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Finding The Face of the Atlanta Dream

May 3, 2011- I understand that training camp for the Atlanta Dream starts on May 15, 2011.  This is no secret, because I believe that training camp starts the same day for every other team of the WNBA.  This means that I have to reacquaint myself with the Atlanta Dream, which is a thankfully easy task.  The Dream are coming off a WNBA Finals appearance, and head coach Marynell Meadors has taken the approach of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" (or rather, "fix the only part that is broke").

I tried to think about how I'd explain the Atlanta Dream to someone who had never followed the WNBA.  In most sports, teams have one emblematic player that exemplifies the entire franchise. 

For Seattle, it's two players:  it's Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson.  They're pretty much the Seattle Storm right there, and you can surround them with as many valuable parts as you care to, but it's Bird and Jackson (or Jackson and Bird) at the end.  For Phoenix, it's Diana Taurasi.  You might throw Penny Taylor in there if you're generous, but it's Dee.  Dee and only Dee. 

For some franchises, that player is no longer there.  The Los Angeles Sparks are really still Lisa Leslie's team, even though Leslie walked off her memorial court for the last time in 2009.  In New York, despite the multiple homages to T-Spoon, that player is Becky Hammon, the little ball of fire that is no longer there and whose departure marked a decline in the Liberty's fortunes.  Her departure is a benchmark moment in that it seems you can divide the Liberty into its Hammon and post-Hammon eras.  The ghost of Hammon (or her jersey, anyway) still haunts Madison Square Garden.

Sometimes, you can't characterize a team by any particular player.  The Shock was more characterized by its coach, Bill Laimbeer, than any of the talented players on Detroit's championship teams.  (They are now characterized by Nolan Richardson, more out-of-touch than awe-inspiring.)  Minnesota is characterized by injuries and lost potential.  The Sky are characterized by nothing at all, a team still in search of some basic identity.

The Dream are much like the Shock in that it has always been a team characterized by its coach rather than its players.  Three players have carried the load for Atlanta fans and two of them have left under acrimonious circumstances.  The first year of Atlanta - the year with the 0-17 start - the Dream's offensive play maker was Betty Lennox.  It was clear that Lennox and Meadors didn't see eye-to-eye and when Chamique Holdsclaw took over, Lennox and the Dream's horrible 2008 season were treated as a bad dream, a mirage, strange days when Katie Feenstra and Ann Strother roamed Philips Arena and when the lineup was very much different and when WNBA fans in Atlanta were just glad to have a team, any team at all.  There was still one okay season left in Holdsclaw, and the Dream made the playoffs in 2009, but fate conspired to turn 2009 into a mocking joke - Atlanta was bumped out of its own arena by Sesame Street, Holdsclaw was ailing, Shalee Lehning's shoulder was busted and the Shock swept the Dream in the opening round with the Dream's season ending in the characterless shoebox of Gwinnett Arena in front of a sparse crowd.

The next year, Angel McCoughtry - the #1 draft pick of the Dream - carried the team on her back the way she had carried the Louisville Cardinals on her back to a NCAA title game the previous year, the one in which she was drafted.  The Dream finished fourth, but swept past both Washington and New York to the WNBA Finals, where they would lose to a Seattle team that probably couldn't have been beaten by God that season. 

Even so, the clear boss of the team was not McCoughtry but Marynell Meadors.  Meadors has made some unpopular decisions in her tenure as coach and GM.  Holdsclaw muttered something about broken commitments upon departing and made it plain that she was leaving because of Meadors.  Meadors put Shalee Lehning in as the starting point guard, forcing Ivory Latta to share time with her, then cut Latta, then brought Latta back, then let Latta go off to Tulsa, then put Lehning on the bench during the championship run.  Meadors has never been afraid to put anyone on the bench - not Lennox, not Holdsclaw, not McCoughtry.  If there was an WNBA team where the star scorer served as traffic director and ersatz coach, it wasn't going to be the one in Atlanta.  The only traffic cop on that team was Meadors.

It's a role that Meadors is definitely suited for.  I remember reading in multiple places where it is said that Meadors's goal from high school was to be a head coach.  (Of course, Meadors was in high school in the 1960s and the WNBA was mere fantasy.  How many NBA teams were there back then?)   Back in Meadors's day, if you were over 22 and wanted to be involved in basketball at some level, you were a head coach, you were living in Europe...or you sold popcorn at a men's game.  Meadors ended up coaching at multiple colleges - MTSU, Tennessee Tech, Florida State, as an assistant at Pittsburgh - and in 1997, she ended up as one of the WNBA's first head coaches, steering the Charlotte Sting.

I was not around to see her during her Sting years (the Sting aren't around now, either.)  For those who want to stay involved in basketball, there seem to be a lot more options.  One can play in the WNBA or in Europe.  One can work behind the mic like LaChina Robinson.  One can coach at the college level.  One can be an administrator.  In any case, a few coaches I've spoken to seem to treat the public relations aspect of the job as a burden, the act of talking to reporters as some odious part of life as a coach that is treated with the seriousness of a showdown at the O. K. Corral.  Talking to outsiders was just some bad part of being a coach that you put up with until the fun part of playing the game came back around.

When you meet Meadors, however, it's plain - at least to me - that she likes coaching, likes talking to reporters, likes all of the parts of coaching life - even the disagreeable ones.  Why not? Coaching has always been her life's goal.  She has talked about retiring and playing golf somewhere but I almost can't see it happening.  She's already off to work with the USA Basketball Staff, and at her age (it has to be mentioned) she could have bowed out of that obligation the same way that Cappie Pondexter bowed out for a fashion show.  Instead, it's off to Vegas although I doubt that Meadors will be hitting the casinos.

Meadors's decisions might be unpopular - but in the short history of the Atlanta Dream, she has always been the one making them.  Her detractors might claim that Carol Ross is somehow the power behind the throne - but Meadors could have just shut Ross out. If you're looking for anything that characterizes the Atlanta Dream, for better or for worse that person is Marynell Meadors. 

Meadors chose all the players - not that every player she chose panned out (Tamera Young!  Chanel Makongo!).  She chose the strategy, even though having Shalee Lehning at point had its obvious weaknesses.  But the team lived and died by those weaknesses, and if your only use for a point is to shove the ball into the hands of Sancho Lyttle or Erika de Souza in the post, or to hand it to Angel McCoughtry or Iziane Castro Marques and then get the hell out of the way, then you'd be hard pressed to call that "weakness" - it was a strategy that succeeded more often than it failed.

It's not really McCoughtry's team any more than it's Brittainey Raven's or Chioma Nnamaka's.   It's not Sancho Lyttle's team (not that Sancho would ever ask for that) or Brazil's team.  Lindsey Harding might be the last piece of the puzzle, but only Meadors knows what it's supposed to look like when it gets put together. 

If Atlanta wins the WNBA championship this year, the last act will be Meadors putting the completed puzzle into its silver frame.