Phoenix Mercury’s Head Coach Leads With “Authentic” Example

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Mercury

Vanessa Nygaard, Head Coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury

Vanessa Nygaard, the new head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, one of the WNBA’s founding franchises, is still figuring out how to make things work in the Valley of the Sun.

She’s not new to the WNBA. She’s been a player, drafted in the league’s second year, and played perhaps her best ball in Portland and Miami. She’s also been a league coach, for the Washington Mystics. But she’s never before been a head coach of a WNBA franchise, let alone one as decorated as the Mercury, which has three championship rings and just missed its fourth last year. She’s also stepping into the coaching shoes of arguably one of the most successful coaches in league history, her friend and former teammate Sandy Brondello. So while there are some big shoes to fill and there’s pressure, to be sure, there’s also a huge upside to the job.

The Phoenix Mercury boasts a roster loaded with talent and chief among the All-Stars is a player who is widely considered perhaps the most dominant player in a generation, maybe ever, to play in the WNBA — Brittney Griner, or “B.G.” as she’s known around the league. For the uninitiated, Griner is so dominant that if we lived in a different world, LeBron would be considered the “B.G.” of the NBA.

Vanessa Nygaard on the court talking to team members of the Phoenix Mercury.

Coach Vanessa Nygaard on the court

Photo courtesy of Phoenix Mercury

“When you need a bucket, she’s a bucket,” Nygaard says of Griner. “When things weren’t working well, we’d just throw it into her and she’d get you points.”

If you’re wondering why the name Brittney Griner rings a bell, it’s because you haven’t been living under a rock the last few months. She is the player who’s been locked up in a Russian gulag and, for the last several months, used by Vladimir Putin as a pawn in a dangerous, high-stakes game of international chess. The Russian President is using Griner to pressure the U.S. to get whatever the hell it is he’s trying to get — and let’s be honest, nobody, not even Putin probably, has any idea what that is anymore.

At this point you might be thinking geopolitical security coupled with European war negotiation strategy is outside of a WNBA head coach’s job description — and you’d be right — yet here we are. But hey, Nygaard went to Stanford, so we’re all good, right?

All kidding aside, to say that it hasn’t been a distraction would be like saying Vesuvius wasn’t a concern to the residents of Pompeii. (Google it, you’ll get it later.) Trying to keep reporters interested in how your players are posting up in the paint while all that’s going on hasn’t been easy. Nor has it been a breeze to completely re-invent an offense, or ask a group of All-Stars to suddenly fill roles that are different than what made them All-Stars in the first place. Yet she’s done this, navigating her team to the brink of a playoff berth while getting to know them and a new coaching staff.

Then there’s the human side, getting to know a new area and the fun things that go with it, like monsoons and haboobs. So it’s understandable that Coach hasn’t had time to figure out some of life’s necessities, like, where she should get her first haircut in Phoenix, which was precisely where she was coming from when our interview started.

“I had been getting my haircut in L.A.,” she said, during the first few moments of our Zoom call. When she saw the puzzled look on my face, she explained that her family was still living in Los Angeles when the season started and she would visit a lot. So, she would just get it cut there. Now that her family has fully moved to Phoenix, she had to finally find a new place.

It’s the little things.

Over the next 30 minutes, Coach Nygaard and I would have an illuminating discussion about a variety of topics. While she was born not far from where the Mercury play, it turns out we both went to high school about 30 minutes apart, in the northern part of San Diego county. I graduated two years ahead of her but our high school sports teams would have played each other, though not in Girls Basketball. That’s because until Coach Nygaard’s mother got involved, her high school didn’t have a girl’s basketball team.

During our wide-ranging interview we would talk about that and how Title IXmay have changed the game 50 years ago, but what’s needed now for that change to be fully realized is enforcement, perhaps on the local level, to make sure every kid gets the same opportunities she had. Coach Nygaard shared how she followed her mother’s example years later, becoming an advocate herself for a team she coached at the High School level, making sure “separate but equal” wasn’t applied.

We would also talk about why representation matters. Coach Nygaard is an out and proud woman playing in the WNBA. That’s important to her. She’s aware not everyone is as lucky as she’s been.

“I never thought of myself as being a visible member of the LGBTQ community, or anything like that,” Nygaard, said. However, the coach believes that when people are in positions like hers, it’s important to accept the reality that they’re role models.

“We don’t all have families that are supporting and loving and accepting of us,” she said. For those people, especially for young kids, it’s important to see some positivity is possible at the end. “I’ve had success in my career. I have a loving family. It’s important to see that there is joy, there are good things to come… For me, that’s the only reason why I would say anything or why I would be front-facing in any way — to provide some hope for that kid who may be at home and feel like, ‘ugh, I can’t do this anymore.’”

But more than offering hope, being allowed to be who you are, to be your authentic self, is about being your best self, Nygaard said in our interview. “Nobody’s gonna be their best until they’re authentically themselves,” she said. As a player, Nygaard believes she wasn’t her best until she knew she was allowed to be who she really was.

This is a universal truth that isn’t just shared in the locker room. It reaches the upper-most echelon of the organization, perhaps one of the most progressive in the league, which, to be clear, is saying something.

Mercury President Vince Kozar feels it’s important for the organization as a whole to make sure the LGBTQ community recognizes the Mercury as both resource and partner. “As an organization, we pride ourselves on being as inclusive as possible – whether that’s centering women or historically marginalized communities. And the reality is we’re a product that provides visibility and representation for groups that need that, one of which is the LGBTQ+ community. We have athletes who are out, outspoken and living very authentically. We want to show up for them. We want to tell their stories because we know those stories impact folks everywhere.”

That visibility and authenticity is a big reason why Nygaard is thrilled to be a part of the Phoenix Mercury. Another reason she loves stalking the sidelines of the Footprint Center, the Mercury fans known as the X-Factor.

“Our fans are free to be themselves,” Nygaard says. When you come to a Mercury game, she says, “You’re not going to see just one kind of fan. You’ll see families there with young kids. You’ll see older gay couples. You’ll see just random basketball fans who just love basketball. You’ll see all kinds of people.” Ultimately, Nygaard says, “Everyone is there to just support the Mercury.”

But one thing Nygaard is especially proud of: “Our Pride night.” She swears “It’s the best in the history of sports.”

Kozar may agree, and he has some bragging rights to back it up. “We were the first local sports organization to have a presence at Phoenix Pride, the first to march in the Pride parade, the first to host a Pride Night at a game, and the first to sign local organization ONE Community’s Unity Pledge in support of non-discrimination in public accommodations and the workplace. And if that made even one person feel like they were seen or not alone or valued or that our games were a safe space, then every bit of it was worth it.”

Many of the Mercury players are themselves part of the community. In fact, Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, took center stage to advocate for her spouse’s release during the WNBA All-Star game in June, a reality that was not lost on Nygaard. During our interview, we talked about the fact that its willingness to put a queer person center-stage on its biggest night sets the WNBA apart from other professional sports organizations — but maybe not for long.

While other pro leagues can now boast out athletes who are active and playing, it is true that few have done more than the WNBA to embrace them. What is also true is that within the WNBA, few have franchises that have done more than the Mercury to make those players and coaches feel at home

Maybe that’s the real X-Factor.

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