- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2001

It took Tom Maher one trip down Shirley Highway to discover a major downside of life in the Washington area: bumper-to-bumper traffic and angry, pushy drivers in a rush.
Maher is the fifth coach of the Washington Mystics in as many years, and he is stuck in the third-worst traffic congestion in the country.
There is nothing like a Washington rush hour in Maher's native Australia, mate.
"Sydney is a city of nearly five million people. That's a big city, but I've never driven in traffic like this," said Maher, the first foreign coach in the five-year history of the WNBA. "Yesterday, I left for work at the same time and it took me 30 minutes. Today it took me 1 hour and 44 minutes.
"I've never been in a place where people say, 'You'll be OK if there is not an accident.' But there are so many accidents. It happens two or three times a week."
Maher, beginning with tonight's season opener at Cleveland, is trying to lead the Mystics to the franchise's first winning season. He is determined to transform the team into something more than a bottleneck at a toll plaza. The most successful coach in Australian women's basketball history sees something in the Mystics his four predecessors failed to identify: The Mystics are built for speed.
The team is better suited for 94 feet of end-to-end action than it is for a halfcourt game. Chamique Holdsclaw, Nikki McCray and Murriel Page are all SEC bred to run.
"We will be the most running team in the country," Maher said.
A big influence on Maher's uptempo coaching style was Paul Westhead, the Shakespeare-quoting former men's coach at George Mason. Westhead forsook defense in a fast-breaking system designed to produce more than 100 points each night.
Westhead's system was an experiment gone awry, running but not winning. Maher knows that.
"His system was to the extreme," Maher said. "My comment to him, if I would ever ask him about it is, 'What if it's not working? What's Plan B? There is no Plan B.' "
Plan A worked just fine for Maher in Australia.
Maher, beginning in 1993, coached the Australian national team to a 149-43 record and bronze medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1998 World Championships. But it was Australia's silver-medal performance last year at the Sydney Games, the best finish ever by an Australian women's team, that made Maher the Mystics' top candidate to take over their high-profile collection of underachievers.
"Each time I watched his teams play I thought in my mind, 'Boy, that's a great defensive team; boy, that team has a great mental toughness; boy, that team shares the ball like great teams should,' " said Mystics general manager Melissa McFerrin. "What I saw on the basketball floor is what I wanted the Mystics to be. That was the style I perceived us being good at. I don't think there is any better testament to a coach than what you see their team do."
One late-December day last year, Maher, 49, was sitting in his Basketball Australia office when his phone rang. McFerrin was on the line. Maher went home that night and told his wife, Robyn, a 22-year veteran of Australia's national team, that she wouldn't believe what happened at work today.
Robyn told him to take the Mystics job even though she had plum assignments working for Basketball Australia and sat on the boards of the Australian Olympic Committee and the Australian Sports Commission.
"He wasn't worried about it or anything, he wasn't worried about being an Aussie in an American league or anything like that," she said. "He was quite prepared and very confident that he can do the job."
After two exhibitions, Maher's preparation shows. The Mystics are fun to watch and look to be finally ready to win this season.
Maher's first order of business was to upgrade at point guard. Maher, who won six Women's National Basketball League championships and is the winningest coach in the history of Australia's pro league, immediately traded for point guard Annie Burgess in a pre-draft deal with the Minnesota Lynx. He then shipped incumbent starter Andrea Nagy to the New York Liberty.
Since 1993, the 31-year-old Burgess has played for Maher on Australia's national team and for Maher in the WNBL. Burgess knows Maher's system inside and out. Who better to run the Mystics, since point guard is the most important position on the basketball floor?
"I think Annie is going to bring a lot to our game," Mystics forward Murriel Page said. "Not only is she the type of player that likes to get up and down the court, but just by knowing Tom's system, she is by far the leader of the team. She's the one that is going to call the plays and tell us where to go.
"With her knowing his system, she's going to help a lot of us feel relaxed because we can always go to her and say, 'Well, what does he expect out of us? When he says this, what are we supposed to do?' "
Win. That's what Maher has instilled in the Mystics, and the players are buying into it.
"He knows what it takes, I'm confident in him and I'm confident in his ability," Holdsclaw said.

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