May 17, 2023
Institutional Knowledge: Vanessa Nygaard heading into second season looking for normalcy
'It’s like writing. The first draft is always crap. I’m doing a lot of things differently.'
Vanessa Nygaard had 24 days last winter to imagine what it was going to be like to be a WNBA head coach for the first time in her career. She would never have imagined the reality. “I definitely have had a unique coaching experience,” said Nygaard, the Phoenix Mercury head coach.
Heading into Friday’s season-opening game in Los Angeles against the Sparks, a sense of normalcy — and at least a temporary peace — is finally setting in.
On Saturday morning, Nygaard is home in Phoenix, soaking in an 80-degree day, sitting in the backyard, preparing to take her kids to their baseball and softball games. There’s still some work to do because there are no actual off-days.
Nygaard talks about how much she likes her team, how fun it is just to be with them.
A year ago, it was anxiety and worry. Sadness and tension.
“We all survived last season,” Nygaard said. “I think it makes us stronger.”
On January 24, 2022, the Phoenix Mercury introduced Nygaard as the team’s new head coach. It was Nygaard’s first head coaching job in the WNBA.
She had run one of the nation’s top high school girls programs at Windward School in Los Angeles for 10 seasons, winning three California state titles and producing elite players such as Jordin Canada and UCLA’s Charisma Osborne. The top national recruit of 2022, Juju Watkins began her career at Windward with Nygaard.
Nygaard played in the league for six years out of Stanford, had served as a WNBA assistant for the San Antonio Silver Stars, the Washington Mystics, and in 2021 for Bill Laimbeer with the Las Vegas Aces.
Twenty four days after her introductory press conference, Brittney Griner was detained at an airport in Russia, where she would be imprisoned for the next 10 months on drug charges, designated as wrongfully detained by the U.S. government by a country that had just started a war in Ukraine and ensnared in an international drama that was covered worldwide.
While Griner was not physically present, her absence loomed so large.
Nygaard was like the new kid in school in Phoenix, one of a few people in the organization without a long personal history with Griner, trying to lead a group with deep ties to their friend and teammate and navigating a scenario that no one had seen before, much less a rookie head coach.
“Usually, you are in a situation and you can say ‘Maybe I’ll call this coach because they’ve been through it,’” Nygaard said. “But who do you call in this situation? Who has ever had a player in a Russian jail? There is no one to call and say ‘Hey, what do you think?’ The entire team was navigating something that there’s no map for.”
Nygaard said the worry for Griner was “constant”, like a stomach ache that never goes away. The attention the team faced added to the anxiety.
“There was no space to even enjoy a moment,” Nygaard said. “To be in practice, on the bus, in the locker room, the usual smiles and laughter teams experience, those were luxuries last year that we weren’t afforded. It was very hard on so many players. Some expressed it more visually than others, but it was hard on everybody.”
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It showed. Phoenix stumbled out of the gate 2-8, including a six-game losing streak. The early season was a roller coaster of consecutive wins, followed by consecutive losses.
A little more than a month into the season and five months after she was one of the biggest free-agent signings of the offseason, All-Star center Tina Charles – who was expecting to play beside Griner as one of the league’s most formidable frontcourts – said she wanted out. The Mercury, who were 6-12 at the time, and Charles agreed to a “contract divorce.” Charles would ultimately end up in Seattle.
A few days later, after Nygaard commented during a press conference that Diana Taurasi should have been named to the All-Star team, Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith took exception, and posted a clown emoji on Twitter directed at her head coach. Nygaard publicly apologized to her. There was also clear tension between Diggins-Smith and Taurasi, which exploded during an on-bench argument between the two star players in May, barely two weeks into the season.
“When you have great players, you have strong personalities,” Nygaard said. “I was replacing a coach who had been there a long time. There were a lot of new things and new people and it was my first time doing that particular job, which would turn out to be something different than anyone else had experienced. And I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
The learning curve for a first-time WNBA head coach is steep enough without the injection of tumult that Nygaard was tasked to manage.
Taurasi, a huge proponent of Nygaard’s hiring, said she saw the head coach pivot on the court and off.
“She made changes on the fly,” Taurasi said. “You have to coach the team you have, not the one you want to have.”
More than once, her best advice came from Taurasi. It was the veteran star who would remind the team at the lowest moments, “This isn’t hard on us. It’s hard on Brittney.”
“And she told me, ‘Coach, keep your head down and work.” Nygaard said. “So I did.”
Tara VanDerveer, who has mentored Nygaard since her days as a Stanford player, credited Nygaard’s steadiness.
