Coaching a pro women’s team: The Damligan All-Star Game

Published by Full, February, 2003.

As a rookie coach who was never good as a player, this past weekend was my first taste of the “All-Star Experience.” It lacked the pomp and circumstance of the NBA All-Star weekend, but it was the highlight of my Swedish season, and the players had a great time as well. 

The Swedish Basketball Federation used the Damligan All-Star game to try and reach youngsters in and around the Stockholm area. They placed the game in a Stockholm suburb at a high school whose floor had enough dead spots to make the best ball handler look flawed. The event was about the children, starting with the introductions, a comedic performance, and then speeches by Charmin Smith (Stanford University) about her WNBA experience and All-Stars Johanna Robinson, Hanna Biernacka and Ana Ozanic, the heart of the Swedish Junior Team and the stars of Telge Energi, one of the preseason favorites.

Each team was given half a court to hold an hour-long practice. The All-Star captain for my team, Katja Leftwich, the point guard from first place Norrköping Dolphins and my vote for MVP so far, explained the All-Star tradition, and my responsibilities: basically one play with something special, usually a lob. I let the team warm-up, which turned into shooting contests, and thought about my “play.”

There were no traditional introductions, as everybody knew each other by name, if not personally. Until practice started, the players stayed in their own cliques, meaning with their respective teams, leaving the Russian center and lone representative from her team, by herself. I had two representatives from my team, and I knew Katja, as she has played for my club and is close with many  Visby players.

After 20 minutes of shooting, I showed a couple options for a play, finally settling on a simple set play the Kings run, with the high post passing the ball between her legs to the shooter. I tried to teach the point guards a fancy “And1” move to use, but they were unwilling to try. I left them to play 4v4, and talked to Charmin, who I knew from Tara Vanderveer’s camp at Stanford.

Our 9th player arrived late (and our 10th player was sick), and I had to practice in order to play 5v5. I ended up guarding Robinson, the daughter of an American professional player and the most talented Swedish player in the league. How I, the coach, ended up matched up against the shot blocker on the team is definitely a matter of poor coaching, and I managed to stack the team against us as well. We had fun, although I turned over the ball on a couple occasions, and Robinson showed incredible balance and quick feet with her ability to stay in front of me on the perimeter.

I think my willingness to take off my sweatshirt and play without any second thoughts helped to ease the tension and bring the team together. Up to this point, the players not from my team knew me only from the one or two times we have played, and I am the league’s youngest and only American coach, and probably known as the loudest coach. I am definitely different from their respective coaches, and I think they were all hesitant to approach me at first. The practice helped to lighten the atmosphere and once Ozanic joked with me about a bad pass, they saw that I am laid back and not as intense as during the tight games.

After practice, we headed to a local mall for lunch; unlike in American malls where the food courts are mainly fast food and not a destination to eat, the food courts here are good, and this was the second time I have gone to the mall for dinner. After a good lunch at a fresh wok place (noodles, vegetables, shrimp and chicken), most of the women headed into the mall for some shopping, and I stayed behind with my captain, Lina, and talked about troubles at home, with unhappy players, players complaining about me and “my favorites” and other assorted topics.

When we arrived back at the school, it was time to change and play. Because of pre-game festivities and problems finding the uniforms and the players propensity for calisthenics, there was only about 15 minutes of warm-ups, and that was interrupted for pictures. As the game started, I thought the other team was the favorite, as they had six current National players, an American (Christy Bacon from University of Wyoming) and a Norwegian National player. Katja (my MVP pick), a Czech player and the most talented player in the league, Helena Safarikova (University of Dayton) and the three teenagers from Telge Energi led my South (Syd) team.

Because one player voted to the team as a starter did not play, I inserted Lina, probably the most unlikely All-Star selection, as she was completely unknown before this season, into the starting line-up. The South team had an ethnic feel. The two centers were Helena from the Czech Republic and Olga from Russia; Robinson is half-American, Biernacka emigrated from Poland, Ozanic emigrated from Yugoslavia, Petra is Yugoslavian and Lina is half-Greek.

Our game plan was to use our inside advantage (5 of 9 players were post players) to rebound, outlet and run. Katja, Lina and Katja’s teammate Petra, a lighting quick combo guard, led the way as we sprinted out to an early advantage. Ever the team player, Lina asked for a sub less than 3 minutes into the game. Surprised, I asked if she was tired. She said no; she wanted everybody to get into the game early. I started to sub early and often, trying to balance playing time as much as possible, although this was difficult, as I prefer to play with 3 guards and there were only 4 guards on the team.

We led by as many as 23 in the 1st half before the long halftime of speeches, games and a dunk contest broke our rhythm. The North team picked up their intensity, and we struggled to match it, as we allowed them back into the game. Eventually, they took the lead, led by 4 consecutive 3-pointers by a player named Cissi Fern, a player who is deaf that plays for the defending champion Solna Vikings (with Charmin Smith). Also, the American Christy Bacon, who was named the North’s MVP, helped to spur their rally, as she scored a game high 24 points.

