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The Beauty In Watching A Team Make Winning A Habit

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The basic premise of Robert Coles' book the Call of Stories is only a little more complex than it first sounds: stories not only grab us, but ultimately have some sort of transformative power that is absent from a sort of clinical diagnosis of a person.

Unfortunately, as Brian Phillips of Run of Play (a soccer blog that I should be reading more of) wrote in a provocative piece on Monday, sportswriting often fails to capitalize on the capacity for stories to either engage or transform, whether that be due to convention, routine, or simply the expectation that the audience needs the score in the first three paragraphs because they likely don't want more suspense than that.

In a way, Phillips' piece could be considered a sports translation of Coles' book and is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. However, after discussing it with a couple of fellow internet writers I respect, we encountered a dilemma: the article focuses primarily on telling the stories of incredible games, which obviously lend themselves to greatness but are rarely actually written in ways that match that. But what about the not-so-incredible games? The games that were almost unwatchable to begin with thus rendering them either unwritable or seemingly not worth the time to re-create?

There are plenty of those in any sport and for a game like women's basketball they're as important a part of the story as the most incredible feats.

For example, I have no better words to describe the Eastern Washington Eagles performance in their 74-53 road loss to the Seattle University Redhawks on Wednesday than the instructions EWU coach Wendy Shuller shouted at her own team while making a substitution.

"You see how ridiculous this is right now," said Shuller, while waving in a line change of five players with her team down 12 points with four minutes left in the first half. "You go play basketball."

And Shuller's words weren't just hyperbolic yet motivational coach-speak either - the 726 fans that showed up to create a rather vibrant atmosphere for the annual breast cancer awareness night in the 1,050 seat Connolly Center at Seattle University did not witness a particularly good basketball game. Although many of us can remember how far a blowout can go to making even the worst games fun as you're walking back to the dorm with your friends, it doesn't make a truly ridiculous performance any less ridiculous.

EWU's 28 turnovers in the boxscore politely suggest that the game was ugly. Reading that EWU had 17 turnovers in the first half - and yes, they still play 20 minute halves in Seattle - might make you shake your head. But to fully grasp the ridiculousness of this game, you have to imagine the combined spectator effect of EWU's stretch of 7 scoreless minutes of play in the first half in which they gave Seattle U 11 points by turning the ball over 7 times while missing 5 threes, 4 generally long jumpers, and two layups.

If you can't imagine it - it's ok, I have a hard time doing so and I was present - perhaps this will help: my high school coach always harped on how a bad shot is like a turnover. The combination of all the missed long shots and turnovers really meant that EWU wasn't playing basketball at all - they were playing some game with a basketball in which they were just passing the ball back to Seattle U defenders so they could go practice their offense some more. That would be brutal to watch if it was street ball, but when the athletes supposedly practiced before the game, the failure to meet expectations makes it worse.

So, the instruction "go play basketball" was actually more substantive than it sounds, because before you talk strategy you actually have to re-establish some common ground about what sport is supposedly being played.

Of course, when a team plays that poorly on offense, the defense certainly deserves some credit - Seattle U coach Joan Bonvicini has been trying to establish a defensive identity defined by 40 minutes of aggressive, trapping, full court pressure since she arrived in Seattle. Wednesday night's game was not only their most effective execution of Bonvinci's vision, but also the first time I'd seen them sustain it for anywhere near a full game.

"I think it's definitely conditioning, but I think it's mental toughness too," said Bonvicini. "That's one of the other things that we're showing a lot more - that we're a lot tougher mentally and we're competing harder and not backing down from anyone."

That said, so many of those 17 EWU turnovers in the first half were passes out of bounds, right into three Redhawks defenders, or to nowhere that it's hard to attribute it all to Seattle U's defense. If we're generous, at least half of those 17 turnovers were simply the result of EWU's ridiculousness. And when one team is playing that poorly against a team that aims to force turnovers, what you get is a game that is very, very difficult to watch.

I could add more advanced numbers to prove this, but I think you get the point - it was the worst half of basketball I have watched this season.

