Just a few weeks before the start of the season, Storm players received a call from coach Dan Hughes.
It wasn’t a preseason pep talk or belated congratulatory remarks for winning the WNBA championship six months ago.
Instead, he told each player he had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I was devastated,” Storm center Mercedes Russell said. “Cancer has taken so many lives; it’s affected a lot, thousands, millions of people. So things like that are very unfortunate. I felt for him.”
While undergoing an emergency appendicitis surgery in early April, doctors found a cancerous carcinoid tumor in Hughes’ colon. The diagnosis came as a shock to the 64-year-old.
“I can’t name one member of my family that has cancer,” Hughes said. “But in an odd story way, and after talking to several people that have dealt with cancer, the fact that they found it when doing something else, I was really fortunate that the appendicitis led to that discovery. They were able to get it at a stage that the spread of the disease wasn’t as bad.”
In May, Hughes had surgery to remove the tumor, which included a sample of 24 lymph nodes from his colon. After that came a five-week hiatus from his coaching responsibilities.
Hughes, who has been back to his regular coaching duties for three weeks, has a newfound appreciation for his health and for hoops. But most important, his time away has given him perspective.
“It’s like an athlete being back from being hurt; you’ve rehabbed, you’ve done all those things, and now you’re just thinking about functioning within the team,” Hughes said. “There’s life, and then there’s the game of basketball. You’re pretty fortunate when you go through journeys of health and you can come back and do what you do. That has never quite (been) lost on me no matter how high or low I get.”
During his absence, Hughes learned how to be a coach while not being on the court.
Unable to be at the team’s training camp and practices, Hughes was forced to rely on his relationships with the players and his trust in his coaching staff to continue the Storm’s momentum as the season began without him.
To make matters worse, the team was hit more bad news that Sue Bird would be out indefinitely due to a knee injury — adding to the loss the team already felt by having 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart sit out the season after tearing her Achilles in the offseason.
“It just seemed like it was one thing after another, but it was all things we couldn’t control, so we just had to play with what we were dealt and go with the flow,” Russell said.
Eight days after his surgery, doctors told Hughes he could return to practice and attend coaches meetings so long as he remained well-rested. But he still wouldn’t be able to travel with the team.
“It energized the heck out of me when the doctor said that,” he said.
As Hughes worked to regain strength, the Storm went 5-4 to open the season, but it went 3-4 on the road without its coach.
“A lot of those times, you feel really out of place when they’re on the road and you’re here,” Hughes said.
The time away pushed Hughes to learn how to best be an active coach without being disruptive or getting in the way of other coaches, including assistant Gary Kloppenburg who acted as interim coach in his absence.
“It was challenging,” Hughes said. “It hit me, like I had to make this work from this situation that I’m in.
“How can I continue relationships with players, coaches, strategy and be effective?” he wondered. “Some cases you want to allow people you trust to do their job, but could I help them?”
The second-year Storm coach focused on keeping things positive within the team in order to keep players focused on the season ahead.
“When you go through a couple surgeries in a period and then you go through facing cancer, you try to be able to stay on the positive side,” he said. “If I’m coaching in a way where they see that I still see what we’re doing in a positive light, then I think that message is told.”
The Storm celebrated Hughes’ first full game back with a home win against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 21. While he often felt fatigued in the first weeks of being back, Hughes said he’s feeling more back to normal now.
“He didn’t skip a beat, it seems like,” Russell said. “Which is what you want, really. He’s back to his normal self, which is awesome. It’s nice to see him back on the court, and I know we missed him those few weeks he was gone.”
Now that he’s back on the court, Hughes feels like he’s back where he belongs.
“You feel very blessed that your health is in the right spot, even before basketball,” he said. “I feel like I’m where I should be now that I’m back. Whether we win or lose, I feel like this is where I want to be and I want to do what I can.”