- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wayne “Tree” Rollins was playing with his dog by the pool at his home in Orlando, Fla., when the phone rang in March 2006. A veteran coach and player, he wasn’t even thinking about basketball.

After playing 18 years in the NBA, serving as an assistant coach with three NBA teams, coaching in the NBA Development League and being president and general manager of an American Basketball Association franchise, Rollins was ready to relax.

But when Richie Adubato, whom he worked with and for on the Orlando Magic sidelines during the 1996-97 season, asked Rollins to join him on the Washington Mystics’ bench as an assistant coach, it was an offer he couldn’t ignore.

“I thought about getting back into basketball,” Rollins said. “But at that time when [Adubato] called, I was just taking it easy. I felt I needed a break because I was involved with basketball since I was at [Clemson].”

Rollins eventually accepted Adubato’s offer and joined the Mystics before the 2006 season. A little more than a year later, Rollins finds himself at the helm of a 1-9 franchise trying to turn its season around.

Adubato resigned from the Mystics on June 1 after the team started off 0-4. His unhappiness stemmed from lack of a contract extension and a trade that sent starting center Chasity Melvin to the Chicago Sky.

While Rollins has struggled in his new role, winning only one of six games thus far, Adubato believes things eventually will get better.

“I explained to him I had never coached women before I came to the league,” Adubato said. “But I knew he’d enjoy working with them. They’re just as competitive, they work hard and they are very coachable. If [my resignation] happened last year, it would have been a catastrophe. But he’s had a year of experience and went to the playoffs. He’s a hard worker, and he has a good mind for the game.”

According to Rollins, the Mystics’ ninth coach in 10 years, close relationships developed throughout his career have been at the root of all of his post-playing career jobs. Adubato offered Rollins the Mystics job after the two had worked together in Orlando. Rollins initially was brought to the Magic by Brian Hill, who coached Rollins as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks from 1986 to 1988.

Rollins‘ tenure in Indiana was brought about by his relationship with former Pacers and current New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, who played with Rollins on the Detroit Pistons during the 1990-91 season.

And all of these relationships stem from what Rollins calls the “Hubie Brown umbrella,” Rollins‘ first coach with the Hawks.

“People are always calling me,” Rollins said with a laugh. “I guess that’s good, right?”

So far this season, Rollins has adopted a style similar to his former coaches. He recently has started using 10 players each night and has used a fullcourt press defensively, similar to the Hawks’ strategy in 1977-78, his rookie season.

“When he runs certain sets, he brings it to back when he was actually playing,” Mystics forward Tamara James said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of his sets and plays come from when he was playing.”

The Mystics still have a long way to go to adjust to Rollins‘ strategy, as evidenced by their losses to the Indiana Fever on June 3 and the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday. While Washington struggled to score early against Indiana — shooting 6.7 percent in the first quarter and scoring eight points — the Mystics rebounded in the second half and only lost 74-69. Against the Sparks, the Mystics pushed the ball up the court early but eventually resorted to individual play, losing 89-80.

“His plays are very beneficial,” forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “Now it’s just on us to put the ball in the basket and make the appropriate pass. The more repetitions we have at it, the better things will be and easier looks we will get during the game.”

Rollins still differentiates from some of his mentors, though. Adubato, who did not endorse a transition game in fear of watering down talent, can see how Rollins could make it work. Milton-Jones said Rollins‘ system might suit Washington’s personnel more because they don’t have to analyze too much on the floor — something that was a necessity in mastering Adubato’s complex playbook.

For now, the front office is simply hoping for more wins.

“[The] ideal situation would be for us to start winning and experience a lot of success the rest of the year,” Mystics general manager Linda Hargrove said. “We have a great response from Tree, and Tree is our coach for the future. We’ll see. It’s definitely an interim label right now, and we’ll evaluate as the season goes on.”

Although at the moment Rollins is focused on the task in front of him, he can’t help but think about what he has left to accomplish.

“The only thing that’s missing is international,” said Rollins, who was also a Washington Wizards assistant. “I was thinking about last summer about what do the WNBA coaches do [in the offseason]. They have all of this time, so I’m hoping for a chance to do that.”

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