Tulsa, OK -- Great leaders in sports have to be able to inspire their team. They must believe in a vision even if it looks far-off and must motivate their team to work hard every day until that visualization becomes a reality. And anyone can talk a good talk, but a real leader leads by example.
For the Tulsa Shock, the definition of that word, leader, is perfectly embodied by Head Coach Fred Williams, who has led some of the greatest women's players of all time including Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper to name a few.
He is the coach that gets out and scraps with his players and dives on the floor defending young professional athletes daily, because he doesn't want to ask them to work hard and then just stand on the sidelines watching.
"I've always been a guy who's all about working hard, having a passion for the game, and having a great passion for women's basketball," said Williams in his office. "That all came into play in my speech when I first got here. I saw a vision, and I said ‘we're going to do it and in a short amount of time,' and here it is, year two."
And WHAT a year he has had. The Shock just closed out their first winning season and are about to begin their first playoff run since arriving in Tulsa. Williams also just hit the 200th win of his career, a feat few have accomplished in this league.
And they have done all of this while being plagued with the injury bug, going almost the whole year with one of their two leading scorers out; Odyssey Sims early on with a knee injury and then Skylar Diggins now out for the year with a torn ACL. I asked Coach Williams what kind of perseverance and motivation in the locker room it took to overcome these obstacles, and still have their most successful season to date.
"The way that I have the mindset of coming in every day is that I'm working hard, sweaty and diving on the floor getting after it, so even though we had that streak there of some losses, I've always felt and I told them that, ‘if we get through this rain storm and regroup, we'll be all right. But right now we're right in the middle of the sea in the ocean, and we just gotta ride it through.
"'I'm going to be the number one captain and take your hand, and we will do it together.' We just worked hard."
After going through a grueling 10-game losing streak, the team snapped back with a vengeance and went on to win six straight. A major factor in the turnaround of the season was due to the improved play of their younger role players like Brianna Kiesel and Amanda Zahui B, both of whom had career-high efforts against upcoming opponent Phoenix recently.
Coach Williams talked about how key it has been for them to step up and take on the challenge and more responsibility: "They're still trying to learn the speed and pace of the pro game, and they've picked it up a lot and they've won a few ball games for us recently.
"These last few games I pretty much gave Zahui B, Pleasance and Kiesel time together on the floor, because I'm building for the future, and I see a strong future for the nucleus of this team."
Tulsa will face the defending champion Mercury team in the first-round, and had a strong performance against the team in a dress rehearsal match earlier in the week, but Coach Williams isn't reading too much into that victory. Although he's confident in his team, he also knows what Phoenix brings to the table and what they will need to do to move on to the next round.
"I think we know each other pretty well. We played just well enough to get by last game and it could have gone either way. We saw some things in film session that we can take advantage of, and we just have to make sure we keep our composure and have a lot of energy.
Phoenix plays with a lot of energy and quickness. The stands will be full, and it's going to be loud in there so we've got to stay focused on what we can control, which is playing hard and finishing shots."
These playoffs will be bittersweet as the Shock franchise celebrate a first achievement, but also know that ultimately they will say goodbye to Tulsa when all is said and done and get ready for a new chapter and move to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Williams says they are focusing still on Tulsa and that one of their goals was to be able to bring a championship to the city that has been so great to them, and he feels they have a great shot.
"The support in Tulsa has been great. On the court, it sounds like 15 thousand cheering, though it may not be. I get stopped by every person in the grocery store that says Coach; ‘we don't want you to leave.' But they've been very supportive of cheering us on and helping us make the playoffs.
"I felt like this was the icing on the cake for us here, finishing up the season this way."
With a year of highs and lows almost under his belt, a post-season challenge to prepare for and a major move looming, the coach reflects on what all makes it worth it; all the hard work and hours of film session and the cuts and bruises from leading by example every day.
"I've been around a lot of teams, and this one is high on my mark. You come to work every day, and they put a smile on your face, because they are just such great ladies to work with. My passion has always been to help players develop and get to the next level. That's special."
The Shock finished the year at 16-14, and look to beat the Mercury starting tonight, in the best-of-three series to move on to the Western Conference finals.