Gary Kloppenburg isn’t going to be remembered as the greatest coach in Storm history.
That distinction probably will be given to Anne Donovan, a pioneer among women’s basketball coaches who led the team to its first WNBA title in 2004, or Brian Agler, who won the most games (136) in franchise history and guided Seattle to a league championship in 2010.
And Dan Hughes, who won a WNBA title with Seattle in 2018, might be worth consideration depending how he ends his tenure with the team.
But when the story of the Storm is ultimately written, a chapter needs to be reserved for Kloppenburg, who proved to be the right choice and much more than a placeholder after Hughes chose to skip this season due to medical reasons.
During a shortened regular season fraught with challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning, Kloppenburg pushed all the right buttons to guide Seattle to the No. 2 seed and a spot in the WNBA Finals, which begins Friday at 4 p.m. PT against No. 1 Las Vegas.
“Coming here and knowing that Dan wasn’t going to be here, Klop stepped up big in the head-coaching role,” forward Breanna Stewart said Wednesday during a teleconference. “He’s a coach that really will learn and listen to what players have to say.”
Several Storm players expressed appreciation in Kloppenburg’s desire to champion causes bigger than himself.
In a women’s basketball league where eight of the 12 teams are coached by men, he’s pushed for more women coaches and advocated on behalf of Storm assistant Noelle Quinn.
Kloppenburg also has voiced support for players who have spearheaded the WNBA’s agenda of social justice reform.
“During these times, the best way I can lead is to listen, learn, follow their example and be an ally,” Kloppenburg said weeks ago when players engaged in two-day work stoppage as the league reacted to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. “I couldn’t be prouder of how these players have educated themselves and used this season to try to enact real change in this world.”
Kloppenburg, who had been a Storm assistant since 2017 and twice an interim coach (2017 and 2019), won over the team with his sincere and genuine self-effacing personality and an open-door policy that empowered players into decision-making roles.
The 67-year-old defensive guru enlisted veterans Sue Bird and Alysha Clark as confidants to dispense a defensive-first mantra that’s filtered through the team.
“He’s been super open from the jump about what we’re here to do and how he’s going to help facilitate and push us to get to that next level,” Clark said. “He’s been super open to communication with all of us. There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that if we see something, we can just go talk to him about it and work together and hash things out.
“That’s been a huge plus with the flow of this season. He really trusts us and has shown that through how he communicates and interacts with us. He’s a defensive guy, and for us this season, we’ve been relying on our defense even though we have all of our offensive threats back. We’ve allowed our defense to fuel us and he gives us a lot of confidence in that area.”
Kloppenburg’s defensive acumen was on display during the WNBA semifinals while matching wits with Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer with four WNBA titles.
Heading into Game 3 down 0-2 and needing a victory to continue the best-of-five series, Reeve didn’t anticipate Kloppenburg abandoning his trademark trapping defense for a scheme in which Seattle switched every screen and scrambled to take away open shooters.
“We knew there was a really strong chance they would no longer trap and they would be in more switches,” Reeve said. “That’s what they went to. It took us a little bit, it took our guards a little bit to figure out to be aggressive.
“We were in a timeout and I said: ‘Guys, what a testament to how good you guys are that they no longer believe in what they were doing and what they’ve done for years. And now they’re switching and that’s a helluva lot easier to play against. It just took us awhile to gain that confidence and gain that aggression.”
By the time the Lynx adjusted, it was too late.
Seattle, which had allowed 27 three-pointers in the first two games, held Minnesota to 7-for-22 shooting behind the arc for a 92-71 victory and three-game sweep Sunday.
“We should have gotten there sooner so it’s not a stroke of genius,” Kloppenburg said laughing. “We got our heads beat down a few more times than we needed to. We have the ability within our defensive system and offensive system to make adjustments. To be able to go several different ways depending on where we’re getting hurt.
“That was really it more than anything. Trying to find ways to minimize their strengths. That’s what you’re trying to do. That’s what we’re going to be trying to do Friday night … to try to take away their strength.”
The Kloppenburg vs. Bill Laimbeer storyline isn’t nearly as captivating as the MVP matchup between Seattle’s Stewart, who won the award in 2018, and Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, the 2020 winner.
If the Storm wins its fourth championship, the credit most likely will be given to Stewart and Bird, who many consider a de facto head coach due to her 19 years of experience.
But if Seattle falls for the first time in the WNBA Finals, then detractors likely will look to Kloppenburg’s management against Laimbeer, who has three WNBA titles in four appearances.
However, Kloppenburg doesn’t seem to care that his 3-0 career playoffs record pales in comparison to Laimbeer, who is 35-25 in the postseason and 10-6 in the WNBA Finals.
“We got a chance to become the best team in the world this year,” he said. “I think our players understand the historical moment that they’re in with the situation in the world. They really want to come out and be ready and bring a championship back to Seattle. Also be great representatives for the progress of the league and for humanity.”