On the Rebound

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: People Issue: July 2015
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Ultimate working mom Sandy Brondello coached the Phoenix Mercury to a championship last year. But can she lead them to a repeat – sans their star player?

Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello looks like she’s conducting traffic in the epicenter of a tornado. While several 6-foot-plus players sprint circles around her and hustle for the ball in a storm of squeaking sneakers, she stands – 5 feet 7 inches with an 8-foot presence – screaming “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” and making sweeping gestures with her arms to demonstrate the planned plays. She maintains this intensity for the duration of the team’s two-hour practice on the main basketball court at US Airways Center, augmenting her instructions with finger whistling and hand claps.

Many of Brondello’s statements are preceded by the word “look.” As in: “Look, I’m really big on preparation” or “Look, I try and play to the strengths of the team” or “Look, I’m big on detail.” Now in her second year as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury – arguably the WNBA’s premier franchise with three league championships, including one last season – Brondello, 46, is good at making people look, including people who maybe never gave women’s pro basketball a second glance. Posting a 29-5 season, Brondello received the league’s Coach of the Year award in 2014 for what many pundits consider the finest season in league history. Brondello’s two children and her husband, fellow basketball coach Olaf Lange, were at every game to cheer her on.

But this season, which started June 5, presents big challenges. The Mercury will be temporarily minus the services of All-Star center Brittney Griner, who was suspended for seven games by the WNBA following a domestic assault arrest in April. And the team will be completely without veteran superstar Diana Taurasi, who recently had surgery on her broken left hand and is sitting out the season to rest at the behest of her EuroLeague team. Brondello’s made some roster adjustments and seems undaunted. “People want to talk about ‘tanking,’” she says, sniffing at the suggestion that the Mercury would lose on purpose to secure a high draft pick next year. “I’m just like, ‘Tanking? Are you kidding me?’ We have so many good players. Last year happened last year. I’m not even gonna compare to that, because it was just unbelievable and we made history with what we did. Totally new team now, so let’s go create our own history with what we do now. Our goal is to go out there and defend our title.”   

The Mercury’s confetti-covered home court was a far cry from Brondello’s bucolic beginnings on a sugar cane farm in Mackay, Queensland, a small city on Australia’s east coast. “Look, I could drive a cow when I was 11,” she says, her Australian accent still intact after more than 17 years of living abroad. “I was riding motorbikes and swimming in creeks and stuff like that, and I did play sports. I actually played a game of cricket... my dad was heavily involved in cricket, and back in those days, it was just for boys, so they just put me in and named me Steven.”

Brondello laughs at the memory – a hearty, high-toned laugh that belies her very serious and studious approach to coaching basketball. She started shooting hoops herself at age 9 on a grass court her father made for her. “Really, from day one, I fell in love with the game,” says Brondello, who went on to play 10 seasons in Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League and seven seasons in the WNBA, starting in 1998.

PHM0715PFPPL02She and husband Olaf Lange have been married for 10 years. They met in 1992 in his native Germany, where he coached the basketball team Brondello played on. “I stayed 10  years in Germany – probably because I met him,” Brondello says. “It was just a natural thing. It just kind of happened, you know.”

The couple’s children – Brody, 10, and Jayda, 5 – are energetic and outgoing; between posing for  photos at Mercury general manager Jim Pitman’s house, Brody does “bear crawl” football drills across the lawn and Jayda kicks off her bejeweled hot pink sandals to chase the Pitmans’ small dog through the grass. “They’ve [traveled] since they were born. They don’t know any different. I always think they have a more worldly perspective,” Brondello says. “They’re very appreciative of what we can get and what they’ve been able to see. They’re very accepting of everybody, which is how we try to raise them.”

During the winter, Brondello works in Russia with her husband, who is head coach of EuroLeague women’s team UMMC Ekaterinburg – the team Diana Taurasi plays for in the WNBA offseason. “I’m not sure it’s great for everybody to work with your spouse, but it works for us, and I suppose it has because this is what we’re passionate about – basketball,” Brondello says.   

Brondello’s first big coaching gig came in 2005, a year after she retired from playing, when the San Antonio Silver Stars hired her as an assistant coach. She was named head coach in February 2010 and made Lange her associate coach; both were fired that September after posting a 14-20 record. Brondello then moved on to an assistant coach position with the Los Angeles Sparks, which she held until November 2013, when the Mercury hired her. “The reason we brought Sandy here is because she is the most detailed, disciplined coach out there,” Pitman says. “She’s so communicative and such a positive person – when you put all those things together, your ability as a coach is phenomenal.”

When it comes to Brondello’s game plans, there is no guesswork. She pores over hours of game footage, often late into the night, creating films for her players to watch ad nauseum. She’s big on fundamentals – footwork, passing, shooting – and that has benefited even her veteran players. “I feel like she’s made me a smarter player, more aware on the defensive end,” Mercury forward and three-time WNBA All-Star Candice Dupree says. “I think as a professional, she teaches a lot more. You don’t necessarily see that at the pro level. There’s of course a lot of teaching in college, but she actually takes the time to break things down and help players learn throughout the course of the season.”

Though this season is marked by the absence of Taurasi, who broke a bone in her left hand toward the end of the EuroLeague season and accepted her Russian team’s offer of $1.5 million to sit out the WNBA season, Brondello’s adapting – strategically, of course. “Losing a player of Diana’s caliber, it’s not easy, because she’s the best player in the world,” Brondello says. “Obviously, we’re losing the leader of our team, but we’ve got other players that can step up.”

“Look, for me, I’m excited about the challenge,” Brondello continues. “Because I think we still have the pieces in place, and we know that we’re going to come to work every single day, and be prepared, and like I said, we’ll be ready to win.”