Alysha Clark tells a story that gives a little insight into Gary Kloppenburg, the man tasked with guiding the Storm this season.
“The thing that I really respect is he’s not afraid to take chances, and he’s not afraid to be the aggressor, and that’s helped me grow,” said Clark, a nine-year WNBA veteran who posted career highs in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals last season. “Before I was very calculated and didn’t want to take too many risks, and he pushed me out of that zone.”
Away from basketball, Kloppenburg is arguably the nicest man in the league, with an affable personality and self-deprecating approach.
But on the court, the 67-year-old hoops junkie dubbed “Klop” or “Kloppy” is a defensive whiz who is all about pressure and putting his players and opponents in uncomfortable situations.
“He pushes us out of our comfort zone and wants us to be extra aggressive,” Clark said. “Sometimes we want to mess things up. That’s the fun part about playing for him and having him at the head-coach position right now.”
For the bulk of his coaching career, which spans four decades, Kloppenburg has been an assistant in the NBA and WNBA.
But for the third time in the past four years, he’s taking control of the Storm. However, this time he isn’t an interim coach.
Kloppenburg will start and finish the season in charge because Dan Hughes, who guided the Storm to a WNBA title in 2018, opted to sit out this year due to medical concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. The league’s teams are preparing for the regular season — which begins Saturday — in a bubble environment at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“It was disappointing to me and to all of us the way that happened,” Kloppenburg said. “Coach Dan was really so much fun to work with. It was difficult going through that, but you have to move on.
“We’re not in a normal situation. None of us are. You just adjust and move on. I’m excited for the opportunity to be able to have such a great group of players. The best way to coach these guys is don’t mess them up.”
The previous time Kloppenburg was a head coach (without the interim tag), he guided the Tulsa Shock to a 20-48 record from 2012-13.
In 2017, Kloppenberg took over the Storm after Jenny Boucek was fired and guided Seattle to a 5-3 record.
And last season, Hughes missed the first nine games after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his digestive tract. The Storm went 5-4 under Kloppenburg, who has a 30-55 career coaching record.
“I feel bad that (Hughes) is not down here, because I know how much he would have enjoyed this challenge,” Kloppenburg said. “We’ve been able to film some practices and have some clips ready for him.
“We’ll definitely weigh in with him and get his opinion on what he’s seeing. That’s a lot of wins and wisdom that I’d be remiss not to use. … I’m definitely going to use him. He might be bored up in his bubble up there.”
The starting lineup — guards Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd with forwards Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard and Clark — has been decided, but Kloppenburg’s first priority is establishing a rotation and doling out minutes among a veteran-laden team that includes four WNBA All-Stars.
And the overarching concern is whether Kloppenburg can forge a winning identity between a defensive-minded team that led the league in points allowed last year with the high-octane offensive philosophy that ranked second in the WNBA in scoring in 2018.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Kloppenburg said, laughing. “I think we can do both. We’re sure going to try.”
In many ways, he’s been having this internal debate about the importance of offense and defense for years.
Kloppenburg learned everything he knows about basketball from his father Bob, a reputed defensive whiz and longtime NBA assistant who spent 11 seasons (1985-96) with the Sonics.
Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, an offensive innovator, also has been a big influence.
“I’m trying to balance it out,” Kloppenburg said. “I’m trying to, as a coach, make sure we’re good on both sides of the ball.”
In many ways, Kloppenburg has been handed a potentially winning lottery ticket with a loaded Storm squad that’s considered the favorite to win the franchise’s fourth championship.
And he knows this may also be his last chance to command a team.
“At this point of my career, I was honestly very happy just coaching and being an assistant coach with Coach Dan,” Kloppenburg said. “It was a lot of fun, and he let’s you coach and do your thing.
“Honestly, I’m not as ambitious as I was early in my career, but obviously if something came up you’d take a look at it. I’m going to enjoy coaching this team. I’m not as driven to be a head coach anymore.”
And that’s fine for the Storm.
“We know he has the experience to coach anywhere in this league, but I’m glad he’s here,” Stewart said. “He’s really great with defense, but honestly the best part about Coach Klop is he doesn’t have an ego.
“He listens to us, puts us in good situations, and he lets us play our game. That’s all you can ask as a player.”