WASHINGTON - To hear Washington Mystics forward Chamique Holdsclaw tell it, the biggest adjustment she and her teammates will have to make to their new coach, Australian native Tom Maher, will not be to his accent or to his up-tempo style of play.
If the Mystics, who open play in the WNBA tonight in Cleveland, are to get through this season successfully, they'll first have to navigate through Maher's sense of humor.
"Tom has a dry wit and he's always cracking jokes, and I'm like, `Whatever,' " Holdsclaw said after a practice earlier this week. "He tries to have a sense of humor to keep everybody loose. He's so corny that sometimes it makes you laugh."
Given that Maher, 48, is Washington's fifth head coach in four years of existence and that he is inheriting a team that has yet to have a winning season, the former Australian national team coach may need all the good humor he can muster.
But Maher, who guided the Aussie team to three medals in international competitions, including a best-ever silver in last year's Summer Olympics in Sydney, is approaching the season with a sense of optimism.
"I've got more of a chance because the people who were before me were knocking their heads against the wall," said Maher. "I'll tell you what I know: The Washington people looked at how the Opals [the Australian team's nickname] played basketball and the style we played basketball and they said, `We want a team like that.' And they got me."
And with Maher comes a completely different approach to the game than anyone this side of the Sydney Opera House has seen. The "walk-it-up, run-if-there's-a-chance-to run" style of last season's coach, Nancy Darsch, who resigned midway through the season, has been scrapped.
In its place is a breakneck press-and-rap defense and fast break offense that borrows liberally from a variety of coaches Maher has studied, including the University of Arizona's Lute Olson and former Los Angeles Lakers and Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead.
"What I'm teaching is a hybrid [of U.S. and Australian styles]," said Maher. "The styles are becoming closer and closer. We don't have the power game you have here. That's the biggest difference. The Australian culture is a mix of other cultures, a bit of Europe, a bit of America, a bit of Asia and a bit of whatever. That mix is our culture and I think it's happened in basketball, too."
In addition, Maher is shaking up team roles, opening up the offense to allow for more shooting options besides Holdsclaw and guard Nikki McCray, the Mystics' two leading scorers, who combined for nearly half the team's points last season.
In Maher's system, there is plenty of motion, and everyone is an option from almost anywhere on the floor, so it won't be out of character for 6-foot-2 center Murriel Page, who hasn't attempted a three-pointer since her rookie season in 1998, to start hoisting bonus shots.
So far, Maher's plan has gained acceptance, particularly from a team hungry to win.
"Nikki [McCray] and I have been doing this three years," Page said. "In all three years, I've had a new coach. But not only do we have a new coach, but in his system, everybody is involved. And he's not going to play five or six people. He's going to play the whole team. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it together."
Playing together is going to be an important theme for the Mystics, a talented team that made the playoffs last year despite a 14-18 record (Washington was swept out of the postseason by the New York Liberty) and dissension and internal strife, particularly between Darsch and Holdsclaw.
"It's probably easy for me to say, `Yeah, Tom's the right coach because of what happened last year,' but I really believe it," said Holdsclaw. "In order to coach professionals and the mix in age that we have, you have to be very personable. You have to be somebody who's about business, but also has people skills. He can sit me down and look me in the eye and say, ` 'Mique, you're not rebounding, you're not doing this.' And I have nothing to say, because he's constantly talking to you."
All of the team's key members - Holdsclaw, McCray, Page and former Maryland star Vicky Bullett - return. Add improved depth, led by first-round draft choice Coco Miller, and a new coach, and the Mystics hope to stick around a bit longer and get home-court advantage in at least the first round.
"That's a natural next step for us to take," said general manager Melissa McFerrin. "We made the playoffs. We, maybe, at times, felt like we underachieved a little bit, but this team has come in with a different mind-set. You can see that in our conditioning and in our practices. I think they're ready to take another step in becoming a consistent playoff contender."