---

While sports writing in general might struggle with telling the stories of the spectacular, women's basketball in particular has to grapple with telling stories of the unspectacularly ridiculous.

Not every moment of every sports game is going to be beautiful.

There really wasn't any good way to spin the 2010 NCAA national championship between UConn and Stanford - it just was not a particularly good game (or first half at least) to watch. And you don't even have to go back that far to find examples of bad nationally televised women's games - UConn's nationally televised drubbing of Duke last week was a terribly lop-sided game that led ESPN analyst and Connecticut Sun guard Kara Lawson to publicly plea for the 20 minutes of her life back that the first half wasted. If either of those games were the first women's basketball game you had tuned into because you had heard a bunch of hype, you wouldn't be a hater for calling them bad basketball; in fact, it would be quite possible that you knew something about basketball and had the capacity to differentiate good from bad from ridiculous.

But part of the power of story, as described quite well by Coles, is to somehow capture the complex and sometimes contradictory elements of our lives that actually make us human. That tension of contradiction - suffering through the worst moments with your team as well as reliving the incredible - is a large part of what makes sports great; you can't possibly appreciate redemptive success if you're unfamiliar with the litany of failures that preceded it.

Nevertheless, given the level of vitriol often directed toward women's sports, it's perfectly understandable why some people might cringe at the thought of openly framing a ridiculous game as ridiculous - following women's basketball less than 40 years after Title IX still demands patience no matter how you slice it. Without debating whether women's basketball can get sloppier than men's, the fact is that given the level of vitriol that women's sports attract, the consequences of any negative report are often worse in the eyes of the mainstream. But, I'd say the consequences of not simply describing the situation as it is could be equally harmful.

Phillips concludes his piece by asking, would our thoughts about the game have more nuance if more writers were invested in storytelling-in producing narratives of suspense? A next question for women's basketball might be something to the effect of whether in telling the broader narrative of a game, if we can't make honest assessments of everything from the spectacular to the ridiculous, how can we be avoid being seen as disingenuous, much less nuanced?

If indeed women's basketball advocates are going to make claims that the game is growing, then the barometer is not only the Brittney Griner or Maya Moore phenom type players - both of those players are among the best ever and more likely exceptions than a forthcoming rule - but also the development of the talent in the middle and at the bottom of Division I who will almost never have an opportunity to play a nationally televised game or in front of any more than 1,050 people at home.

It's all part of the game's development and needs to be discussed and at least paid attention to in some way.

Observing that as context for future stories is one thing; finding a way to write about it in an engaging way that will pull people along through a journey of the ridiculous is quite another that I honestly have no specific answers for.

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Amy Moritz - who writes Byline To Finish Line, which is another blog I should read more often - wrote yesterday that the key to basketball is as simple as the phrase there is no past; only present.

And indeed somehow EWU freed themselves from their first half state of ridiculousness late in the second half, which liberated me from the trance of ridiculousness that I was caught in thus allowing my mind to wander to thinking about how to put this game in perspective.

When was the last time I was sitting at the Connolly Center and watching an ugly blowout in which the Redhawks were victors, not victims?

Well they did give the University of Idaho - currently one game out of third place in the WAC - a pretty good beating at home back in December, but those kind of wins have typically come few and far between in this transition to Division I basketball.

So when was the last time I had witnessed the Redhawks sail to their second blowout victory in a row?

Never.

Coming off a blowout victory at Long Beach State - a program Bonvicini built into one of the strongest programs on the west coast before any of her current players were born - their big win over EWU marked the first time in the Bonvicini era at Seattle U that they'd had two consecutive blowouts.

"I think it really helps our confidence," said forward Salena Dickerson, who was arguably the team's MVP without getting a steal, but tying a game-high with 17 points and hauling in 9 rebounds. "I think it started in practice - practices have been a lot more intense. Like coach said, she's been holding us accountable and I think it's just showing on the court - we're playing a lot more as a team, making the extra passes.

"And I think we just want it more - I think after the last game (at Long Beach State), that was a turning point for us. And I think we just want to finish the season strong."

It's a somewhat obscure yet significant feat and in some ways it overshadows the fact that it was their 7th victory of the season, one more than they had all of last season.

