Gary Kloppenburg was there at the beginning.
Now, 15 years after finishing his first tenure on the Seattle Storm bench, the longtime WNBA assistant is back in town, joining the staff of head coach Jenny Boucek, the team announced this week.
The 64-year old San Diego native called it a “really difficult decision,” to leave his previous role as an assistant with the Indiana Fever, but said he was ready for a new personal challenge, along with a chance to come back to the West Coast.
“I think it’s one of the up-and-coming young teams,” he said of the Storm, who will lean heavily on the last two Rookies of the Year in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart as it tries to make the playoffs for the second straight season.
“I think you find at this level that young, skilled players like those really improve quickly, and can really make a huge jump up from one year to the next, so I’m really excited to be able to work with that young group.”
Along with the continued contributions of All-WNBA First Team selection and reigning assists leader Sue Bird, Kloppenburg said he thinks the team “really has a chance to make a major impact this year.”
His first stint in Seattle was Kloppenburg’s first WNBA coaching position, after spending time in the Continental Basketball Association, as the head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif., and as an advanced scout for the Toronto Raptors in the late 1990s.
Kloppenburg ultimately spent three seasons with the Storm under Lin Dunn, and later four more with the Southerner on the staff of the Fever from 2008-11. In between, he spent one year on John Shumate’s staff with the Phoenix Mercury, and had a three-season stint in the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats as an assistant for Bernie Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff had previously worked with Gary’s father, Bob, when he served as head coach of the Sonics in the late 1980s.
“I learned a lot working with those guys, and working at that level, seeing how the game’s played at that level, and I think I’ve been able to take a lot of that back to the WNBA,” he said of his time in Charlotte.
After his second spell with Dunn, he was hired as the head coach of the Tulsa Shock.
In Tulsa, Kloppenburg inherited a team that had won just three games the previous year, and guided the franchise to nine and 11-win campaigns in two seasons at the helm.
He spent the 2014 season as an assistant in Los Angeles, and returned to Indiana in 2015.
Now almost two decades removed from his first season in the league, Kloppenburg said he’s seen substantial growth and advancement in the fundamentals and level of play in the WNBA.
“I just think that the talent and skill level has increased year-by-year,” he said.
Last year, Seattle went 1-2 against the Fever, winning one of two games in Indianapolis, and losing the lone matchup at KeyArena.
So, what did Kloppenburg think of the Storm from the opposing bench?
“They were difficult to prepare for,” he said. “ … You could just see the progression, and how much better they were getting each time they played, and I think that was a testament to the players and to Jenny and the coaching staff, just the progress that they made throughout the year.”
If the Storm can continue that progression, he said, the team will be in a great position for 2017.
“I think at the end of the year, nobody wanted to play them, I think they were playing as well as anybody in the league,” he said. “That’s something that this team can really build on — how they finished that last part of the season — and try to start this season where they ended up, and I think that’s a real strong possibility.”
The Storm opens its season on May 14 against Indiana at KeyArena.