Professional women’s basketball came to Seattle partly as a result of the success of the University of Washington’s women’s basketball team in the mid-1980s through 1990s. The city was one of 12 to be included in the American Basketball League, the first professional women’s league, established in 1995. The Seattle Reign built a small but dedicated base of fans before the team, and the league, folded in December 1998.
The WNBA, established in 1997 as an offshoot of the NBA, awarded Seattle a franchise in 1999. Like other WNBA teams, the Storm plays in the summer, during the NBA off-season, and benefits from media contracts, sponsorships, and advertising arranged through the NBA.
The Storm managed to win only six games during its inaugural season in 2000, ending the year with a dismal 6-26 record. The last-place finish gave the team the right to pick the first player to be drafted for the next season. Coach Lin Dunn chose Lauren Jackson (b. 1981), a tall (6’5”), slender, 19-year-old center from Australia. Both of Jackson’s parents played basketball for various Australian teams. She took up the game herself at age four. She led the Australian team to a silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Despite the addition of Jackson -- known as “Lo-Jack” to her fans -- the Storm continued to struggle during its second season. The team won 10 games but lost 22 and ended the year back in the cellar. With another first-round draft pick, Dunn tapped Suzanne Brigit “Sue” Bird (b. 1980), a standout point guard for the University of Connecticut. Bird (no relation to NBA legend Larry Bird) helped her team win two National Collegiate Athletic Association titles in 2000 and 2002, and was named College Player of the Year in 2002.
With Jackson’s scoring and rebounding and Bird’s playmaking ability, the Storm won 17 games during the 2002 season and made the playoffs for the first time. However, the young team did not yet have the depth it needed for a championship season. It lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2003, head coach Lin Dunn retired and Anne Donovan (b. 1961), one of the most accomplished players and coaches in the history of women's basketball, replaced her. The six-foot, eight-inch Donovan was a three-time All-American selection at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she played from 1979 to 1983. She was a member of Gold Medal U.S. Olympic teams in 1984 and 1988 before turning to coaching. As of 2005, she was one of only five women enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Donovan took the pieces that Dunn had assembled and added the missing elements, completing the transformation of the Storm from “a team that could barely beat the shot clock to a squad that beat everyone” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2005). The Storm’s fourth year began auspiciously enough, but slid downward later in the season. Injuries sidelined a number of players, including Sue Bird. The team ended up tied with the Minnesota Lynx for fourth place in the league’s Western Conference. Minnesota won the tie-breaker and went off to the playoffs while the Storm went home.
Despite missing the playoffs, Lauren Jackson’s shooting and rebounding made her the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2003.
During the off-season, Donovan made several shrewd additions to the Storm’s roster, picking up guard Betty Lennox in a “dispersal draft” of players left stranded by the collapse of the Cleveland Rockers, and making a trade with Minnesota for small forward Sherri Sam and center Janell Burse.
Lennox (b. 1976) played college ball for Louisiana Tech before being drafted by Minnesota in 2000. She was named Rookie of the Year but soon acquired a reputation as a problem player. Minnesota traded her to Miami in 2002. When that team folded the next year, she was picked up by Cleveland, but relegated to reserve status. Five other players from Cleveland were tapped by other teams before Donovan selected Lennox.
Before the end of the game that won the 2004 WNBA championship for the Storm, Lennox would be accustomed to hearing shouts of “Betty, Betty, Betty” from crowds at KeyArena.
Reign of the Storm
The Storm opened its fifth season on a ragged note, winning at home but losing on the road. Some observers think the most important game during the regular season was a slender 65-63 victory over the Sacramento Monarchs on the Monarchs’ home court on July 5, breaking a nine-game losing streak on the road. Lennox sank the winning basket with less than a second left in the game. The victory was the first in what became a six-game winning streak, including three on the road.
The Storm finished the season with the second-best record in the WNBA’s Western Conference and an assured place as the second seed in the Conference playoffs. The team coasted to a win over Minnesota in Game 1 of the first round, despite the fact that Jackson sat out most of the first half because of fouls and Lennox missed all of the second half because of a concussion. Bird suffered a broken nose minutes into Game 2, but the Storm prevailed, 64-54, advancing to the second round, against Sacramento. The Monarchs won the first game of that series, but Seattle took the next two, putting the Storm in the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Facing the Connecticut Sun on its home court, the Storm lost the series opener, 68-64, but squeaked out a 67-65 victory before a sellout crowd of 17,072 fans at KeyArena in Game 2. Seattle had the home court advantage again for the final game, played on a crisp fall evening in mid-October. Buoyed by another capacity crowd, the Storm overshadowed the Sun (inspiring metaphoric leaps by headline writers around the country), 74-60, giving Seattle its first national championship in 25 years.
In retrospect, the Sun made a critical mistake by focusing its energy on Bird and Jackson. With its star players bottled up, the Storm relied on other talent. "There's a reason we won tonight and that's because other people stepped up," Bird said after the final game. "They tried to take me and Lauren away, and you saw what happened: Betty Lennox. I can't say anything else” (Columbian, 2004). Lennox, with 27 points in Game 2 and 23 in Game 3, was named the series’ Most Valuable Player. "We proved it tonight. It's a team sport, and you've got to play like a team," said Jackson (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2004).
The victory made Donovan the first female coach to win a WNBA title. "I'm glad that there's a woman that's won a championship -- very glad,” she said later. “No better candidate than me" (The News Tribune, 2004).
Ecstatic fans packed Seattle’s Westlake Center for a midday celebration three days after the final game. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels declared October 15 “Storm Day” in the city. Washington Governor Gary Locke went one step further by proclaiming October 15 through 22 as “Storm Week,” throughout the state. The team, pundits agreed, had taken the city, if not the state, by storm.