Sue Bird is inspiring to me,” Hughes said. “It makes me want to do all that I can to have her walk out as a champion and walk out as the best.”
One of the factors that attracted Hughes to Seattle was the team’s offense, which averaged 82.6 points and ranked fifth in the 12-team league.
However, he’s not enamored with the Storm’s defense that remarkably also surrendered 82.6 points per game and ranked eighth in points allowed. Hughes plans to implement a pressure defense that places a high priority on forcing turnovers.
“I’m not going to tell you it’s my system that wins,” he said. “I’m going to tell you it’s my job to get these good players in the right spot.”
Hughes, who has spent the past few days reviewing the 2017 season, said his first priority is developing a trust with players before turning his attention to free agency and the draft.
“It’s important to me that we begin that culture, that player-coach relationship right out of the gate,” he said. “I think that I have to do a lot of work. I’ve got to understand.”
It’s a lot to comprehend.
For starters, he’ll have to figure out how did a team with two-time All-Star Breanna Stewart (the WNBA’s second leading scorer at 19.9 points), Jewell Loyd (a promising third-year guard who averaged 17.7 points) and Bird finish eighth in the standings at 15-19 and lose for a second consecutive year in the first round of the playoffs.
Hughes said he’s open to retaining coaches from the previous staff, which included interim coach Gary Kloppenburg, who was 5-3 not including a postseason loss after taking over, and assistant Ryan Webb.
“There’s some good people in (Seattle) right now,” Hughes said. “There’s some pieces there that can help us get to where we’re going faster so I’m going to start there.”
Hughes also told a story about his 20-year friendship with vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw of the legendary rock band Styx and how their latest album “The Mission” inspired him to get back into coaching.
“It just motivated the heck out of me,” Hughes said. “I actually wrote him a letter and said I’m so inspired that you take a chance. You could sit back and play the hits all you want. But you took a chance and you bowed your neck and you did something good. And in an odd sort of way, I started thinking about my life.
“What would I do if I had a chance? I’d rather take the chance. Especially when I had the backing of my family and I had people I wanted to work with. I’d rather take the chance. I’d rather see if I can empower some people to do some great things.”
Dan Hughes coaching record
Year Team Record Finish
2016 San Antonio 7-27 DNQ
2015 San Antonio 8-26 DNQ
2014 San Antonio 16-18 Lost in Western Conference Semifinals
2013 San Antonio 12-22 DNQ
2012 San Antonio 21-13 Lost in Western Conference Semifinals
2011 San Antonio 18-16 Lost in Western Conference Semifinals
2009 San Antonio 15-19 Lost in Western Conference Semifinals
2008 San Antonio 24-10 Lost in WNBA Finals
2007 San Antonio 20-14 Lost in Western Conference Finals
2006 San Antonio 13-21 DNQ
2005 San Antonio 7-27 DNQ
2003 Cleveland 17-17 Lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
2002 Cleveland 10-22 DNQ
2001 Cleveland 22-10 Lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
2000 Cleveland 17-15 Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
1999 Charlotte 10-10* Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
*Named head coach midway through the season.
Here’s a Q&A with new Storm coach Dan Hughes.
(What was it about this job that got you back into the game?) “Wow. I spent the last year doing different things. I’m a basketball lifer. Everybody that knows me knows that. I was doing a lot of different things in basketball. I did broadcasting. I did clinics in Canada. I did clinics in Mexico. I spoke to coaching groups all across the country wherever I was asked. Kind of having a year of giving back to basketball. Not really doing it for any other reason than I wanted to. I didn’t do it for money. I didn’t even ask for money on a lot of things. But I was just doing things I wanted to do. And then, this opportunity came about and I started looking at it with my wife and ultimately my two kids. And we all just amazingly saw a fit. It wasn’t something I set out to do, but it was something that undeniably was the next thing I wanted to do with basketball. Once I talked to them (my family) and evaluated the situation of where I was. It’s just kind of funny how life takes you to a moment that everybody agrees within my family that this was something that was a fit.”
(How long have you been married?) “Forty years.”
(What was the conversation like with your wife?) “Well, that’s the one really sold me was my wife. When I looked into her eyes it was a look back like I want you to do this. And when I went to my kids. I have a son who is playing at the Air Force Academy. He’s a freshman there. And my daughter just had a little girl – she has four kids. And I got the same look. It was what I was feeling inside of me. But I’m at a point in life – my wife and I are going to celebrate our 40th anniversary this spring. And to be honest with you we’re still trying to celebrate the 25th one because I had a game with LA and I couldn’t do it. But it was the way the looked back at me. It’s a time and moment where everybody kind of agreed, this is what we should do.”
(What’s your wife’s name?) “Mary.”
