WNBA teams looking for a few good men

Coach Corey Gaines (left) of the WNBA’s Mercury talks to prospective practice squad players. Coach Corey Gaines (left) of the WNBA’s Mercury talks to prospective practice squad players. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
By John Marshall
Associated Press / May 22, 2011

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PHOENIX — Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines stands near midcourt and surveys the players running past him, occasionally shouting encouragement and admonishments.

There are a couple of athletic post players that catch his eye, along with some decent ballhandlers and a couple of shooters.

Mixed in is some, well, other talent, including a player who can’t dribble without looking at the ball and another with a white headband and a mop of gray hair who, from a distance, is a dead ringer for Izzy Mandelbaum from “Seinfeld.’’

In all, there are close to 100 players in the three groups of the tryouts, giving Gaines plenty of men to fill out his roster.

That’s right. Men.

This wasn’t a tryout for the Mercury’s roster. It was to fill out the practice squad, the guys who have become a necessity for every WNBA team.

“I’m just looking for some guys who have basketball knowledge,’’ Gaines said. “Not necessarily guys who have the top skills, but know how to play the game. If you don’t know how to play the game, most likely you’ll hurt somebody. So you need somebody who knows basketball, and that’s what we’re looking for.’’

So is just about every WNBA team.

A concept that started with high-level women’s college basketball teams a few years ago has spread across the WNBA.

Some teams, such as the Mercury, hold open tryouts to find players for their practice squads.

Phoenix had close to 200 men show up at last year’s tryouts and there were a few returnees from last year hoping to be among the 15-or-so players Gaines will keep this year.

Some had good skills, looking as if they might have played in college, shooting threes and a few of them dunking. Others looked like they might have a hard time competing in a playground game, dribbling the ball off their legs, and running into each other on the three-man weave.

No matter their skill level, Gaines treated them all the same.

“I imagine myself playing water polo,’’ he said. “You put me in water polo, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not going to be able to do it. It’s the same thing. It’s not their fault. I’m not the best at every sport, so I try to make it fun for them.’’

One player having a blast was 64-year-old Rod Zabel, who decided to give it a try after his wife saw a note about the tryouts on the Internet. Zabel plays three or four times a week against players often 30 years younger, so he wasn’t iintimidated by the atmosphere.

Despite a crack about the No. 73 on his back being his age and a shout of “You’re my boy, Blue!’’ Zabel held his own, sprinting up and down the floor, running the drills better than many of the players at the tryout.

“I love to play basketball,’’ Zabel said. “I’ve been playing since I was 8, so I figured well, I can have fun. And it was great.’’

Part of the move to the male practice teams stems from simple math. The WNBA allows only 11-woman rosters, so there isn’t much leeway if someone has to sit out practice. If a couple of players get hurt or sick, the team can’t even go five-on-five. The women also need rest because many play overseas in the offseason to supplement their incomes.

Having a squad of male practice players — who aren’t allowed to be paid, under WNBA rules — gives teams flexibility in practice, a chance to rest players who might be tired or injured, and the ability to go full court anytime they want.

“There are people sitting out, people that are hurt and sometimes you don’t have enough to practice, so in that sense, just having numbers and being able to go through a whole practice competing and getting the reps in is important,’’ said Seattle Storm guard Katie Smith. “On top of that, you get some bigger guys, guys who can challenge you.’’

The challenge is a big part of what makes the men’s teams such an effective practice tool. WNBA players are among the best in the world, making it difficult to find high-quality female players to practice against.

Many of the men on practice squads around the league are former college and high school players, so they’re skilled enough to challenge the women and have enough basketball knowledge to understand what the coaches want them to do.

“They push the ball so well and can defend you in ways you normally don’t get against your second string,’’ Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said. “Having those guys is definitely beneficial to your team because you’re going against great competition every day.’’

The practice players are expected to know the game, how to set screens, box out, run basic plays and defenses. Some WNBA coaches even give the men homework, a handful of plays they need to learn so the women will know what to expect from an opponent in a game. The guys behind the girls also are required to be competitive, to push the WNBA players nearly as hard as they would be in games.

“You want competitiveness. You don’t want them to be, ‘Oh, she’s a girl, don’t play hard,’ ’’ Gillom said. “You want them to play hard, but at the same time they have to understand their masculinity and not be overly competitive and cause them to be injured. The ones that have been around a while know the girls and know how to be aggressive.’’

Occasionally, there are new players who don’t understand the concept. Some feel they need to be the star and get carried away with shooting too much, others get too aggressive. Usually, they don’t last long.

Sam Cheung, 32, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, is the ringleader of sorts for the Connecticut Sun’s practice squad. A former point guard and assistant coach at the Coast Guard Academy, he has been with the team since 2005. Cheung enjoys being on the team because it’s a chance to play several times a week against a high level of competition, but also understands that he’s there to do a job — even if he isn’t getting paid.

“We’re there strictly for the team’s benefit,’’ Cheung said. “We listen to what the coaches want. A few things I’m a little uncomfortable doing, but if it’s going to help the team prepare for the Houston Rockets, let’s say, that’s what we do.’’

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