- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

It was an idea that had never occurred to Richie Adubato.

He was an NBA lifer, a scout, an assistant coach for five teams and the head coach of three. After 19 seasons in the NBA, why would he take a job in a start-up women’s league?

“I really didn’t know much about women’s basketball. I hadn’t even thought about it,” Adubato says.

That was eight seasons ago. Adubato now is one of the top coaches in the WNBA. His teams have competed in the WNBA finals three times. Tonight, he takes his second team, the Washington Mystics, into a first-round playoff series against the Connecticut Sun at Verizon Center.

At 68, Adubato enjoys coaching and teaching — he spent 18 seasons as a high school and college coach in New Jersey before getting his first NBA job — and he likes the lifestyle of the WNBA. The league’s short season allows him to spend most of the year at home in Orlando, Fla.

“I could have gone back [to the NBA as an assistant], but I wanted to watch my 15-year-old son play in high school,” says Adubato, who got his first NBA coaching job as an assistant to Dick Vitale with the Detroit Pistons. “This gives me all the time in the world to do it. I still enjoy coaching. This is fun. It is a great challenge. It is four months. It is not 11 months. Thirty-four games plus the playoffs — that’s a piece of cake.”

It’s a piece of cake that Adubato never thought he would want.

Adubato served as the interim coach for the Orlando Magic during the 1996-97 season. He took his team to the playoffs, where it lost a best-of-five series in five games to a Miami Heat team that had the league’s best record and superstars in Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

Adubato fully expected to be rewarded with the position on a permanent basis.

“I thought I had the job,” Adubato says. “Basically, they wanted to bring in Chuck Daly. It was bad luck for me. I had the people. I had the fans. I had the team behind me. When they fired me, I figured I would stay out and see if somebody recognized the job I did.”

They didn’t. Adubato was out of a job and out of the league. And that’s when a former player and a new league entered.

Ernie Grunfeld played for the New York Knicks for four seasons when Adubato was an assistant with that team in the mid-1980s. Grunfeld was the Knicks’ general manager in 1999 when the Knicks’ WNBA sister team, the Liberty, was looking for a coach and Adubato was looking for a job.

“I went in and spoke with Ernie Grunfeld one day. He said, ‘Why don’t you take our Liberty job?’” says Adubato, who has a 127-240 record as an NBA coach and is 134-112 in the WNBA.

Adubato declined, thinking he would eventually land another job in the NBA. They spoke again two months later, and Grunfeld tried to sell Adubato on coming home, coaching in Madison Square Garden and teaching the game.

“Richie is a basketball lifer. That is his passion and his love,” Grunfeld says. “Just knowing his personality and the way he communicates with people I thought he would be a great fit.”

Adubato wasn’t completely persuaded. He sought the opinions of a few former NBA coaches and players who had switched to women’s basketball: K.C. Jones, the former Boston Celtics and Washington Bullets coach; Frank Layden, the former Utah Jazz coach; and Orlando Woolridge, who played for seven teams in his 13-year career.

“Every one of them said you will love it,” Adubato says. “It is like teaching college way back when. They are anxious to learn. They love the league. They want to be coached. You’ll love it. So I decided to take it.”

Adubato immediately liked the women’s game, a better fit for his intricate system designed to take advantage of screens and motion than the one-on-one style of the NBA. The Liberty reached the WNBA finals in 1999, 2000 and 2002, coming up short each time.

He was fired at midseason in 2004, while his team had a 7-9 record. Adubato says it was the result of disharmony with management. He was out of the game until Michael Adams abruptly resigned from the Mystics in April 2005 to take a job as an assistant with the men’s team at Maryland.

That left the Mystics a week to find a coach before the preseason began.

Enter Grunfeld, again.

Grunfeld by this time was the president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards. He recommended Adubato to Mystics general manager Linda Hargrove, who already had him on her very short list.

“We were very fortunate to find him, given when Michael left,” Hargrove says. “Normally in that situation, you wouldn’t be able to [find] an experienced coach like that. We got what we expected: a veteran coach that is very detail-oriented and is excellent at scouting.”

Things didn’t start smoothly for Adubato in Washington: His players were overwhelmed by his complex offense.

“I didn’t get his system,” says guard Alana Beard, who is averaging 19.2 points. “That is to be expected coming from a person like Michael Adams, who gives you the ball, gives you a little instruction and says, ‘Go.’ Richie gives you structure and a system, a precise system. And you have to learn it.”

Beard is now thankful for that system, designed to maximize individual talents.

“Richie knows I am not the spot-up type shooter,” Beard says. “He allows me to create. He allows me to slash. He knows DeLisha [Milton-Jones] is a versatile player who can bring it inside and take it outside. Crystal Robinson is a spot-up shooter.

“He puts players in the position where they can do their best. He knows what it takes to win in the NBA and WNBA, and he kind of incorporates both in our system.”

Robinson credits much of the success in her career to Adubato. The small forward played for Adubato in New York and came to Washington as a free agent last offseason because of the coach. And while she says Adubato is still “obsessed with X’s and O’s” and wearing flamboyant suits, she notices a slight difference.

“He is a little bit more laid-back here,” she says. “In New York, we didn’t have very many days off. We were lucky if we had two or three days off in a whole season. He’s a little calmer now.”

Adubato has little interest in returning to the men’s game now. He has one more year on his contract with the Mystics and sounds perfectly content to finish his career in the WNBA.

“I am having fun,” he says. “I love the challenge of trying to win games and trying to win a championship. It doesn’t matter who I’m coaching.”

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