YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rollins tries to solve the Mystics' mess

June 24, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Tree Rollins was chillin' by his pool, playing with his dog and sipping a drink with a tiny umbrella. Life was good for the former NBA player, who had been smart enough to invest and manage his money during his 18 years as a pro.

Sure, he had stayed in basketball since his retirement as a player in 1995. He was an assistant coach for 10 years with three NBA teams, spent a year as head coach of the Greenville Groove of the NBA's Development League and had even served -- as a favor to a friend -- as president and general manager of the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Assn.

Now it was time to relax at home in Orlando, Fla.

"I was just taking it easy," Rollins said. "I had been involved in basketball since college. It had been full-steam ahead since then, so I felt I needed a break."

Then he got a message from an old friend. Richie Adubato was coaching the WNBA's Washington Mystics and needed an assistant to tutor the post players. Had it been anyone but Adubato, Rollins would probably would have stayed by the pool. Instead, they met at a nearby coffee shop, where Adubato gave Rollins a primer on Women's Basketball 101.

"He helped me with the pronunciation of the names and everything," Rollins said. "That's how green I was."

Fifteen months later, Rollins finds himself unexpectedly at the helm of the Mystics, an accidental head coach if there ever was one. He did not seek the job, and he tried to talk Adubato out of quitting when the coach abruptly resigned on game day two weeks ago. The 7-foot-1 Rollins is so mild-mannered that his best player, Alana Beard, calls him "a big teddy bear," yet he has the daunting task of stabilizing a rattled team that couldn't seem to win a game no matter what.

"I'm not going to jump up and yell and scream and all that," Rollins said. "It's not going to help the situation. What we try to do is be as positive as possible. If she wants to call me a teddy bear, that's OK."

Ironically, the Mystics had the most stable off-season in the league. All five starters returned from the team that was 18-16 and made the playoffs last year. Adubato became the first coach to make it into his third year with a franchise that had previously gone through seven coaches in seven years.

Then, after an 0-4 start, Adubato was gone on June 1. He had been unhappy that he had not received a contract extension, but the final straw came when the front office traded Chasity Melvin for Monique Currie, destroying the continuity he had worked so hard to create.

"Boy, how things change," Beard said. "I was really excited about it, the fact that we were having our same team back, and the idea that all of our starters had been involved in Richie's system because Richie's system is so hard to learn. But you know what, this is a business, and when rookies ask me what's the one thing I had to adjust to when I came into the league, I said when you figure out that it's a business, everything else will flow just fine."

Rollins had no idea it was coming, and he tried in vain to get Adubato to reconsider. Since then, he has had to adjust on the fly to solve the Mystics' mess. He wants to use a deeper rotation off the bench and play a more up-tempo game, but you'd never sense the urgency by watching him. At times during practice he is so low-key that it would be easy to mistake him for a curious spectator.

"He's very soft-spoken," guard Coco Miller said, "but we all respect him a lot. He has a tremendous knowledge of the game."

Rollins was even more tentative as an assistant a year ago. Not only did he not know the women's game, he also didn't know how to handle female athletes. He would address the players gently, starting his sentences with "Ladies ... "

"We would always say, 'Tree, can you put some bass in your voice?' " center Nakia Sanford said with a laugh.

Rollins said he had always been taught to give a woman her due respect when she walked into a room. But a locker room? Obviously, this was a new experience.

"Could you swear at them? Can you pat them on the back -- is the team going to get sued?" Rollins said. "All that was floating around.... But now I treat them like some of the guys."

The tumultuous developments of the last two weeks haven't made Rollins any less of a gentle giant, but he is stern when he needs to be.

The Mystics lost their first four games under Rollins to fall to 0-8 and had a miserable start June 13 against the Phoenix Mercury when a frustrated fan near the bench yelled: "C'mon, Tree, get excited."

Rollins didn't get excited, but he decided to send a message. During a timeout, he made the starters stand while he lectured them in a raised voice -- although a raised voice for Rollins would be normal volume for most coaches.

Los Angeles Times Articles