Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard, GM Jim Pitman, and Suns GM James Jones discuss the teams’ mutual support and cooperation.
Vanessa Nygaard competed in the earliest days of the WNBA, playing for the New York Liberty, Cleveland Rockers, Portland Fire, Miami Sol, and Los Angeles Sparks in the late 1990s and early aughts — all teams that were also owned by the local NBA clubs.
“L.A. was the only team where they let us use the practice facility,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to use the locker room or the weight room in the facility, but we were allowed to at least use the court. When we were in Portland, we were at a health club across the street, and we had to do our own laundry during training camp— and we had two-a-days.”
Now starting her first year as the Phoenix Mercury’s head coach, Nygaard’s previous experiences provide a stark opposition to the corporate synergy the team has with the Phoenix Suns.
Robert Sarver, the majority owner of both teams, made sure there was space for each to operate simultaneously in the Verizon 5G Performance Center, the organization’s new practice facility that opened in 2020. Additionally, the Mercury are one of the few, if only, teams to employ year-round player development officials, video coordinators, and training staffers.
“I walk in my office and I open the door and I’m like, ‘this is my office? What did I do? Must’ve been something right,’” Nygaard told Boardroom. “All the things that are available to the athletes — from the food that serves them specifically to their dietary needs, our training staff, massage therapists, everything that they have in that space.”
During the interview process in the Mercury’s search to replace longtime head coach Sandy Brondello, Nygaard interviewed with Suns general manager James Jones. He and Nygaard, then a Las Vegas Aces assistant, had a candid conversation about how this would be a fully supported program, valued because they’re the same team and integrated across the board.
“They’re hoopers just like us,” Jones told Boardroom. “And what we do is we try to create an environment that allows our basketball players to be the best basketball players in the world. In our conversations, I just wanted to reiterate to her that I’m here to support her. Front office executives, we work for our coaches and our players. And she’s in the building, so she’s one of my coaches and her players are my players.”
“You’re shooting on the court and Chris Paul’s over here,” Nygaard said. “It seems unusual to someone who has been in women’s sports for a long time, but it also seems completely amazing and natural and the way it should it be when we’re saying we own a women’s team and a men’s team in our organization. It’s so great to see.”
Jones said he doesn’t think anything of it.
“Only from the outside do they say, ‘oh that’s an NBA player, that’s a WNBA player,’” he said. “When you play pickup basketball, you play with male players, female players. It doesn’t matter. You’re just playing with hoopers. And that’s our mentality.”
Diggins-Smith does some Suns broadcasting work during the offseason, so she and Paul interact quite a bit. Once Paul was showing Nygaard a play and she decided to add it to the Mercury playbook on the spot.
“I was like if Chris Paul thinks this is a good play, let’s put it in,” she said.
The first time Nygaard met Suns head coach Monty Williams, he told her she can have access to anything; any practice or any team meeting she wanted to sit in on, she could. Williams even gave Nygaard recommendations on which club sports teams she should send her kids to for organized sports in the area. When she noticed a certain NBA team use an action or play that interested her, she got the lowdown from Suns assistant coach Jarrett Jack.
“The construct of our teams isn’t a coincidence,” said Mercury general manager Jim Pitman. “From our head coaches to the last player on the benches, we have high character, really good people. Not to mention icons and role models like Diana Taurasi and Chris Paul. The respect and support that these teams share for one another is special and should be propped up as a cultural success story in today’s society.”
There have been scheduling conflicts in the past between the Suns and Mercury, where NBA preseason games were played at their shared home of the Footprint Center and Mercury playoff games were held at nearby colleges like Grand Canyon University, but Jones said the organization will try to rectify this issue moving forward.
“We know the main goal is to make sure that the Mercury doesn’t have to worry about playing elsewhere,” he said. “If we need to be scheduled at ASU or Grand Canyon for a preseason game, no biggie.”
As a woman who’s played in sports her whole life, from Stanford to the WNBA, to now her first head coaching job, Nygaard knows how rare this Suns-Mercury relationship is and how it serves as a model to elevate women and women’s ports across the board.
“We have all these people who really, truly believe in women’s sports and truly believe in supporting us,” Nygaard said. “It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s about time the W, after 25 years now, we finally have an NBA team doing what was supposed to be happening at the very beginning.”