Column: Reeve’s Legend Grows As She Rights The Lynx’s Ship

As you’ve probably heard, Cheryl Reeve earned her 206th career win as a head coach on Thursday night and became the winningest female coach in league history, passing the late Anne Donovan. The significance of this accomplishment is obvious. Reeve is a legend, a role model, and one of the best coaches in professional sports—but I guess we already knew that.

The timing of Reeve’s accomplishment is both fitting and bittersweet—Donovan was a close friend and mentor of Reeve’s. Donovan gave Reeve her start in the league, and helped mold her into the coach she is today. Now, Reeve is passing both Donovan’s legacy and her own down to the next generation of female head coaches: Katie Smith, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and many others.

When all is said and done, Reeve will go down in history as a legendary coach—a member of a rarified few who have achieved unquestioned success at the sports highest level. But for now, let’s step back from legacy, take a break from history. In a narrower view, Reeve’s coaching prowess has been instrumental in turning the tide of this season after a rough start.

After this season is over and the Lynx have gone their separate ways for the summer, I’d love to sit down with Reeve and discuss the beginning of Minnesota’s 2018 campaign.

During the grind of the Lynx’s early-season struggles, it was hard to put a finger on exactly what was going on. The stars weren’t clicking, the attitude that had defined years of deep playoff runs was missing. There was always enough happening on the positive side to keep me convinced that the team was going to turn it around, and that optimism was shared by Minnesota’s players, but something definitely wasn’t right.

However, optimism did end up being the best policy. Aside from a head-scratching home loss to the Indiana Fever, the team has blossomed lately, turning a 3-6 record into 11-7 and reminding everyone watching that they’re looking at a team that has won four championships in seven years.

The Lynx’s return to form is a great credit to Minnesota’s players, but it’s also a great illustration of what a masterful job Reeve has done coaching this team not just this season, but ever since she joined the franchise.

A lot of it boils down to passion. Reeve has always worn her emotions on her sleeve, and made her feelings known when confronted with a challenge. She’s a passionate coach—the stories floating around the organization make that clear.

Reeve once threw off her jacket and had to be restrained by Jim Petersen as she protested a call during a crucial Game 2 in the 2012 finals, she ignited a bit of a firestorm after criticizing the officiating of the 2016 finals. In fact, Reeve was ejected from her record-setting win on Thursday. Reeve will stand up for her players to her last breath, but also holds everyone accountable and expects the best from those around her. In her first year with the Lynx, after an 89-51 loss to Indiana, Reeve called out her team in a highly public display of disappointment.

“We are a bad basketball team,” Reeve said. “It starts at the top. I have not been able to get them to understand defensively what we need to get done and, clearly, our offense is one of the worst in the league.”

Reeve deeply cares about her team, her players, the WNBA and the state of women’s basketball at large. Her attitude towards her life can probably be summed up with the title of a piece she wrote for the Player’s Tribune earlier this year.

No Excuses.”

So, you can imagine how Reeve was feeling when the Lynx only won three of their first nine games this year.

The Lynx’s transformation in the early stages of their 2018 campaign played out mostly behind closed doors. The team put up a united front—we know we’re fine, we just need to clean a few things up. There was no panic about the Lynx, but there was certainly frustration. Make no mistake—Reeve was not happy with how her team was performing.

Reeve knew the Lynx could do better. The team wasn’t locked in, they weren’t focused, and they were taking things for granted. After seven years of championship contention, there were things outside of basketball tugging at her players’ attention. This is an uncomfortable reality. There are certain privileges that come with success, and the Lynx were taking advantage. Who could blame them for being overconfident? But Reeve didn’t shy away from the situation or over-manage her players’ egos. She confronted the situation head-on. In the straightforward manner that’s become her hallmark, she candidly discussed the Lynx’s fractured focus. Instead of leaving everyone guessing, she shone a light on her team’s struggles.

“They’re all being pulled in so many different directions before they got here, that I don’t believe that we turned off all those things,” Reeve said. “It’s not Minnesota Lynx number one. It’s like one-A, and there’s a B and a C. That can’t happen. I think for this group it’s always been Minnesota Lynx one. And we didn’t share that number one spot with anything. I think that we have, maybe the price of some success, opportunities to do things outside of playing, and I think it’s kind of tugged at us. I think there was maybe an assumption that we would all come back here and it would just happen. It’s something I didn’t see coming.”

Just last Thursday she doubled down on her diagnosis.

“We were all running around doing other things and not focused on how to be a great team,” she said. “We kind of forgot I think how hard it is. They said it, they said that they knew, but I think it was lip service.”

For those who follow the Lynx closely, this type of comment might not seem out of character. But as a relative newcomer to the team (this is my first season covering the Lynx), I was blown away by it. Lip service? Telling the media that her championship team isn’t focused on winning? This would be a major story in many franchises, the kind that draws the doubters out of the woodwork and undermines the relationship between the coaching staff and the players.

But things are different here. Reeve didn’t say anything that hadn’t already been expressed to her players in person, and more importantly, her words weren’t an indication of doubt, but one of belief. She knew her players were capable of better, and she wanted to see that. Reeve’s undying commitment to the truth and her emphasis on accountability is an attitude that alters the paradigm of what coaches of professional sports teams are supposed to sound like, the image they’re supposed to present.

Far from driving the Lynx apart, Reeve’s comments brought the team together. Don’t get me wrong, this credit is shared with her players, it takes a special kind of star to maintain the ability to be self-reflective in the face of years of success, but Reeve’s incredible relationship with her core is the engine that makes this team go.

I don’t want to make it sound like Reeve spends all her time with the media calling out her players—she’s quick to jump to their defense as well. Early in the season, many were eager to assign blame to the Lynx having to integrate new members—especially backup guard Danielle Robinson who had issues with ball security as she learned the Lynx’s system, and often drew the ire of Reeve during games.

However, Reeve was adamant in her defense of Robinson throughout Minnesota’s slow start. The tune never changed—‘It’s not the backups,’ she would say, ‘It’s the veterans.’ Reeve is hard on Robinson, yes, but she’s hard on her because she knows she responds well to coaching on the court. That doesn’t mean she isn’t happy with Robinson’s development in the bigger picture, and when people suggested that Minnesota’s bench development was what was holding the Lynx back, she was quick to shoot that narrative down.

While Reeve’s candidness is both admirable and at times surprising, she doesn’t just establish accountability by calling out her players and demanding that they perform. She puts them in the position to do so by building a culture where participation in the Lynx’s success is predicated on hard work and preparation.

Even though her core group has played together for years, Reeve saw a need for better preparation this year. Reeve had been worried about managing her stars’ bodies—they saw more limited time in games and in practice, and the team was suffering because of it. They were out of rhythm and lineup combinations weren’t working. Reeve, who is always the first to admit her own mistakes, saw the problems that leaving her stars on the shelf was causing, and pivoted to a more intense schedule than she had adopted during much of her career. In Reeve’s words, they were ride or die with their core group.

“What I fell into was well we got to manage their bodies and blah blah blah and at the end of the day we had so much slippage because we couldn’t do very much,” she said. “The hell with that. If we’ve got to practice three hours that’s what we’re going to do and that’s what we’ve done.”

While Reeve is impressively open about her team when talking to the media, it’s certainly the case that most of the Lynx’s culture creation happens behind closed doors. Reeve puts in the time to earn her players’ trust and develop genuine human relationships with them—that’s something not all coaches do. It also takes time. Reeve pours all her energy into this team, and when you have that kind of commitment at the top, that attitude permeates throughout the entire organization.

Reeve won’t give herself credit, preferring to defer to her players, her assistant coaches, her organization, but at the end of the day her successes as a head coach and as a person are measurable in more than words. They are demonstrated through wins, championships, former players becoming coaches, and her unmistakable mark on the culture of the Lynx franchise.

Highlight Reel:

Rebekkah Brunson!! The Lynx’s unsung hero finally got a piece of the recognition she deserves. She etched her name in the record books on Thursday, becoming the WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder. Brunson is so crucial to what the Lynx are able to do on the court, and this record really means something to her. For her to be able to have the moment of celebrating her accomplishment in front of the Target Center crowd is really something special.

“I love anything, or getting any type of win or doing anything great in this building with these fans, because they support us no matter what, no matter what, they are always behind us,” said Brunson. “To give them a little something extra to cheer for, to hear and understand how excited they are to watch us on this journey.”

Theme of the Week:

Rebounding. In both the literal and figurative sense this week was about rebounding. After the most disappointing loss of the season on Tuesday, the Lynx came out with a vengeance and got probably their most cathartic win of the season on Thursday. In a literal sense, you know, Brunson.

It’s so key for a team with championship aspirations to be able to get back on their feet after taking one to the chin. The Lynx have been through so much that they’re really excellent at staying focused and composed through challenges, but it was also nice to see them get a little emotional last night. Minnesota really, really wanted to win on Thursday night. You could feel it in the air and see it on the court. That’s the kind of edge they need to play with all the time.

Quote Corner:

“I said to Kara Lawson that sometimes when a player, what is it 14 years now that Rebekkah has been playing, sometimes rebounding, you get tired of doing it because no one really appreciates it. Then you start doing something else and you lose your identity that you were so great at. Rebekkah Brunson has always understood what her value is and why she has five rings. She has always stayed true and she has improved in so many ways, but she has never left the thing that she is best at and that is her defense and rebounding and that’s why she’s successful.” –Cheryl Reeve on Rebekkah Brunson’s rebounding record

“We are finding a way to win when things are tough. We are trying to keep our foot on the gas at all times. We just try to make it hard for teams to score, that is always our mindset. I just feel like if we can get on the same page defensively and play together we will be good. It is a good thing when we are on the same page and we will continue to work on it this season with this group.” –Maya Moore on the Lynx’s winning streak.

“We definitely hit a growth spurt and you’re definitely seeing it as we play. I think we’re just all on the same page at this point and we’re making sure we’re talking to each other and making sure we’re staying in each other’s ears and making sure we’re being aware of what’s going on the floor.” –Sylvia Fowles on the Lynx’s recent play.

What’s Next:

The Lynx play in Chicago tomorrow and in Indiana next Wednesday. These should be two very winnable games, but as we saw on Tuesday, anything can happen in this league. The Lynx unlocked a new level of toughness and determination against the Sparks—they need to hold on to that feeling and try to bring it to every game from here on out.