A year ago, Dan Hughes was settling into a comfortable retirement and oblivious of the WNBA where he coached the previous two decades.
While the league’s elite gathered in Seattle for its All-Star Game, Hughes boarded a flight to his hometown Lowell, Ohio. He was the keynote speaker for a reunion gathering the 1978-79 Madison-Plains High boys basketball team that he coached to acclaim nearly 40 years ago and was being inducted in the school’s hall of fame.
“I knew it was happening, … but on the actual day of the All-Star Game, I was heading back to Ohio,” Hughes said. “I didn’t watch the game. I can’t tell you who won. I can’t even tell you who the MVP was. I hate to say that, but my life was going in in a different direction.”
Fast-forward nearly 12 months and Hughes, who coaches the Storm, leads a contingent of three Seattle players (Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd) to Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Hughes will be the first to admit he never thought he’d coach again after leaving the San Antonio Stars in 2016. And he certainly didn’t believe he’d ever return to the WNBA All-Star Game with the best record in the league at 19-7.
“I’m a faithful guy and I feel like this is what was meant to be,” said the 63-year-old coach. “But it wasn’t necessarily planned.”
Quite frankly, Hughes didn’t need to return to the WNBA to find redemption or validate a 16-year coaching career in which he posted a 237-287 record and made one trip to the WNBA Finals.
Following a 12-year stint in San Antonio, he said goodbye to the WNBA and embarked on a post-coaching life that sent him around the world teaching basketball seminars and working as a broadcast analyst during women’s hoops games.
“I was doing all of these things that I never had time to do before,” Hughes said. “To be honest with you, I was kind of happy doing those things and giving back to basketball because it had been so good to me.”
That’s when Storm president Alisha Valavanis called Hughes last fall with an offer to take over a Seattle team that had lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous two years and hadn’t had a winning season since 2011.
“There were very few opportunities that my wife and I would have looked at each other and say we’ve got to do this,” Hughes said. “Seattle was one of those for a lot of factors. There would have been a lot of situations where I would have been just happy doing what I was doing.”
In its first season under Hughes, the Storm has improved in nearly every significant statistical category from the previous year.
Seattle is averaging more points (87.0-82.6), rebounds (35.3-31.0), assists (20.9-20.2), steals (7.7-6.5) and blocks (4.3-3.2). The Storm is also allowing fewer points (79.5-82.6) and committing fewer turnovers (13.7-14.3).
“Dan has a wealth of experience in the WNBA,” Valavanis said. “We have benefited from that here as the Storm.
“His approach with our team is to keep it simple and put them in a position to be successful. All with a clear focus on defensive and rebounding improvement.”
Hughes began coaching when he was 22, but in his 17th WNBA season, he’s embraced advanced analytics while allocating more control and authority to assistants and players than he ever had.
“A coach is a part of what’s going on, but I’ve learned it’s really about the players,” he said, laughing. “I’ve got to tell you the truth. … I look at the role of a coach a little differently now.
“My approach now is what’s the best thing we can do to make this work as opposed to being the coach who says we cover pick-and-rolls this way and I’ve got to have a 6-foot-5 player at this spot. I’ve evolved to thinking, ‘OK, what have we got and how can we put this group and this culture in the right place.’”
Hughes has Seattle in position to win its third WNBA title.
With eight games remaining, the Storm lead Atlanta (16-9) by 21⁄2 games for first place in the standings while the next six teams are five games out. (The top two seeds receive a bye to the best-of-five semifinals.)
In 2008, Hughes led San Antonio to the best record in the WNBA at 24-10. The Stars advanced through the first two rounds of the playoffs before being swept 3-0 by Detroit.
“I think the ceiling is higher with this team than I’ve had before at any point,” Hughes said. “But I’m also old enough to understand that you’ve got to have some luck as far as health and what have you. You got to have people step up in situations as they have and will have to.
“But I’m not thinking about the end. Look, I’m 63 and what age does is it gives you perspective. I think about today, today. And I’ll think about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
This weekend, Hughes will enjoy a second trip to the WNBA All-Star Game. In 2009, he led a Western Conference team that included Seattle’s Sue Bird to a 130-118 victory.
Hughes is looking forward to re-connecting with Las Vegas forward Kayla McBride, who he drafted in San Antonio. He also wants to spend time with fellow All-Star coach Sandy Brondello, his former Stars assistant who leads the Phoenix Mercury.
“I’m going to be like Paul McCartney,” Hughes said. “Every concert — no matter where he is — Paul McCartney will just stop what he’s doing, look around and take a minute to soak it all in.
“Well, I’m going to do the same thing. I’m just going to soak it in. I’m going to look around and put a memory in my head that I’ll never forget.”
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