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Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn always embraces the work and opportunity

One of three Black coaches in the WNBA, Quinn is welcoming the underdog role after years of success with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart

Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn didn’t want to sit in the moment for too long.

Whether it was the sting of last year’s semifinal loss to the Las Vegas Aces, or the disappointment of not being able to cap point guard Sue Bird’s Hall of Fame career with a championship, it took time for Quinn to move past what could have been.

“It was tough,” said Quinn. “To be in a position to contend for a title and ultimately lose to the team that won a championship, it is a situation where, yeah, you want to win … To not have done that didn’t feel good.” 

While Quinn may have been disappointed by last year’s result, she made clear she doesn’t view the season as a disappointment, but instead a part of the process for her as a coach. For Quinn, this offseason was about turning what could have been to what’s next.

For the first time in 20 seasons, the Storm will be without Bird. Two-time WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart is also gone, lost to free agency. Quinn — who has been a part of the Seattle franchise since 2016 as a player, assistant and now head coach — will be responsible for ushering in a new era for the Storm with a roster full of new faces, starting Saturday against the Aces (3 p.m. ET, ABC) in their opening game of the 2023 WNBA season.

As Seattle undergoes a changing of the guard, many have counted the team out, flipping its season outlook from title-contender to underdog. It’s a familiar position for Quinn, who’s had her game do the talking throughout her career. Now, she’s ready to do the same as a head coach. 

“Please don’t talk about us. Please don’t put us in the conversation because that’s kind of been the story of my life honestly,” Quinn said. “I’m not always talked about. I’m quiet, reserved. Not a big personality. But I’m a dog. I do the work.

“I take pride in that.” 

Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn draws up a play during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 14 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

“Transition to progress.”

That was one of Quinn’s first thoughts upon learning that Stewart chose the New York Liberty in free agency instead of re-signing with the Storm for the 2023 season. The news didn’t surprise Quinn, who knew that it was never a guarantee that Stewart would remain in Seattle. During the offseason, Quinn and the Storm front office had planned for both scenarios. With Stewart’s decision made, Quinn focused on the contingency plan.

When Quinn was named the new head coach of the Storm during the 2021 season, she inherited a team with a proven system that brought Seattle two championships in the previous three seasons. Quinn didn’t try to impose too much of herself on that system.

This year is different.

Quinn will lead a Storm roster that will feature only three players from last season. The team will be led by four-time All-Star Jewell Loyd, who Quinn said took immediate ownership of the team’s leadership role. Budding frontcourt talent center Ezi Magbegor is expected to take another leap and will be joined by center Mercedes Russell, who missed most of last season due to injury. The team also added guard Kia Nurse, who also missed last season due to injury, and sharpshooting guard Sami Whitcomb, who won a championship with Seattle in 2018 and 2020.

During the offseason, Quinn’s wheels started turning on how to adjust the system for this new iteration of the franchise. It’s an opportunity that excites her, being able to put her imprint on the team in a way she hasn’t been able to since taking over as coach. Those changes were felt on Day 1 of training camp.

“It’s more competitive,” Loyd said. “Just the expectation of having a dog mentality and there’s no excuses. If we mess up or whatever it is, we’re on the baseline running. That wasn’t the case last year or two years ago, any camp I’ve ever been in, here in Seattle.”

The same energy and emphasis Quinn places on her players to improve is the same expectation that she carries for herself. Quinn is constantly in search of opportunities to learn. The result, she says, has been a growing confidence in her own ability.

In 2016, Quinn returned to her high school alma mater Bishop Montgomery (Torrance, California), where she was the girls’ basketball team’s coach during each WNBA offseason until 2021. She won a state championship in her first season.

In September 2022, Quinn was an assistant coach on the Canadian national team that competed at the World Cup in Australia. When she returned to the states, she met with Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups and watched his team practice. She later met with LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and, besides watching practice, she had the opportunity to talk to Hall of Famer Jerry West.

“Every offseason she does something to get better,” Loyd said. “She expects her players every season to come in and get better and she expects her coaches every season to come in and get better.”

Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn (left) and assistant coach Pokey Chatman (right) look on during the third quarter in Game 4 of the 2022 WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces at Climate Pledge Arena on Sept 6, 2022, in Seattle.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

When Pokey Chatman joined the Storm as an assistant in 2022, she recalled a moment when she had a suggestion for Quinn. When she checked the time, it was 4 a.m. Instead of calling Quinn, as not to wake her, she sent her coach an email. She received a response from Quinn almost immediately.

Ask those around Quinn about her biggest strengths as a coach, and they’ll describe her diligent preparation and the work she puts into her craft.

“She’s always studying to see what the team could do better, what she could do better as a coach,” said former Storm coach Gary Kloppenburg. “I always felt like she’s so conscientious about getting things right. You have to do that as a head coach, you can’t let anything slide. You have to be on point.”

Quinn is constantly thinking about the game, about her team and about what adjustment, big or small, that she can make to give her an edge. She epitomizes the cliche of being a student of the game, addicted to learning, mastering, growing.

“The culture is one of, you’re going to be extremely prepared. You’re not going to be surprised,” Chatman said. “The meticulous way that she develops her practice plans. The meticulous ways in terms of the player development and what players need. I can go on.”

In the past, for better or worse, Quinn never turned those basketball thoughts off – her pride driving her to work tirelessly until her goals are met. It’s her competitive edge, her wanting to be the best and her desire to prove her ability as a coach. It’s also a self-awareness of the opportunity that she has been afforded as a head coach in the WNBA, particularly as a Black woman, and ensuring she does everything she can to succeed in the position.

“A lot of who I am is just how I work,” Quinn said. “I want people to know that I put the work in. I hold my head high because I know what I do on a daily basis.”

