Mary Hughes noticed something different – something she’d always hoped to see – about her husband Dan, who came out of retirement to coach the Storm this season.
They promised each other that if they were going to do this again, and return to the WNBA, then this time it had to be different.
“I think he’s been able to enjoy this ride a little bit more than in the past,” said Mary, who celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary in May. “He’s tried to stop and take it in. … I don’t think he’s every worked as hard in his preparation because before he had so many jobs that it was hard for him to focus on just the team. He’s enjoying this. I can tell. He’s having fun with this experience.”
And what’s not to enjoy?
In his first year, Hughes led the Storm to a league-best 26-8 record, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and a WNBA Finals matchup against the No. 4 Washington Mystics in a best-of-five series that begins 6 p.m. Friday at KeyArena.
A year ago, the 63-year-old Hughes was out of basketball. Now he’s on the verge of winning his first league championship.
“I’m a faith guy,” Hughes said Tuesday night following a series-clinching 94-84 win in Game 5 of the semifinal against Phoenix. “I think that God opened this opportunity for me. This wasn’t something I sought out, I think that I am supposed to be here.
“I want to recognize His presence in my life. I have been through all the stages of teams. Mostly I have been a builder in my career, but coming here and having a feeling that they were on the verge of being the team that we are becoming — that was really a shot in the arm for a veteran coach.”
Following an 11-year stint in San Antonio (2005-16), three years in Cleveland (2000-03) and a season with Charlotte (1999), Hughes broke with old habits and embraced new coaching techniques.
More than ever, he’s a big fan of advanced metrics. Hughes built defensive juggernauts in Cleveland, but he’s enamored with his Storm team that set a WNBA record this season with three-pointers.
And Hughes is more comfortable than ever delegating duties to players, especially 17-year veteran Sue Bird who will sometimes lead conversations in the locker room and in the huddle during timeouts in the game.
“I was reading an article the other day by (Golden State Warriors coach) Steve Kerr who said coaching is guiding your team, that’s his approach,” Hughes said. “And mine is a lot like that. In guiding your team you take on different role.
“There’s a trust that has to be there. And you can’t do that with every team. But we have a veteran team. They know how to get themselves ready. … What they need from me is reminders on how we are and what we want to do.”
Hughes inherited a team that went 15-19 last year and 16-18 in 2016 under Jenny Boucek.
“He has so much trust in us,” guard Jewell Loyd said. “When you have a coach who supports and has total confidence in you helps you tremendously. He’s so open to have us coach ourselves in a sense. He’s brought a defensive mindset to our team. He’s been around the game a long time and he understands what we need and what it takes and how to coach.”
Hughes’ biggest coaching maneuver came in Game 5 on Tuesday when he benched an ineffective Loyd and turned to backup guard Sami Whitcomb, who scored 11 points. At the time the Storm trailed 55-47 midway in the third quarter and its playoffs were teetering.
“The best thing about that was Sami rose to the moment and Jewell was totally supportive of her,” Hughes said. “As a coach, that’s what you want to see. That tells me, we have a special team.”
Hughes makes his second trip to the WNBA Finals. In 2008, his San Antonio Stars were swept 3-0 by the now-defunct Detroit Shock.
That San Antonio team was led by Becky Hammon, one of the WNBA’s all-time great point guards.
“There’s some similarities in that we have great leadership when you look at Becky and Sue,” Hughes said. “But this team has many more ways to impact the game. … Then there’s Stewie who gives you confidence to win every game.”
Hughes is the fourth coach to lead two different teams to the WNBA Finals joining Anne Donovan, Brian Agler and Mike Thibault, who leads the Mystics.
Thibault, 66, lost the 2004 WNBA Finals 2-1 to the Storm after going ahead 1-0 in the best-of-three series.
“Everybody in this league who has been around long enough appreciates the trips (to the finals),” Thibault said. “As Sue was saying the other day she wasn’t sure she was coming back. You don’t know.
“This is hard to do. The league is really good from top to bottom. … You don’t ever know if you’re going to get back.”
Combined Hughes and Thibault have coached 33 years, but they’ve never met in the playoffs.
Thibault hold the WNBA record for career wins with 310 while Hughes has coached more games (558) than anyone. Both coaches are seeking their first WNBA title to highlight their resumes.
Hughes admits, his career would feel incomplete without a championship.
“Incomplete, yes,” he said. “But would my career still be meaningful without a title, yeah. My career has as much to do about relationships as it does anything.
“But incomplete, yeah. We all want that. I don’t mind saying I want that as part of what my teams did.”
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