One would hardly have known something was amiss with Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes from watching portions of the team’s first preseason workout Sunday in the bowels of Seattle Pacific University’s gymnasium.
Hughes was energetic, engaged, and upbeat as the Storm – minus several key players still finishing their season overseas, and conspicuously missing injured superstar Breanna Stewart – ran through its paces. Afterward, Hughes worked out on a stationary bicycle.
The 64-year-old coach, fresh off leading the Storm to the franchise’s third WNBA title, actually is going through the challenge of a lifetime. But he is facing his upcoming cancer surgery with grace and an upbeat attitude, buoyed by the support he has received since he went public with his diagnosis April 19.
“When you feel like you’re being taken well care of, and you feel like people love you, it’s amazing how powerful that is,’’ Hughes said after the practice. “I’m a person who does believe in the power of prayer, and I swear, I’ve got every section of the country, maybe the world, covered.”
Hughes revealed he will step away from the team Thursday, and undergo surgery at Swedish Medical Center next week. His return is indeterminate, dictated by his recovery and the recommendation of the doctors. In the meantime, assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg will take over his duties, with the Storm’s season opener looming May 25.
“I’d like to be able to tell the team, I’m going to be back on this date and I’m going to be doing this,’’ Hughes said. “That’s not my world … I’ll listen to my body, and I’ll be back as soon as I can. I just don’t know exactly when it’s going to be.”
For Hughes, the offseason began with him basking in the glow of his first title in 17 years of WNBA coaching. But in March, while attending the women’s NCAA tournament at Stanford, he began to feel poorly.
“I told my wife, we’re going to have to get this checked out,’’ he said.
When Hughes returned home, he went to the emergency room in Florida, where he was treated for a ruptured appendix. But during the appendectomy, doctors discovered a carcinoid tumor in his appendix. It was a diagnosis that upended his world.
Storm team physician Adam Pourcho “built a team of doctors to care for me,’’ Hughes said. “He’s mobilized Swedish. It’s such a blessing to have that type of medical care.”
Hughes describes himself as akin to an athlete being prepared for competition, only it is his doctors, surgeons and rehabilitation specialists who are getting him ready for surgery and its aftermath. On his agenda after practice Sunday was an hour with the Storm’s strength coach.
Hughes says he feels good, all things considered, though it has been an ordeal at times.
“I’m not going to lie to you, there’s pockets, especially when they’re doing scans and searching your body, where you learn a lot about your ability to get in the moment,’’ he said. “You go through a real searching thing when you spend eight to 10 hours in a tube, with people going through your body.
“You end up realizing – and this was told to me by another coach – there’s two buckets of things. There’s life and death things, and there’s everything else. And everything else really seems manageable to me.”
That includes the devastating loss of Stewart to an Achilles injury, which he called “not a loss just for Seattle; that’s a loss for basketball in general across the world.” Hughes said. “I know she has the toughness, the mentality to come out the other side and be back and probably be even better down the road.”
Much the same applies to Hughes, one hopes. He has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from all stages of his life. That includes former players, coaches such as Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, and even rock musicians. Through it all, his wife, Mary, has been “amazing, the rock,’’ he said.
Storm veteran Sue Bird said the players are deeply concerned for the second-year Seattle coach.
“Everyone, unfortunately, has had to deal with friends, family, whatever the case may be, having to go through cancer,’’ she said. “Dan is the nicest guy, such a sweet man. To see him go through something like that is sad.
“Of course, as our leader and our coach, it’s kind of the way you view your parents. Not even from an age standpoint, but this is someone you look up to in a way. To have that happen, it obviously sucks. Cancer sucks.”
Hughes said the scans went well, and the medical staff has an excellent plan in place for him.
Hughes, in turn, has worked with his coaching staff to formulate a plan for moving forward to make his absence as seamless as possible.
“They’ve done a great job of laying out what the plan is, and the fact of why we’re doing it, and the fact that I can come out the other side and have a long life,’’ Hughes said of his medical team, led by surgeon Dr. Amir Bastawrous.
“I’m excited to get to the next stage. I’m a doer,’’ he said. “But I’m just very glad I get a chance to be with the team a little bit before I step away, and they take care of the business they need to take care of.”
Bird said Hughes’ open communication with the team has been important. And as her coach, she has been hit with a heavy dose of perspective.
“Obviously, we’re here to support him,’’ she said. “More than anything, it makes you realize, basketball is just a sport. Like, who cares? We just want him to be happy, and more than anything, healthy.”