The players on the bench hardly noticed the run. We were having too much fun. Between making fun of Hanna’s missed lay-ups (she jinxed herself on the bench talking about a wide-open missed left-handed layup and then did the same thing as soon as she entered the game in the second half) and her making signs to her friends in the stands (they said she was cut because of the missed layups), and then Hanna and Robinson battling (they saw “8 Mile” the night before), Ana and Petra asking me about college in the States, and the likable, laid back humor of Helena, having to substitute players in and out almost ruined the fun. Ultimately, spurred by a desire not to lose a game where we led by 20, I inserted the four guards and Helena and we managed to pick up the defense and stay in the game.

We were behind by 4 with less than a minute to play. After a rebound, we drove the length of the floor and scored, cutting the lead to 2 with about 15 seconds left. Petra, who had 13 points and about 6 steals, forced a steal and attacked the basket, drawing a foul with ten seconds left. After a timeout, Petra knocked down both free throws to tie the game and then we almost got a steal on the inbounds before forcing overtime. In the 3-minute OT, we fell behind by 2 and then went on a 10-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer by Katja, to win 93-89. Robinson was named the MVP, as she led our team with 18 points and probably 12-15 rebounds and a couple blocked shots.

After the players signed hundreds of autographs, we went to the hotel for dinner. I was forced to the “adults” table with the officials from Swedish Basketball and the North coach. As usual, I was mostly silent as the others spoke Swedish; I can understand a lot of Swedish, but people usually speak too quickly for me to catch everything, and if I am not interested, I tend to tune out the Swedish. Eventually I spoke with one of the ladies and tried to explain Special Olympics, as they apparently do not have Special Olympics in Sweden, and I was heavily involved while an undergraduate at UCLA.

After dessert, the teenagers and Johanna Ericsson, my team’s leading scorer on the season, came and sat at my table, as they wanted information about colleges, SATs, and hoops in the States. Eventually, one of the Telge girls asked what kind of defense we played against them in our last game. We played man-to-man defense, fronted the post, and provided lots of help defense. One thought we played a Box-and-1, one thought it was man, and one thought it was a zone. They also said their coach was unhappy because they allowed our best player, Ericsson, to dominate the game; this was funny because my assistant coach and the National Coach criticized Ericsson in the newspaper after the game, despite her double-double. It’s interesting to see the myriad of opinions held within the relatively small basketball community here. We talked about hoops and coaching, and they could not believe that I take abuse from fans and the media (Robinson even posted on our web site the next day that I was a good coach, and they should leave me alone). I talked about my previous jobs in the States and players and clubs I have coached, and they talked about the recruiting process, Junior World Championships and the difference in basketball in Sweden (no pick-up games, less players, less talent, less commitment). We talked for almost 2 hours before Helena insisted that it was time to go out or go to bed, and most of the party headed out to a club as some stayed behind and continued talking at the hotel.


In addition to coaching, I visit local elementary schools and act as the English teacher for the day, usually answering questions and promoting basketball and the Ladies. It is both frustrating and fun, as some classes are involved and others seem to not understand anything; some seem happy when I leave, others all rush the door to get my autograph. I speak to mostly 5th and 6th graders, boys and girls, and very rarely are they interested in basketball; most play soccer.

At the end of each speech, I hand out information to all the girls, trying to get them to join a new basketball team coached by my player from the Ladies. Thus far, the team has 8 players and has played 2 games, both losses; however, that was after only 6 hour-long practices, and with only 5 players at the games. Pregame warmups were a crash course in the rules because some had never seen a game before; in my best Swedish, I tried to explain inbounds passes and double dribbles, and hoped it would turn out okay. They actually played really well and improved every half. In the second game, they trailed 14-2 at halftime and lost 16-12, with the only 2 points scored at the buzzer.

I try to force the students at these classes to ask questions so it is somewhat entertaining or interesting for them. I can babble on forever about basketball or Sacramento or myself, but I figure these subjects do not interest them too much. Each class asks the standard questions, based on the first words one learns in a foreign language: favorite color, age, brothers and sisters, where from, how tall, favorite animal, etc. Some classes ask weird questions (do you drink milk? have you ever been to Vegas?), and others actually ask some interesting questions (what is the best thing that ever happened to you? what was 9/11 like?). The two most popular questions are: “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Do you like Harry Potter?”

Last week, because of the Super Bowl (which I watched live starting at midnight here), a teacher had me attempt to explain American football to the class. In my limited Swedish and their limited English, I drew a diagram on the board and attempted to explain the basics. Football is a very hard game to explain, especially to people who have never seen it played. Also, because Pacific Blue is a popular weekday television show here, one girl asked if America is like TV and specifically Pacific Blue. Fortunately for discussion, I used to live on Venice Beach and can recall walking past the set of Pacific Blue on several occasions; while watching it here on occasion, I see my old apartment from time to time.

Instead of answering no, and letting the question go, I attempted to explain stereotypes and generalizations. This was unsuccessful, so I took to the blackboard and started drawing. I used a couple Xs drawn in different colors and explained that they were all the same, because they were all Xs; however, each X was different because it was a different color: red, blue, green. Then, I said the TV shows try to depict American life using parts of all the different Xs, and drew a black X; in most cases, the black X is closely associated with only one of the colors, blue, and does not resemble very closely any of the other Xs. Therefore, the television shows depict a part of America, but certainly does not resemble America. It was simplistic, and hard to convey in a few words, but I was pretty proud of myself and my ability to get an 11 year old girl to somewhat understand my drawing. If only my players understood Xs and Os that well!!

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League


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