With a nod and a smile, Dan Hughes pushed himself up from the postgame interview table following the Seattle Storm’s 84-62 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night at Angel of the Winds Arena. When he reached the bottom of the stairs to the dais he was greeted by his son Bryce, and the two walked arm-in-arm back to the Seattle locker room, just a hint of son helping prop father up.
Yes, the Storm may have just breezed past the Sparks, but Hughes’ mere presence was the true triumph.
The Storm’s head coach was back on Seattle’s bench Friday night for the first time since undergoing cancer surgery, and Hughes’ return gave Everett one more moment to treasure while serving as the Storm’s temporary host.
The WNBA season isn’t even a month old, yet the Storm have already suffered through a string of mishaps that would make the Biblical Job blush. Reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured Achilles that ended her season before it even began. Franchise legend Sue Bird is out indefinitely after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. It means we in Everett, granted the gift of the Storm using Angel of the Winds as one of its temporary homes this season, have had the ill luck of seeing the reigning WNBA champions nowhere near their full selves.
But the most poignant of all of Seattle’s misfortunes involved its coach. Before the season began Hughes announced he had been diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his digestive tract on May 14, meaning he was absent for the start of the season. It was one more hit for the Storm, one more piece of the championship team the fans in Everett were going to miss out on as Seattle played its first three home games at Angel of the Winds.
But despite all the adversity the Storm managed to go a perfect 3-0 during their initial stint in Everett — Seattle has two more games at Angel of the Winds in early August — and getting the opportunity to see Hughes overcome his travails and return to the bench was no small consolation.
During his postgame press conference Hughes spoke in what I presume was his usual genial and professional manner — this was the first time I was present for one of those. The only time he showed any signs of the emotion of the moment taking over came when he was asked how it felt to be back on the bench.
“It felt great,” Hughes said. “I felt grateful to people. I felt grateful to people who supported me in my health journey. I felt grateful for the team and the coaches. It’s a little bit humbling, to be honest with you, because there were a lot of people doing great work and a lot of people sending prayers my way for this day. I had feelings beyond basketball today, like for my family — my wife has had no life for about two months, just kind of caring for me. So things like that are what I felt. And then it was just great to be with the team. In a victory, or even in a loss, I would have felt like I was in the right spot.”
Though Hughes relinquished the duties of running the team to assistant Gary Kloppenburg in the wake of his surgery, he remained a presence with the team. Hughes attended practices when the Storm were home, and in his own words he “had plenty of time to study (the team).” Hughes received clearance from his medical team to resume his head coaching duties earlier this week, much to the delight of the entire organization.
“There’s no question the team has energy behind him,” Storm general manager Alisha Valavanis said. “We’ve had some adversities this season, but having Dan back and knowing what he just went through just gives you a a lot of perspective. The team is thrilled to have him back, and as an organization we’re just happy he’s healthy, he has that behind him now, and he’s back with us.”
That energy manifested itself on the court in the form of a Storm team that played harder and smarter than the Sparks. On paper one would say Los Angeles had a substantial talent advantage. But Seattle was in control throughout, largely because of the effort and intelligence with which the Storm played on both ends of the floor.
“I think it’s just a different energy,” Storm All-Star guard Jewell Loyd said. “Dan is always very focused and very electrifying in practice in general. He came in and was like, ‘All right guys, for 20 bucks someone has to make a free throw, a layup and a 3 all in a row,’ and we’re like, ‘OK.’ He just has a different energy, and we felt that today for sure.”
Friday’s game marked the end of the Storm’s initial stretch at Angel of the Winds, and Seattle’s time in Everett has to be considered a smashing success. The Storm won all three of their games in front of enthusiastic crowds, including a sold-out building for their season opener, when they received their championship rings.
But maybe the best thing that happened for the Storm in Everett was being able to welcome their head coach back into the fold.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.