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In WNBA, X's and O's become a man's game

Some nights, when she looks down at the other bench, Trudi Lacey, head coach of the WNBA's Charlotte Sting, might see someone in a pantsuit similar to hers.

Mainly though, her counterpart these days is wearing a suit with a tie, and that makes her scratch her head.

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"Yeah, an endangered species," said Lacey with a chuckle, "women that coach women's basketball. I think the W is still in front of WNBA. But that's OK. It's a challenge. I'm a competitor."

A look around the WNBA, which has begun its eighth season, reveals decreasing numbers of women head coaches. Of the 13, only four are women. Only nine of the last 23 coaching slots among the 13 surviving teams have gone to women.

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From the beginning, men have been a part of the WNBA. The Houston Comets, for instance, hired former Mississippi women's coach Van Chancellor and won the first four titles.

But women, mostly from lesser-profile colleges, had dominated, taking 24 of 46 openings over the league's history.

That changed dramatically when the Los Angeles Sparks hired former Lakers guard Michael Cooper in late 1999, succeeding former Los Angeles teammate Orlando Woolridge.

Cooper, who was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987, was an assistant with the Lakers for four years and with the Sparks for a year before becoming head coach, but had little connection with the women's game before that.

His success - winning two straight titles and finishing runner-up last year - started a trend. Among four other former NBA players who have joined him are Michael Adams of Washington and Bill Laimbeer of the champion Detroit Shock. Those teams will play Friday at MCI Center.

Seattle remains the only league team to have never hired a male coach. And it hasn't been lost on anyone that all seven of the WNBA's titles have gone to teams coached by men.

"Some teams are probably just following the philosophy that men have won and ex-players have won, and you try to go with the flow of that," said Adams. The former Washington Bullets point guard is off to a slow start, with his team 2-4.

Still, the presence of former NBA players or coaches rankles some in women's basketball, who grumble that those coaching jobs go to men who have no previous connection or commitment to women's basketball.

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"It still should not rob the women who know our game as well as any of the opportunity to coach in this league," said Charlotte guard Dawn Staley, who doubles as head coach at Temple.

"I'm all for fairness and giving the best person the job. ... I don't know what the stipulations are in hiring someone to coach a WNBA franchise, but I would hope that everyone would look at things as fairly as I do, which I know they don't."

Others speak privately of a double standard in which there are no women coaching, even as assistants, in the NBA, while men take jobs coaching women professionally.

League president Val Ackerman said she hopes more coaching opportunities become available to women in the men's game. "To the extent that area can open up a bit and have opportunities created for qualified women, I think that's really where the need is right now," she said.

Indeed, Ackerman noted the ABA's new Nashville Rhythm hired Ashley McElhenny, a 22-year-old former Vanderbilt point guard, as head coach. And former Coppin State men's coach Stephanie Ready, now with the Mystics, was an assistant in Greenville, S.C., for the National Basketball Developmental League.

What hasn't happened is the movement of top college coaches to the WNBA, similar to Stanford men's coach Mike Montgomery leaving last month to take over the Golden State Warriors.

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Only two women who were top college coaches have been head coaches in the WNBA. Nell Fortner, who had guided Purdue, took a year to coach the 2000 Olympic team and then coached the Indiana Fever for three years. Carolyn Peck, Fortner's successor at Purdue, coached in Orlando before the franchise moved to Connecticut.

Both have returned to coach collegiately, with Peck at Florida and Fortner at Auburn.

Most major college coaches have declined to leave the relative security of campus life for the WNBA, where every team except for Houston has turned over a coaching job since the league's inception in 1997.

Pat Summitt, women's college basketball's most celebrated coach with more than 800 wins and six national titles at Tennessee, has reportedly resisted entreaties from the Mystics to coach. Instead, she is the team's player personnel consultant, with a reported six-figure salary.

"You never say never," said Summitt about the possibility of coaching professionally. "I gave it some consideration a few years back, but do you think I'm going to leave this recruiting class? Absolutely not."

If there is concern about the relative dearth of female coaches in the WNBA, it hasn't been expressed by many of the league's players, many of whom have played for men in high school or college. They note that men have more experience with the demands of professional basketball.

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"I think that [experience] helps," said Indiana forward Natalie Williams. "Professional is so much different than college ... We're grown women with kids, 30-year-olds on the floor. You have to approach things a lot differently to get the best out of your players, just like NBA coaches do for their guys. I hope more women, great women coaches, come into the game, but they have to make an adjustment. "

Washington rookie guard Alana Beard said, "It's not unusual at all. I guess they're the most qualified, maybe."

"Maybe they want us to learn the NBA style. That's what most of the men are teaching," she said. "Maybe they want us to get away from that college structure. Maybe they want to make the game more exciting."

WNBA coaches

Of the WNBA's 13 coaches, nine are men (* - former NBA player or coach):

Men

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Connecticut: Mike Thibault

Detroit: Bill Laimbeer*

Houston: Van Chancellor

Indiana: Brian Winters*

Los Angeles: Michael Cooper*

New York: Richie Adubato*

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Sacramento: John Whisenant

San Antonio: Dee Brown*

Washington: Michael Adams*

Women

Charlotte: Trudi Lacey

Minnesota: Suzie McConnell Serio

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Phoenix: Carrie Graf

Seattle: Anne Donovan


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