“I think there might have been no one better in that horrible situation,” VanDerveer said. “Vanessa rolls with things. She just stays with the process. She goes to the gym and works to build the best team she can.”
Off the court, Nygaard was looking for ways to lead. She offered to be the team spokesperson about Griner’s situation, so the players didn’t have to take it on. But there was only so much shielding she could do. The attention on Griner’s unprecedented plight, the reminders of her absence, the counting of her detention in calendar days, and Griner’s own legal updates were taking a huge toll.
The Mercury were in Connecticut near the end of the regular season, needing to win games to solidify the franchise’s 10th straight playoff berth.
The game was being televised nationally and there were shirts and signs with “We are BG” all over the Mohegan Sun Arena. Phoenix hadn’t played well in the previous game against New York. Taurasi was hurt and out of the lineup.
Nygaard and her coaching staff came out for the game-day shootaround and the players weren’t on the floor. They were in the locker room watching Griner be sentenced to nine years in prison.
“They came out and you could just see it in their faces in the huddle,” Nygaard said. “And we were going to have to play a game. We finished the shootaround and I just went to my room and sat there looking at reports from Russia.
Before the game, the two teams locked arms at center court. Emotions were very close to the surface.
“After every game, the players were getting asked about it. We were tracking the number of days she’d been held, we were all doing our best to keep it in front of the media. We probably shouldn’t have played that day. But we had to do our jobs.”
Before the regular season was over, Taurasi would be out of the lineup, Diggins-Smith would miss the final two regular-season games due to a personal matter (it was later revealed that she was pregnant) and yet the Mercury still earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. They were eliminated in the first round by eventual champion Las Vegas.
Nygaard, who had endured the public kerfuffle with Diggins-Smith and was hearing the rumblings across the league about whether she should be retained after the season, followed Taurasi’s advice. Head down. Work.
She says she never felt as if her job was in jeopardy. And she got support from other coaches and friends around the league. Both Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Las Vegas’ Becky Hammon supported her publicly. Others made phone calls or sent check-in texts. Chiney Ogwumike hugged her at the scorer’s table before checking into the game.
“Our team rallied and made the playoffs and I think there was recognition that the players and me and my staff continued to work,” Nygaard said. “Our players still wanted to compete, even if they didn’t have the experience they thought they were going to have. We battled and we grew.”
A year later, Nygaard talks about a long offseason of adjustments. Hiring new assistant coaches, more clearly defining roles and responsibilities, reading books on management and leadership.
“I see things in these books and I think, “Oh man, I made that mistake,’” Nygaard said. “It’s like writing. The first draft is always crap. I’m doing a lot of things differently. This is a multi-generational team, with a 41-year-old legend, some vets and a lot of young players. We are teaching and installing and finding better ways to do things. And I am trying to meet our players where they are.”
And that includes Griner, whose return to the league and the Mercury has been covered worldwide. Friday’s game in Los Angeles will be a celebration as much as a competition.
Griner is working her way back into playing shape while the team deals with the new realities of providing her support and additional security.
But Griner’s presence is bringing Mercury back to life.
“Brittney is so funny and unique and joyful,” Nygaard said. “She brings us a balance that we need.”
Taurasi said the early part of the season has had a “great vibe.”
“It’s just a good group of characters, pushing toward one goal, whether that’s winning a drill, or fixing a little problem to make sure offense runs right, “ Taurasi said. ”People are trying to do what Coach Nygaard and staff want us to do, and there’s something nice about that.
“It’s been really nice and it’s really early, but let’s see if we can keep it going.”
Nygaard said she feels stronger and more prepared as her second season begins.
Taurasi said she has never seen a coach put in as much offseason work as Nygaard.
“I just said to someone the other day that I haven’t been this prepared by a coaching staff in a long time,” Taurasi said. “It was the work she did off the court and really looking at herself in the mirror. It takes a lot of self-evaluation to get better. We always talk about players getting better, and she’s brought that to our coaching staff.”
It remains to be seen whether Phoenix will be able to compete with the league’s “superteams” in New York and Las Vegas. The Mercury will have a healthy Taurasi, Brianna Turner, playoff experienced veterans like Sophie Cunningham and Shay Peddy, off-season acquisitions Moriah Jefferson and Michaela Onyewere, and Griner.
On Friday night, Phoenix played a preseason game in Phoenix, Griner’s first game minutes since 2021.
When she was introduced to the crowd, Nygaard turned to assistant coach Nikki Blue.
“We looked at each other and we just had chills,” Nygaard said. “We were here last year for all of it…Just to see her back is an absolute miracle.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.