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Best of 2009: The Humble Emergence of Tanisha Wright

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In her penultimate post in a series about why she's a feminist sports fan, Anna Clark wrote that, "sports are visionary, a realm where we can rehearse the kind of world we hope to live in."

Perhaps I'm biased, but I feel exactly that way about basketball -- in fact, no sport represents that more to me than basketball.

If we step back and think about it, among the most fascinating elements of sports is the complexity of coordinating the actions of a group of individuals as part of a series of micro collective actions - at every moment, people are forced to adjust and re-adjust to the actions of others based on a common awareness of a collective aspiration.

Teamwork is more than just sharing a ball and being nice to one another -- it's a process of each individual responding to a situation, determining what's best for the unit in the context of collective goals, trusting their teammates to act in the best interest of the unit, and acting on faith that teammates will in fact create an imagined reality as it's unfolding. Most fascinating, is that all of those processes occur sometimes in a matter of five seconds of fluid action.

It’s not the ephemeral concept of a “mysterious group mind” but people genuinely invested in maintaining an awareness of others and authentically responding to one another. And it’s not that these things never happen in daily life but that at the highest levels of success, they are valued in sports.

At its best and most beautiful, basketball can become an example of what Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson has called "selflessness-in-action" as described in his book, Sacred Hoops (pp. 79-80):

“The ego-driven culture of basketball, and society in general, militates against celebrating this kind of selfless action, even for members of a team whose success as individuals is tied directly to the group performance. Our society places such a high premium on individual achievement, it’s easy for players to get blinded by their own self-importance and lose a sense of interconnectedness, the essence of teamwork."

While "selflessness" is not required to become a successful professional basketball player, some of the most beautiful moments in basketball are when that ethic manifests itself  as complete harmony between the actions of individual players -- no-look (even look-away) passes, a Princeton backcut, a long bounce pass for a layup on a fastbreak, or a guard driving and kicking the ball out for a three.

In the celebrity culture of today -- in which we scrutinize and destroy the people we worship while simultaneously seeking to construct our own personal celebrity image – the very idea of minimizing the self-absorbed pursuit of individual glory for the sake of greater team success in sport can be refreshing.

So when I thought back on my favorite moments in women's sports for 2009, one of the first things that sprung to mind was a person -- not necessarily a moment -- that embodied that ethic of selflessness-in-action, both on the court and in the way she thinks about the game: Seattle Storm guard Tanisha Wright.

However, in keeping with the Women Talk Sports theme of favorite moments, there was one moment in particular that seems to simultaneously capture Wright’s dedication to the team concept and her humility in the midst of a breakout season.

The 2009 Seattle Storm season was filled with exciting plays, outstanding individual performances, and a number of thrilling overtime finishes.

Yet despite the number of special moments and the presence of power forward Lauren Jackson and point guard Sue Bird – arguably the best in the world at their respective positions – Wright was the story of the season that stood out for me while watching the games.

In Wright’s first full season as a starter, it could be said she more than exceeded expectations.

Not only did she make big plays for the Storm on multiple occasions, but she arguably had an all-star caliber season and was almost certainly the WNBA’s most improved player in 2009. However, although three of her more prominent teammates – Sue Bird (arguably the world’s best point guard), Lauren Jackson (arguably the world’s best power forward), and Swin Cash – were selected to the All Star Game, it was Wright who Storm coach Brian Agler called upon in key moments.

Wright’s Playmaking Ability Essential To Storm’s 72-69 Victory Over the Lynx - Swish Appeal
If what All-Stars do is make plays, then Seattle Storm guard Tanisha Wright should be named to the 2009 WNBA All-Star team as a reserve. Nothing speaks to her ability to make plays more clearly than Storm coach Brian Agler’s decision to put the ball in Wright’s hands with 18.1 seconds left to make a play with the Storm down 68-69 to the Minnesota Lynx Sunday night.

Wright scored the go-ahead basket on a contested lay-up between two Lynx defenders to help the Storm to a 72-69 victory over the Minnesota Lynx, ending their Key Arena slump. Part of what makes Agler's decision so significant is that the play was drawn up for Wright instead of All-Star guard Sue Bird (who was the second option as a shooter on the wing) and All-Star forward Swin Cash (who was on the opposite side of the play).

"We felt like Tanisha was best in that scenario because we felt she can get to the rim, one, and we put Sue in the open corner where they couldn't help away from her," said Agler. "Tanisha’s got great body control so she can go hard and go straight up because she's so strong. So it was a great play on her behalf."

However, Wright’s matter-of-fact tone and refusal to take individual credit for anything – much less recognize the significance of her accomplishments as noteworthy – frustrated some reporters. Even when asked directly about her accomplishments, she managed to completely minimize what she accomplished.

Seattle Guards Bird, Wright Combine for 49 to Beat Dream ::
“I’m just going to come in, work hard, and do what I normally do,” Wright said. “I’m going to take what people give me and I’m going to go from there. I’m not going to focus on trying to make things happen as far as picking things up because Lauren [Jackson] is out – I don’t think anyone is going to do that. We’re going to come in and we’re going to play like we’re capable of playing.”

So it should not be surprising that the one time Wright took credit for something, it was was for a minor role that she played in one of the biggest plays of an exciting Storm season.