Quinn said that having her mind constantly focused on coaching and her team, while beneficial, has also at times consumed her. In the offseason, Quinn committed to striking a better work-life balance for the upcoming season.

Quinn started roller skating. She took a pair of black and white Jordan 12 lows, faded a bit at the sole, then had roller wheels placed on the shoes by her cousin who can “make skates out of anything.”

At a skating rink not too far from where the Storm play, you could find Quinn gliding among her peers. She takes pride in her recently acquired ability to skate backwards.

“It’s been great. It’s important to have balance so that your mind is fresh and sharp and that energy level gets refueled,” Quinn said. 

Seattle Storm guard Noelle Quinn handles the ball against the New York Liberty on July 3, 2018, at Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York.

Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Kloppenburg could see Quinn’s budding coaching ability before she ever joined the Storm’s coaching staff. In 2018, as a player for the Storm, Kloppenburg described Quinn as being an instrumental component of the team, despite Quinn only averaging nine minutes and 1.5 points. She could calm players down and keep other players focused.

“She was one of those players that had a finger on the pulse of the team,” Kloppenburg said of Quinn, who finished her 13th and final WNBA season as a player with a championship. “You would consult her about what’s going on, what we need to practice. She was one of those players that you could confide in.”

When Quinn joined the Storm coaching staff in 2019, she was tasked by then-coach Dan Hughes with helping to steer its high-powered offense. Quinn consulted with Bird after each game, making sure the team was on the same page. Kloppenburg credited Quinn in her role during the Storm’s 2020 championship season.

“I think she did a really great job offensively just keeping us focused, keeping us disciplined,” Kloppenburg said. “She was really good at special situational plays.”

In a September matchup against the Los Angeles Sparks during the 2020 bubble season, the Storm had possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, down two, with 0.8 of a second left to play. In the timeout before the final possession, Quinn was on the clipboard, detailing what the sideline out of bounds play would be for the Storm.

“We came out, had two or three options that didn’t work and then finally the last option was on the table, Jewell popped out and Sue hit her for a 3 at the buzzer,” Kloppenburg recalled. “Noelle, under fire, drew up a pretty good situational play. I thought she did a really good job in those situations.” 

As the Storm ready for this new chapter of the franchise, Loyd said Quinn is the coach of the moment and for the organization.

“She’s been that steady Eddie for us as a teammate and as a coach,” Loyd said. “She knows the game really well. She’s been in the ups and downs. She really has a passion for coaching and that’s the biggest thing.

“It’s not very often that you find really good coaches. When you find really good coaches sometimes they don’t have the passion to really teach. She puts in the work to really be here.”

Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn reacts during the first quarter against the Minnesota Lynx at Climate Pledge Arena on Aug. 3, 2022, in Seattle.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

On the sideline, Quinn is known for being calm and relaxed, so much so that she was almost celebrated when she received the first technical foul of her head coaching career in June 2022. While she may not always be heard by viewers on the bench, her physical presence on the sideline is loud.

This season, along with the Chicago Sky coach James Wade and the Atlanta Dream coach Tanisha Wright, Quinn will be one of three Black coaches and one of two Black female coaches in the WNBA.

During Quinn’s introductory news conference after being named Seattle’s new coach, she was asked by a reporter about the significance of her becoming the first Black head coach in Storm history and being a Black female coach in the WNBA. Before answering the question, Quinn turned to her phone. In Quinn fashion, she had done her homework on this question.

From her phone, she read aloud the name of every Black female head coach who came before her in the WNBA. It didn’t take long, just a few seconds, highlighting the progress still needed to be achieved for Black female coaches in the league.

“They crawled so I could walk. I sit on those shoulders,” Quinn said in her answer. “For me it’s important that I’m not a woman, I’m a Black woman. I sit with that every day. Sometimes that could be a double negative for me, to be a woman and to be Black, but I’m empowered in that. There is value in that. My experience is in that. It has shaped me and it has molded me and that is who I am.”

In December 2022, Quinn traveled to Senegal where she coached at a camp hosted by the NBA Academy Women’s Program. The camp included some of the best prospects from Africa. During the trip, she also visited historical sites and learned about the history of the African slave trade. The experience moved her, and gave her a deeper appreciation of the opportunity before her.

“It’s a reminder that we are a very resilient people,” Quinn said. “To know your history is to know who you are now and know who you can be. … To know that my ancestry went through something so horrific as chattel slavery and still what I represent today as a Black woman that leads an organization, leads a team, doesn’t come a lot.”

Quinn remembers the first time she felt disappointment on the basketball court. During her junior year at Bishop Montgomery, her team was vying for a section title. Quinn, who had played on teams that had won sectionals and two state championships the previous two seasons, entered the locker room before the game feeling confident. When her coach asked if the team could guarantee him a section final win, Quinn emphatically answered yes. Although Quinn performed well on the court, her team ultimately lost.

She still remembers those emotions that overcame her in defeat and believing she had let her team and school down.

“It still sticks with me because I’m a competitor,” Quinn said. “From that situation, I learned I would never guarantee anything ever again in life.”

But from that moment of loss, Quinn and her team were able to regroup and refocus. They entered the state tournament and left as champions. She would leave Bishop Montgomery as one of its most decorated athletes. She won four state championships and was named a WBCA All-American.

“Our resiliency showed in all of that,” Quinn said.

This season, Quinn will be looking for a similar level of resiliency from her team. The Storm won’t be favorites to win a title as in years past. That’s OK, says Quinn. She knows the journey for the Storm this season will be uphill, but Quinn sees the value in that.

“I love being the underdog,” Quinn said. “We’re not the hunted, that’s OK, but we will have a mindset where we will compete every night, work hard every night and enjoy each other.”

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.