Tulsa Shock Head Coach Gary Kloppenburg's Mid-Season ReviewJuly 15, 2012
When the Tulsa Shock announced Gary Kloppenburg as their next head coach back in January, fans were scratching their heads asking, “Who is that?”
Kloppenberg, a long-time assistant coach for current Indiana Fever head coach Linn Dunn, has coached as an assistant for a lot of teams including the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats under Bernie Bickerstaff, and was the head coach for Lassen Community College men’s and women’s basketball teams in California in the 1980s.
Sportspage Magazine’s Jeffrey Williams talked with Coach Kloppenburg after the team’s 89-74 loss to the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday.
Tell us about your background.
I’ve been coaching for more years than I can remember now, at all different levels – overseas, NBA, men’s and women’s, college, WNBA, CBA. I was even a volunteer assistant in the D-League one year, a couple years back. I’ve been around. I guess that probably dates me.
How much value do you put on your experience as an assistant with Phoenix and for Linn Dunn’s squads?
It was a tremendous experience because Linn Dunn is probably one of the better coaches in the women’s game. I learned a lot from her about organizing and team chemistry, just a lot of the little things that you want to do when you are building a team. It was a tremendous experience to be able to work under her.
What was going through your mind when you got the call up from Tulsa to become their head coach?
I really wanted to get a head coaching job the last few years and nothing was there that was really wide open. This came along and felt like it would be a good situation to build a team. I was really excited when I got the opportunity to coach. We’re going through a lot of growing pains, obviously, but to me the future is bright. We have a bright future. We got a good core of good players that play extremely hard. We obviously have to increase our talent level, we know that. That will come through the draft or through trades, however we can do it.
Is this first year an evaluation period?
You really want to try to implement your system and how you want to play with the players you got in that first year, and get your players to play extremely hard. I think we’ve done that. I think we come out and try to play everybody really tough. We try to get them prepared for every game to see what we can try to do to win. It’s hard to predict what the future will hold. I know we’ll have a core of our players moving forward. We want to build that mentality and chemistry even this first year. We don’t want to be in a lottery. We want to be a playoff team. We’re going to continue with that attitude in the second half of the season as well.
You’re 3-15. What are you observations on the first half of the season?
We felt like we were in a lot of games. We lost a few close games, probably three or four heartbreaking games that really came down to a free throw or two. If we made those we would probably have won those games. Looking at it that way, we feel that we could have won six or seven games thus far. However, we have a young team and learning how to win with a team that’s in their first year together in a whole new team, you’re going to go through some of those growing pains. I think the thing that I’ve got out of it as a positive is that they’ve always kept their heads up even though those tough heartbreaking losses that we went through. We lost a couple at the buzzer. We lost a couple because of missed free throws down the stretch. They’ve always been resilient, kept their heads up, and kept coming back to practice vowing to get better. That tells me that this is a high character, high quality group of players.
How important is it to get Liz Cambage back in the lineup?
That will be big because she’s a major world-wide force. She’s one of the top centers, if not the top women’s pro center in the world right now, even though she’s young. She’s going to create a tremendous problem in our league because she’s going to command double and sometimes a triple team with her skill level. We’re looking forward to getting her back in for the last part of the season and see what we can do with her.
What can Tulsa Shock and WNBA fans look forward to in the second half of the season?
I think the second half, and then moving forward, we’re just trying to build a culture that we’re going to get better. We feel like this is an expansion year, at least for me as a coach. We put together this group. See what we can do and then keep building in the second half of the season. We’ll keep looking forward down the road. We’ve got some good young players. I think that both of our rookies that we got in the draft this year can be good long-term pros in this league. We have some bright spots. I just think we want the fans around this league and in Tulsa to know that we’re not standing pat. We know we’re down a little bit. We know we’re in the hole a little bit. We’re not standing pat. We’re going to keep fighting and battle to get better every chance we get.
What has the Tulsa fan support been like?
They’ve been pretty good. We have a pretty good core of fans who have backed us. They haven’t been fair weather fans but been with us through thick and through thin. I think it’s a situation in Tulsa if we can just get ourselves better, I think the fans in general and in the city will really respond. I think we’ll get outstanding crowds as we move forward and get better.
What have you learned as a head coach so far?
Head coaching is a little bit different because everything comes back on you. The big thing I think I’m learning is that you want to always keep communicating with your players. These are pro players. Even though our record is not that good, we’re still in a league with the best players in the world. Our players are unique. They are some of the best basketball players in the world. For me, it’s very important to always keep the lines of communication open with all the players. We need to make sure that we are helping each other to try to get better. Everything is on you. You’ve got the media and all that stuff. I didn’t have to deal with that as an assistant coach. You gotta take the hits as a head coach, but I enjoy it. I love it.
How have your players been responding so far this year?
I think they have done really well. Like I said, we’ve gone through some tough losses. We’ve had some high moments at home. We beat L.A. at home and Phoenix at home. I think they’ve had a taste of, ‘Hey, if we can play this way, here’s how we can beat a really good team.’ I think our chemistry is good. It’s very positive and we try to get players that we know are going to play hard all the time. I think they’re doing that.
What additional things do you want WNBA fans to know?
Just hang in there with us. Don’t stereotype us as, ‘Oh, that’s just Tulsa.’ Like with the team in Minnesota, I remember just a few years back that’s what they were saying about the Lynx, but look at them now. That’s where we want to be some day, so don’t sleep on us.
When asked about what it is like to learn from Coach Kloppenburg, Shock forward Glory Johnson said, “He’s great because he’s hands on. No matter what we do, if I want to get extra shots in, he’ll run screens and I’m hitting him really hard and he’s coming back for more. The fact that he’s a hands-on coach, you don’t get that everywhere. He’s helped me so much. He understands that I’m still developing, as a rookie. I didn’t have to do too much in college and I had a specific role. Now I don’t really know what my role is but I’m trying to find it. He understands that.”
Johnson was also asked about her observations on her first year coach’s development.
“It’s good. At first he wasn’t too talkative. He was really quiet. You just respect him because he’s your coach,” she said. “After a while he’s gotten a lot louder and is really aggressive. He’s a lot more competitive than I thought he would be when I first came here. I love playing for him.”