(As you take a look at the Storm, what type of team are you taking over?) “I’m taking over a team that I think is along the way a little bit. This is not a team that’s in the beginning stages of rebuilding to a championship. It is not to the championship form, but it’s along the way. Specifically, I’m looking at a team that has a bit of chemistry that I identify with. They seem offensively to enjoy playing with each other. There was a natural progression. I’m about halfway through the season. I started studying. Every day I’m watching a game or two and I’m about halfway through the season. And I did watch several of their games along the season just as a fan. There’s an offensive chemistry that is apparent as look at this team. I think there is work to be done defensively. I think there’s work to be done in some time and score situations. They got to become a team that learns how to win the competitive games that the WNBA has. But I also identity with the personnel. It was a situation as I look at these players and I wanted to coach these players that I saw. They were players that got my coach’s juices going.”
(Have you run in the same circles as Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and the other players?) “A little bit. Sue and I have played against each other so much. Also, I was with USA Basketball for eight years helping that out. So she and I have. It reminds me of, it’s the same relationship I had with Becky Hammon. I spent a lot of time coaching against Becky Hammon before I coached Becky Hammon. It reminds me of that. I don’t know any coach in existence that wouldn’t cherish an opportunity to coach a team with Sue Bird on it. And that shouldn’t be lost in me. To have a chance to coach Sue Bird is inspiring to me. It makes me want to do all that I can to have her walk out as a champion and walk out as the best. She’s somebody that I have the utmost respect coaching against her. So to have an opportunity to be on the same side, that’s very thrilling.”
(For fans who don’t remember or don’t know, how would you describe your coaching style and what type of identity would you like your teams to have?) “My coaching style has a lot to do with the personnel in my career going from Charlotte, to Cleveland to San Antonio. My teams in Cleveland – I had a four-year run there – they probably were some of the best defensive teams that the WNBA has seen. We were a limited offensive team, but we were very good. We were efficient offensively and we were very, very good defensively. And we played that way. That is not how you would describe my San Antonio teams. My style is to look at the team and to try and put and empower the pieces that I have to be in the right spots. I’m more about saying where’s our strengths with this group and let me play to those strengths. I believe in a chemistry that allows teamwork at both ends of the court. And quite honestly, that was one of the pieces that attracted me. I like the ability to play basketball in an intelligent way and the ball moves and it finds its likely home because you got players that have talent and they kind of know how to play with each other. Defensively, I like a team concept. I like being able to create situations where we have different layers that we defend the basket. I do like playing out on the defense wherever I’ve been. I tend to like an aggressive situation that does cause some turnovers. I believe in players. I try to put players in the right spot. I’m not going to tell you it’s my system that wins. I’m going to tell you it’s my job to get these good players in the right spot and I believe in players.”
(What’s the first or second priorities?) “I need to make sure that there is a trust built with the players. That they know that their coach wants to empower them to be the best they can be and the best they can be together as a team. So it’s important to me that we begin that culture, that player-coach relationship right out of the gate. I think that I have to do a lot of work. I’ve got to understand. Right now I’m going through it and I’m on game 16. I’m going through every day and trying to feel what they felt this season and understand a little bit of this team by this past season so I can talk to them in an intelligent way about where we’re at and where we’re going to go – and also relative to them. I want to develop a trust with the pieces that are here. And then I’ll go about taking that culture into the Storm organization and taking the culture into the draft and into free agency. But the first thing I want to do is begin to build a trust with these players.”
(Do you have an idea of your staff at this point?) “I want to hit the ground running. And so there is some pieces within the staff right now that I like. I’ll be honest with you. I’m going to certainly be interested in – I don’t care how we get to where we’re going. And if we can get there a little faster because I look at some people in a way to be inclusive and empower them, then I’m going to look there first and then we’ll balance the staff out as I kind of get it all done. I think there’s some good people in (Seattle) right now. … There’s some pieces there that can help us get to where we’re going faster so I’m going to start there.”
(For somebody whose coached 524 games – I don’t think that’s an accident – but do you ever worry about your legacy? Now you’re coming back and you’re putting it all on the line again.) “Isn’t that great?”
(I don’t know.) “I think it’s great. I’m a person that – and I’m in my 60s – and people that do things in their 60s, I think bow their neck and take chances. That’s the life I want to live. I would rather try something and go forth and however it plays out, then looking back and say ‘I wish I had done that.’ One of the things I love about Seattle is they got a great music scene. I have some friends who are musicians. I have a friend, Tommy Shaw in Styx. They came out with an album that I think is the best they’ve ever done or certainly comparable to the best. And oddly enough when I was sitting down listening to them do that, it just motivated the heck out of me. I actually wrote him a letter and said I’m so inspired that you take a chance. You could sit back and play the hits all you want. But you took a chance and you bowed your neck and you did something good. And in an odd sort of way, I started thinking about my life. And what would I do if I had a chance. I’d rather take the chance. Especially when I had the backing of my family and I had people I wanted to work with. I’d rather take the chance. I’d rather see if I can empower some people to do some great things.”
(What’s the name of that album?) “It’s called The Mission. They’ve been great. I’ve gotten to know them over the last 20 years. I remember sitting and listening to it and just like you asked me, they don’t have to do that. They play all over the country and they could tour every day. But he took a chance to create something good and be a part of something good. And they did it as a team. And somehow in it’s own way, that resonated to me. I looked around my life and when this opportunity came, I’m like you know what this is something I want to do. I’d rather have a life about taking chances than one that played it safe.”