"The biggest thing is that we're improving," said Bonvicini when asked about achieving one more win than last season already. "I really feel our confidence level, our intensity - we're not taking plays off. We're playing hard. And we're doing it for 40 minutes. And we're establishing an identity for our team. And it's fun."

On Saturday against Cal State Bakersfield, Seattle U will have an opportunity to win three straight games for the first time in Bonvicini's tenure. That will certainly be difficult given that CSUB has already beaten Seattle U 81-65 earlier this year. But even if the Redhawks can't pull out their third win in a row, with two more games left in the season before their cross-country trip to the Florida Gulf Coast tournament, the Redhawks absolutely have an opportunity to add to their Division I win total and even make it to double digits.

But if we're talking about just making it to double digit wins, then wins aren't really what matter here at all.

To really grasp the significance of Wednesday's win, looking back at Oregon State's first win in the Scott Rueck era actually helps - teams operating in a shadow of irrelevance on the national scene have standards of success that legitimately extend beyond wins and losses. And merely looking at win totals is not a fully accurate measure of the vast improvement the Redhawks program has made since Bonvicini arrived in the Fall of 2009 anyway.

This is far more about watching a team learn how to win consistently, with consecutive wins coming as confidence builders more than an end-goal.

"We're really putting 40 minutes together," said Bonvicini when asked about commonality between their two consecutive blowouts. "I think we're really becoming a more aggressive team. And, you know, winning is a habit. And it starts in practice - it's doing the little things. We were playing a lot of good teams there for a while. And we were improving, but it didn't show in the win column. And now things are changing.

"When you do those little things and now it becomes habit. When you get your confidence up, your wins just start coming. And then you start expecting to win."

To truly appreciate that, you have to have some understanding of how far this team has come, even in terms of being able to impose their press on an opponent so effectively that their defense generates nearly 30 points off turnovers.

You have to see them confidently moving the ball around on offense without the coaching staff necessarily having to yell, "swing it" repeatedly.

And you have to see the coaching staff demonstrate the utmost confidence in their growing team when it came time to maintain the lead, something this team is not accustomed to doing.

"I'm just trying to give them very small direction and just say a couple little things to work on," said Bonvicini when asked what she was telling her team in the huddle as they were up big in the second half. "I think, for me and for my staff, I just really try to do things subtly - just little changes."

Taken in isolation, this game was just an ugly blowout primarily because of EWU's complete inability to put up a fight in the first half. But perhaps the quest of a great storyteller doesn't end with the game itself, but finding some kind of way to take that game and use it as a gateway to some sort of broader basketball story by letting the past and present bleed together, and operating outside of the standard linear routine of sports to truly create a story.

By no means is that easy and it absolutely shouldn't be considered some sort of replacement for more "traditional" writing that gives us easily digestible information so we can go about our day at least knowing where things stand currently in our favorite sport.

I'm not even saying I'm capable of accomplishing this on any sort of consistent basis.

But there will be ugly games in women's basketball and most times they don't hold any sort of milestone win within them. Yet they're part of this sports story - the mini-struggles the lead up to the present are all part of contextualizing and constructing sports stories. The payoff is incrementally piecing together a picture that fully captures the significance of those breakthrough moments.

And, I'd argue that even if it's unattainable, it's worth striving for among those of us who follow and write about women's basketball in whatever form it takes - as long as we're all talking about the growth of the game, we also have to have some way of documenting it honestly so that we can appreciate each intermediate step. That's a whole lot harder than the already difficult to impossible task of documenting the spectacular moments that draw the most attention.

It sounds so cliché to say that winning is a habit, even if the moment that a team goes from merely playing hard to expecting to win is a remarkable thing to watch. But if we can suspend our society's tendency toward cynicism for a moment, putting that moment of a tiny human accomplishment in context with a story that's about the game but not myopically focused on cramming it into a game story can be a beautiful thing.

That requires making a habit of embracing the spectacular with the ridiculous as part of a much broader story.

"Finally we're starting to see a change in the program, we're really starting to see a change," said Bonvicini. "And we just want to continue to go one game at a time."