When Malgorzata Dydek allowed herself to think what it would be like to play professional basketball in America, while she daydreamed in Poland, what she saw in her mind was what she and the Utah Starzz did Monday night in the Delta Center.
It was women playing joyously.Players doing what they do well.
At breathtaking speed.
Dydek had seen such games on television in Poland, but when she got to Utah, it wasn't like that. She was disappointed. Confused. Until Monday night.
"Tonight, everyone had an opportunity to play her game," Dydek observed following Utah's 90-80 victory over the Phoenix Mercury, which set a WNBA record for margin of victory the last time the teams played, winning by 33. "I feel it was like two different teams."
This time, the Starzz management pulled a trick on the Mercury, unleashing the legendary Frank Layden as their new coach only seven hours before the game. "This was an emotional game for us, and a tough one for Phoenix," Layden said.
Phoenix coach Cheryl Miller gave Layden a huge hug at center court before the game, but she wasn't around to congratulate him afterward, having earned a double technical foul for foul language with 13:14 to play in the second half, Utah ahead by eight. The Mercs had just missed two shots, and Utah's Wendy Palmer had fought for a rebound to start a Utah fast break.
Inexplicably, Miller's outbursts were called and play halted while the fast break moved with good chance of success toward the Starzz basket, possibly costing Utah a score.
But that never became a focal point of the game, never came back to haunt Utah. The Starzz were on a roll.
They withstood a Phoenix rally to get them within four at 67-63 when Tammi Reiss, just reactivated, made the Starzz' seventh 3-pointer in seven tries in the game. It was followed by a Chantel Tremitiere steal with an outlet to Dydek who hit LaTonya Johnson for a baseline layin to boost the lead to nine in no time.
Phoenix's "Grandmama," Jennifer Gillom, scored 31 points, and Michelle Griffiths added 15 points and a league-record nine steals, but Utah got a career-high 15 from Johnson, 14 each from Olympia Scott and Kim Williams, 13 from Tremitiere, 12 from Palmer, nine rebounds and five blocks from new league shot-block record-holder Dydek (70 total). And leading scorer Elena Baranova missed the game with her sprained ankle. She hopes to play Thursday at Hous-ton.
Layden gave the coaching credit to assistant Fred Williams, who spent the day telling Layden all he could about the players that Lay-den would inherit for his first-ever game as a head coach in the Delta Center as well as in the WNBA.
Earlier, Denise Taylor was fired after compiling a 6-13 record in 1998 after a last-place 7-21 mark in the league's first season.
But it wasn't simple Xs and Os that transformed the Starzz into a running, gunning, smiling bunch of players who looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from their heads.
Indeed, most of them were still shell-shocked at the unexpected coaching change as they went to the court for their pregame shoot-around after greeting Layden in a 4:30 p.m. meeting. Most of them were apprehensive, maybe angry, maybe fearful, during that warmup period. Many of them had no clue that Layden is a former Jazz coach and was 1984 NBA Coach of the Year.
"They're calling me `What's Your Name' (and) Mr. (Larry H.) Miller," Layden said, adding he was trying to learn their names as well.
Yet when they started the game - losing the opening tip, Dydek fouling Gillom on a made layin, Williams throwing away a pass so that Andrea Kuklova could get a layin for a 4-0 Phoenix lead - there was an obvious difference. No head hanging. No nervous glances. They just kept playing. Williams made a steal, and Palmer made a 3-pointer. Dydek made a block, Williams rebounded, and Palmer got a layin for a 5-4 lead. Palmer made a turnover. Williams made a turnover. Nobody got off the bench to replace them.
And there's what Layden brought to the game. Not Xs and Os but kisses and hugs. The Xs and Os will come later. For this night, it was, "Play smart, play hard, play with heart," Dydek said, quoting Layden.
"He said, `Don't be afraid to make mistakes,' " said Tremitiere.
Layden said he told them, "Don't play afraid. It's our house, and there's a nice crowd."
Erin Alexander, in her first Delta Center game with Utah, said she knew to trust Layden when she followed him onto the court and heard the frenzied ovation, then saw the big banner with Layden's name on it hanging from the raft-ers. So that's who he is, she said to herself.
Scott and Tremitiere had been told in the past they weren't to shoot. Layden gave them the green light. Scott, the No. 7 all-time scorer in Stanford history, was a slumpy 15-for-30 for the season from the free-throw line. Monday night, she was 8-for-8. Tremitiere made both her threes and five of six free throws.
Some of the energy came from the season's second-biggest crowd, 8,624.
"I guess word got out quick," said Scott, calling the crowd, "louder than I have ever heard. It was just a good-vibe game."
But a lot of it was that old Layden magic, too.
"He's obviously a very good coach," said Scott. "He's got rapport (with players) already."
"He is very cool," said Dydek. "He have some cool speeches. He is an experienced guy.
"I don't want to say he's old," she whispered.
For Layden, the postgame celebration "was like a birthday party," and unlike most games in the NBA. "They had so much fun, they were patting each other on the back," he said, feeling perhaps some link to his long-ago Jazz teams that began learning to win. Everybody happy.
Just like it should be.