July 25, 2008
By David Driver
Used with permission
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Jessie Kenlaw, while at Savannah State in the 1970s, was among a group of students who petitioned the office of the president to begin a women's basketball program.
Their efforts paid off after a few years as Kenlaw played in her only season as a senior, 1976-77, when she was named the team's most valuable player. The Guyton native said the school did not offer basketball scholarships for women at the time.
"We knew there was a lot of talented players there through AAU, travel teams and intramurals," said Kenlaw, who graduated from Savannah State with a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1977. "We had to fight but we ended up getting it."
Some 30 years later it was a person in authority - general manager Linda Hargrove of the WNBA's Washington Mystics - who recently came to Kenlaw with a proposal. Hargrove asked Kenlaw to take over as the interim head coach of the Mystics.
"Well I was surprised, to be honest," Kenlaw said. "I really didn't expect that. When she asked me it was something I had to do."
Kenlaw, who graduated from Effingham County High School, began this WNBA season as the assistant coach and director of scouting for the Mystics under head coach Tree Rollins, the former Clemson and NBA standout.
Rollins was named the head coach last October after he compiled a record of 15-10 last season as the interim head coach. But the Mystics were 8-14 this season when Hargrove fired Rollins on July 19 following a 21-point loss to New York and a 37-point loss to Detroit.
Washington, in its first game under Kenlaw, crushed Seattle 89-57 at home July 20.
"Coming off of the last game, the energy that coach brings and a combination of a lot of factors went into us playing like this," Washington standout Taj McWilliams-Franklin said after the Seattle win.
Said Washington's Monique Currie, a former Duke star: "Anytime you have a coaching change like we had it really fired people up, but at the same time we needed that. We needed to be excited. We needed to be fired up."
The Mystics lost at home to New York 80-73 on July 23 in the second game under Kenlaw.
"It is going to be, not a slow process, but it is going to take some time to make the transition to what I want to do," Kenlaw said.
Is she more comfortable in her new role?
"I would agree with that. I know I am," Kenlaw said. "I think (the players) are too. But it is still a transition period."
Hargrove said she met Kenlaw about 10 years ago when Hargrove was the head coach of Colorado in the American Basketball League and Kenlaw was her assistant. Kenlaw was later an assistant under Hargrove with the WNBA's Portland (Ore.) Fire.
"I just think she is a wonderful person," Hargrove said. "She is a hard worker. She is a very disciplined coach, which I think is needed at every level."
This is the ninth season Kenlaw has been a coach in the WNBA. Before joining Washington prior to this season she spent four years with the Seattle Storm and helped coach the team, which included All-Stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, to the 2004 title.
Does the interim tag with the Mystics bother Kenlaw?
"It is not a problem for me," she said.
Kenlaw said when she played at Savannah State the team traveled on university buses and rarely spent the night in hotels, instead heading back to campus after games.
"We didn't have the big coach, comfort buses like we have now," she said. "It kind of speaks volumes for the transformation of the game today. These players have no idea where we came from and what we have today."
Kenlaw played in the Women's Professional Basketball League with Houston and Phoenix and was the head coach for eight years at the University of Houston. She considers herself a pioneer in the women's game and her journey from the 1970s in Savannah to a WNBA head coach hit home soon after she took over the top post.
"I really couldn't believe it. I was so elated," she said. "I have been blessed through my whole career."