Taking credit for “The Play"


Storm Defeat Sparks 75-74 in Dramatic Fashion - Swish Appeal
However, she did take credit for one thing and it was actually exciting to witness: according to Storm point guard Sue Bird, it was Wright who suggested that 6’4" center Ashley Robinson should defend the 6’0" Noelle Quinn while inbounding the ball late in the game.

The Wright call at the right time

"Check! Check! Check, check, check – I get that," said Wright, quickly sitting up straight and raising her hand with a slightly exaggerated grin. "She’s 6’5" and I understand that when a 5’11 person is taking the ball out against a 6’5" girl it’s hard to be able to see and be able to make those passes and Ashley did a great job.

"The first time she got a tip on it and the best thing that she did was she communicated and relayed that to us, like ‘guys, I got a tip on it.’…the next time they had to take out the ball she told us, she said, ‘I got a tip on it – she can’t see, she can’t see.’ So that allowed us to say, ok, if she can’t see, then we can put a little bit more pressure on -- instead of just going for the foul, we can really try to get this steal.

"I think Camille did a really good job of doing that; she ran through, got a tip on it, she kept it inbounds, and she got a tip, then I got a tip, and I was able to gather it and throw her the ball."

Watching the final sideline inbounds play, you can see that Robinson didn’t touch the ball at all, but did do exactly what Wright said – Quinn simply couldn’t see around Robinson’s wiry frame and tried to squeeze the ball into a tight space.

It’s fitting to me that the only occasion I seem to remember Wright taking credit for anything was her recognizing someone else’s strengths and making a decision that benefited the team. Even in doing so, it was almost as if she was mocking the way in which many people so quickly jump to center stage to take credit for their accomplishments, literally raising her hand, flashing a cheesy grin, and exaggerating the act of taking credit almost to the point of mocking me for asking the question.

As Ben York of Slam Magazine has written, the reality of being a WNBA player – “Some players make less than an elementary school teacher.” – probably requires a level of humility and dedication to the game that is beyond the norm in sports. All women’s basketball players play all year long (WNBA and Europe) for little pay and less respect. All women’s basketball players are role models for young girls to look up to, if for no other reason because they provide an expansive vision for what it means to be a woman in addition to providing a different vision of how to handle the spotlight.

SLAM ONLINE | » President Orender Reflects on the Decade
Similarly, the WNBA has seen a return on its investment of marketable stars such as Candace Parker, Becky Hammon, and Diana Taurasi. For the WNBA, the use of these players and the league in general is key to building a bridge into the mainstream. “I think it has to do with one, they are very visible role models — they are visions for girls to compete and get sweaty, dirty, and compete on teams,” Orender said. “The WNBA gives everybody a green light for that. Secondly, because there is that spotlight it has just elevated the amount of resources dedicated to these young girls. There is now gym time when there wasn’t gym time before. There is a quality of coaching that wasn’t there before. When I played, maybe I was one in a couple thousand. Now, I’d be one out of a million.”

Yet even in a league that markets itself as a collection of role models, Wright seems to stand out.

What I find striking about Wright is that as an emerging star on a team of stars in arguably the best WNBA season ever, she epitomized both a dedication to the game and the "selflessness-in-action" that Phil Jackson has struggled to find in the NBA. What separates Wright is that, as she says, she just comes out, does her job – extremely well – and does so in relative invisibility.

Wright may very well be the ultimate role model in a league full of viable role models simply because even in the face of success in one of the league’s most successful seasons, her focus is still on how she can help her team even more.

Seattle’s Stormy Season Embodies Broader WNBA Dilemmas: Roster Sizes, Playoff Format & "Retirements" - Swish Appeal
"All that stuff is cool, but I’d much, much, much rather still be playing," said Wright after Sunday’s game. "I think you always try to get better, you always try to improve on your game. If I improved this much this year, I want to double that [next year]."

To me, there is nothing better than watching someone strive for perfection not for the sake of individual accolades, but for the sake of some greater good.

It's something that I wish we had more of in this world.

Transition Points:

  • As a follow-up to Clark's series, one of the major reasons I love sports is the impossible-to-resolve arguments between fans. During a low-key New Year’s Eve celebration, I happened to catch a series of NFL channel specials: 10 best draft day trades of all-time (two of which involved my beloved San Francisco 49ers) and “Top 10 Records That Will Never Be Broken”. Both top 10 lists are entirely subjective – whose to say someone won’t get more than 7 sacks a game again or score a touchdown in, say, 50 consecutive games? Lots of bold claims and well constructed arguments. But most of all, the appreciation of history and the reasoned analysis of the significance of historical events among sports fans is beautiful…if only everyone respected history so much…
  • In her book "Talking to Strangers", political scientist Danielle Allen makes an analogy between jazz and democratic ideals (which requires a convergence of trust, reason, interest, and emotion) that also works well in the abstract as an analogy for jazz and (Jackson's) basketball ideals (p. 88):

    "Each musician’s body is subtly attuned to the presence of the others, as all of them, preparing to sing, listen for the piano and cast the whole of their attention toward something invisible: the song…If they are good musicians, they will adapt to each other while also making accommodations for individual interpretations of the music."

Other WTS Best of 2009 Posts: