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Marion Jones and Nolan Richardson might be the most accomplished members of the Tulsa Shock, but in the eyes of their teammates they're still WNBA newbies. Despite her fame and her status as the oldest member of the team, Jones, 34, has not been spared rookie hazing rituals. "Just because she's an Olympic track star doesn't mean my car's gonna wash itself," cracks eighth-year pro Plenette Pierson. And Richardson, 68, may have coached men's basketball on every level over the past four decades—most notably at Arkansas, which he led to a national championship in 1994—but he has had to learn the nuances of coaching women. When he suggested holding a practice on the team's official media day, he heard loud objections from his players, who feared they would ruin their hair for the team picture. "I got you, girls," said the chastened coach, who backed down with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
Both Jones and Richardson are in for more learning experiences as they move through their inaugural WNBA campaigns. Because, all joking aside, the Shock is a serious reclamation project. But the silver-haired coach and the still-youthful-looking player are competitors at heart, and while the WNBA is a far cry from March Madness and the Olympics, it offers them a last chance to right once glorious careers that have veered offtrack.
"I'm enjoying seeing how I can piece this team together," says Richardson, "taking this rough draft that looks like holy hell and cleaning it up until it becomes a beautiful picture."
The Shock certainly was a mess in October 2009. In its previous 12 seasons, all in Detroit, the team had been a perennial Eastern Conference power and had won three WNBA championships. But in part because of a crowded sports marketplace and the beleaguered Michigan economy, the franchise lost $20 million over the last decade. The Shock probably would have folded if not for an Oklahoma City--based group led by businessmen Bill Cameron, part owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, and David Box, who bought the team and relocated it to Tulsa.
With a population of 385,635, the Shock's new hometown is the smallest WNBA city behind Uncasville, Conn. But Tulsa boasts the $196 million BOK Center, a glittering downtown arena built in 2008 that attracts top music acts such as Paul McCartney and draws robust crowds for AFL2 and minor league hockey games. The Shock sold all 7,806 available tickets for its season opener, an 80--74 loss to the Minnesota Lynx on May 15, but attendance has sunk to an average of 4,247 in the three games since.
Approval ratings for Richardson remain strong in Tulsa, even though it's been almost 30 years since he guided the hometown Golden Hurricanes to the 1984 NIT championship. In 1985 Richardson decamped for Arkansas, where in 17 years he won 389 games and that NCAA title. But he was fired near the end of the 2001--02 season after he accused Arkansas administrators of racism and lashed out at fans and the local media. Richardson brought a civil rights complaint (which was ultimately dismissed) against the school, and the episode made him radioactive to potential college basketball employers.
After stints coaching the Panamanian and Mexican national teams, Richardson was hired last October to be coach and general manager of the Shock. In Tulsa he has installed the same system as in his previous coaching stops: a fast-break offense and full-court-press defense known as 40 Minutes of Hell, which he developed while coaching undersized immigrant sixth-graders in his hometown of El Paso back in the 1970s. But he's trying to adapt the scheme to a league that he's learning about on the fly.
"He's a great coach with an uncanny ability to get the most out of his players," says former president Bill Clinton, who befriended Richardson while the coach was at Arkansas and Clinton was the state's governor. "The WNBA, the Shock and Tulsa are lucky to have him."
With only three players left over from the Detroit team, Richardson set about building a roster with the flexibility to play his intense transition game. The Shock gained size in a predraft trade with Connecticut, swapping this year's seventh pick and a 2011 second-rounder for 6'5" center Chante Black and 6-foot reserve forward Amber Holt. Richardson also snagged one of the league's best markswomen in free agent Shanna Crossley, a fourth-year guard who shot 44.4% from three-point range in '09.
"It seems like he has got a lot of athleticism," Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn said of Richardson before the season began. "I'm just curious to see if he's got enough depth to play the 40 Minutes of Hell night after night, back-to-back, traveling all over America. Because if he does, we better watch out."