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Originally published June 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 22, 2007 at 5:08 PM

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Tension rising between Donovan and Storm players

Storm forward Wendy Palmer was sitting in a bustling KeyArena locker room after her team's loss to defending champion Detroit on Wednesday...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Storm @ Minnesota Lynx, 5 p.m., 1150 AM

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Storm forward Wendy Palmer was sitting in a bustling KeyArena locker room after her team's loss to defending champion Detroit on Wednesday when she had an epiphany.

She realized what was missing in Seattle.

"We've just got to find that magic," said Palmer. "This team is so talented, and I respected them when I played on other teams. Seeing the magic that was going here, I just wanted to be a part of that. We have it, we see it in spurts. We've just got to bring that magic back."

Ask those close to the Storm, and they'll say that "magic" has effectively been stomped out by the one person in charge of cultivating chemistry — coach Anne Donovan.

There's noticeable tension between Donovan and the team's star, Lauren Jackson, who challenged the coach about defensive schemes in practice this week and has complained of being "treated like she's 12 years old."

There have been complaints of grueling practices, that injuries haven't had time to heal and players are ignored or sent mixed messages by Donovan, according to sources. Players say they have spoken to Donovan numerous times about the issues.

Storm at Minnesota Lynx

5 tonight at Target Center

TV/Radio: No TV/1150 AM.

Records: Seattle 5-5, Minnesota 3-10.

Injuries: Storm — None. Lynx — F Tiffany Stansbury (left hamstring) is questionable.

Jayda Evans

P Storm HT PPG
F Lauren Jackson 6-5 21.9
F I.C. Marques 6-0 11.4
C Janell Burse 6-5 12.5
G Betty Lennox 5-8 10.7
G Sue Bird 5-9 10.8
P Lynx HT PPG
F S. Abrosimova 6-2 5.5
F Kristen Mann 6-2 8.3
C Nicole Ohlde 6-5 13.5
G Seimone Augustus 6-0 22.2
G Lindsay Harding 5-8 11.8

Donovan denied any players have approached her about any problems with her system, saying, "Everything grows and evolves after five years, and things change."

Karen Bryant, the team's chief executive officer, said she's in constant communication with the players and brushed off the idea of any internal problems. She said she is in "frequent dialogue" with players, and based on those conversations she has "no grave concern or panic."

Point guard Sue Bird said of the team grumbling, "I try not to get caught up in it, because this is the way it is. The one thing I've noticed about Anne is she does listen to us."

But Bird did say after the blowout loss Wednesday that the same problems seem to keep popping up. The Storm was no match for the Shock, whose coach, Bill Laimbeer, seemed to be able to take advantage of the Storm's schemes.

Bryant said the team's disappointing start — 5-5 entering tonight's game at Minnesota — does not change her opinion.

"We have all the confidence in the world in Anne Donovan and her ability to lead the franchise," Bryant said. "Nobody likes to lose. It's understandable that people want to ask questions and ponder what's going on. But we're starting the season the same way we started the last two when we made the playoffs.

"There's absolutely no concern or panic on behalf of the organization right now."

Perhaps, but there are issues. The Storm has lost five of its past eight games and has appeared lifeless at times, such as in the 16-point loss to Detroit.

"We need a little bit more of positive re-enforcement instead of just getting criticized a lot," guard Betty Lennox said. "Show each and every last one of us that you believe in us. I don't think we see that as a whole at times."

According to sources, players can't get into a rhythm because if a mistake is made during a game, they're immediately pulled. Others sources say rotations don't put the players in the best position to excel.

Jackson has developed into a league MVP and a five-time All-Star under Donovan, and like Bird was a member of the WNBA's All-Decade team. She spent offseasons early in her career working out with Donovan, whom she once called "the greatest coach" she's had. But Jackson, 26, has become more independent and willing to assert herself and voice her opinions.

After a loss at home to San Antonio, Donovan kept the media waiting 30 minutes after the game, as the team's poor play festered in the players' minds. Following the wait, Jackson said, "It has been three years of the same stuff; the inconsistency has happened a couple of times the last couple of years."

The Storm, which won the WNBA title in 2004, has been beaten in the first round of the playoffs the past two years after slow starts each season. Players insist the climate has grown excessively worse this summer, and that there's no guarantee they'll suddenly click and advance to the postseason.

Cracks in Seattle's armor started to show when former assistants Jenny Boucek and Jessie Kenlaw departed the past two seasons. Neither gave an explanation beyond exhaustion and a pressure-filled work environment. Both have returned to the WNBA — Boucek as Sacramento's coach and Kenlaw as a Houston assistant — but sources say they felt they weren't valued for their contributions in Seattle.

Donovan, whose contract expires in 2008, denied knowing of any discomfort in the work environment. "For me, it was fantastic. I'm going to miss Jessie greatly," Donovan said after Kenlaw resigned in November.

During training camp, Donovan alienated some fans and players with her handling of the battle for the final roster spot.

Barbara Turner, who started nine games for the Storm as a rookie, played overseas in the offseason and kept in constant contact with Donovan. But Turner's Turkish team advanced to the playoffs, causing her to miss all of the Storm's exhibition games. That, combined with Shyra Ely's play in camp, put Turner's job in jeopardy. She forfeited nearly $30,000 in championship money and respect to return for three Storm practices, only to get cut.

"It could have been handled better, but you can't change it," said Turner, now with Houston.

Other teams around the league are having their problems. Connecticut has reached the Eastern Conference finals the past three seasons, but is currently ridding its worst losing streak (five games) since the 2001 season. Houston wants a new coach. Washington fired its coach. And Phoenix fans are trying to figure out why their team can defeat the league's best teams, but lose to the worst.

"People don't talk about things like this unless it's really bad," said Storm assistant coach Shelley Patterson, who coached under Donovan in the defunct ABL. "She [Donovan] has gotten a little bit better, more experienced.

"Our first year in Philly, we were both new at the pro game and had to deal with women who were as old as we were. We had to coach grown women with grown-women expectations and grown-women arguments. It ain't like college, where my opinion is all that counts.

"We had to listen and give and take to see what works best for the team. That's what I see her doing here. And I challenge anyone to step in her shoes and make the decisions she has to make."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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