2011 was supposed to be THE YEAR for the Sky, after owner Michael Alter and new President/CEO Adam Fox (former President Margaret Stender remains as Chairman), brought in firepower and experience in former LSU and Team Spartak Coach Pokey Chatman as coach, replacing first-timer Steven Keys. They also added offensive firepower by drafting Courtney Vandersloot out of Gonzaga, who led the Zags to the Final Four from a #11 seed by averaging nearly 30 points per game. Vandersloot's averaging 8.0 ppg in 2011 and is a nice complement to Fowles and Epiphanny Prince, the Rutgers and Team Spartak sensation who's been averaging 16.1 ppg and leads the league in steals sice moving back to her natural guard position after playing her rookie season as a power forward. Veterans Cathrine Kraayeveld and Michelle Snow are averaging 5.5 ppg and 7.8 ppg, at the forward position, respectively.
On the plus side, they've defeated the 2010 World Champion Seattle Storm , split the series with the upstart Atlanta Dream, who made it to the WNBA finals in 2010 in just their second season, and former champion Connecticut Sun. July's WNBA All-Star Game featured three Chicago Sky players--more than any other team--Fowles, Vandersloot, and Prince. That's more than any other team, including the more established LA Sparks, Seattle Storm, Phoenix Mercury, and San Antonio Silver Stars. Late last month, Vandersloot was named to the US National Basketball Team, gearing up for the 2012 Olympics in London.
They've also picked up a loyal family fan base since moving to the Allstate Arena a year ago. I've begun to recognize the families who bring their daughters and sons to the games. Since their move to the Allstate Arena, their pregame is like a circus--fans can find beanbag tosses, face-painting, basketball tosses, and other creative elements for their kids. Most important, players take time for lengthy autograph sessions following each game. That's so rare these days, it is to be commended.
And their audience has continued to grow, thanks to creative, family-centered promotions like Camp Day, Health and Fitness Fairs, and Sunday's "Pink Out" promotion for breast cancer: $20 per ticket gets you a t-shirt, donates $5 to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and a game ticket. Will Steinberg, their Media Relations Director tells me that through nine games, the Sky's attendance averaged 5,980 per game--skewed, perhaps by the record 13,000+ that attended Camp Day. That said, average attendance for 2010 was 4, 290. No matter how you slice the statistics, they are gaining fans. And deservedly so.
Throughout the season, the Sky has played an attacking game in the first half, often leading by double-digits at the end of the half, but inconsistent play, lack of offense at critical moments down the stretch, and a high turnover percentage have marked the new era in Sky history, and has kept the Sky's largely faithful and noisy fans....many of whom transferred their loyalties from the UIC Pavilion to the Allstate Arena and braved the ride into the suburbs.... on the edge of their seats this season. They have been a good home team, going 7-4, but on the road, their record is an abysmal 2-8. That's got to change if the Sky hopes to make a run at the playoffs in this critical month of August.
For example, in the New York game, Sylvia Fowles led the Sky with 11 points and 8 rebounds, well below the 19.3 ppg average she's maintained all season. Late acquisition Shay Murphy, in her second seven-day contract, played well off the bench, scoring 6 of her 9 points in the second half. Epiphanny Prince, who's got 15.4 ppg's through 18 games, scored 9 points in defeat.
Like a growing child, though, this team takes infinite patience to love them to maturity. Past the season's midpoint, the Sky's record is a sub-par 9-12. Take last Thursday night's game. Playing the New York Liberty (12-7) in round three of the two Eastern Conference contenders at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the Sky battled tough but couldn’t come away with the victory. They led most of the game, by as many as 12, but allowed the Liberty to get back into the game in the second half, and New York took the lead with 5:15 left in the game on a Nicole Powell three pointer. The Liberty won 59-49. Against teams like the Indiana Fever, the Connecticut Sun (12-7) , and the Western Conference's LA Sparks, that's happened more often than not. They've even battled to retain leads against the WNBA's all conference cellar-dweller Tulsa Shock (1-19).
Coming into Sunday's game at home with the Indiana Fever, the Sky hang in the balance of the playoff hunt at fourth in the Eastern Conference, behind Indiana (15-6,) Connecticut (12-7,) and New York . Yapping at their heels--for the third year in a row--is the Atlanta Dream (8-11)
The New York Liberty game was typical of the games that got away. As Coach Chatman said, "We scored one point in the fourth quarter. When you go on the road and the team that is hot scores fifty-nine points, you need to win the game. We didn’t do that. The inability to score, turnovers, and a lot of empty possessions, so all of the hard work we did we essentially let slip away. We were in attack mode a lot of east and west, north and south.”
And how do you win over the division rival Indiana Fever? "We need to be in attack mode and do things to win. It’s just discipline." said Chatman.
Fowles was upbeat in defeat. “We had a good game overall. The fourth quarter was just not our quarter. We need to score and get some stops. We have a game Sunday where we need to work hard and push forward.”
The week of August 7-13 will be crucial. It’s Breast Health Awareness Night and everyone will be sporting pink to raise awareness for breast cancer. More importantly, they are facing their rival Eastern Conference-leading Fever (15-6) , against veterans like Tamika Catchings, the Sky On Friday, they face off with the Western Conference leader, Minnesota Lynx (15-4). This week will decide their season, and if this new team is really made of more than talented players who haven't learned to control turnovers and rebounding.
Against the LA Sparks, Coach Chatman summed up the comeback loss. It could have been a quote for the entire season. “We are not good enough to play 20 minute games. We are not good enough to have large lead and comebacks. We don’t have the depth, we don’t have the experience, and we’re not that team. We have to play hard early, make it ugly and lock in and read situation and if we don’t we will come up short."
Against such critical self-assessment, and ultimately, successfully executing Chatman's plan, the groundwork for the first-ever playoff season for the Chicago Sky will come to fruition. Stay tuned. And enjoy the game!