Let these men tell you how tough the women's game is

Cassius Chaney passes the ball during tryouts for the Connecticut Sun practice squad on April 21 at the Mohegan Sun Community Center in Uncasville.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Cassius Chaney passes the ball during tryouts for the Connecticut Sun practice squad on April 21 at the Mohegan Sun Community Center in Uncasville. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Mohegan – It would be convenient to pigeonhole this into something merely endemic to Connecticut, home of the women’s sports revolution. But this is a scene that happens at numerous women’s basketball programs across the country now, perhaps eliciting a grin from Helen Reddy, who was prophetic 47 years ago, singing about a woman’s roar.

This was Saturday at Mohegan Sun, a bunch of guys playing basketball, all for the privilege of … wait for it … eventually practicing against a bunch of women. This was tryouts for male practice players, who will be around all season at the behest of the Connecticut Sun.

It happens now in gyms throughout the country. Men at work for the benefit of women, maybe the best evidence yet of how the game grows.

If only Joe Macho Cool Guy, the sports fan perpetually dismissive of women’s sports, could have been here to see Cassius Chaney, a professional boxer, trying out. Or local coaches Wes Murphy (Norwich Free Academy boys) and Garvin McAlister (Connecticut College men) here willingly. And happily.

“They’re elite athletes,” Chaney, also an elite athlete, was saying. “This is my third year. I like helping them out. But it helps me, too. Keeps me on my toes. The Sun players are elite, professional athletes. You think you’re going to come here and bully them because you’re a guy? They’re legit.”

Indeed. Chaney said he thought Sun forwards Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones would make good boxers. He also knows that competing for a rebound here isn’t for any softies. Apparently, Chiney Ogwumike has quite functional elbows.

“Being here helps me with my coaching,” said Murphy, an assistant at NFA under Chris Guisti. “They’re always in the right spots at the right time. I try to get those points across to my players. I do this because I love the game and enjoy playing basketball. But I’ve learned a lot as well.”

Then Murphy paused and said, “Just because they’re women doesn’t mean they won’t hit you back. They’re professional athletes. They’ve obviously done something right.”

Sun coach Curt Miller spent a few minutes addressing the candidates, maybe two dozen of them, about the rigors of the job. No glitz here. Male practice players aren’t paid, aside from a meal or two any maybe some game tickets. Their time needs to be flexible. This is not an exercise to get any guy into the G League. This is about the many layers of helping the Sun players compete in the ever improving WNBA.

“Everything is on time. They screen on time, cut on time. If you make a mistake you pay,” McAlister said. “You don’t call out a screen, you feel it.

“The experience here is a lot like teaching. You are always looking for a new way to get your message across. Defensively, a lot of things coach Miller does here translate across the board. Offensively, it’s the timing. Everyone knows where they’re supposed to be. The efficiency of practice. Those are the little things I take with me and apply them where I can.”

Conversations with male practice players are among the most enlightening in all of sports. Maybe that’s because their real-life experiences unearth a synergy between the men’s and women’s games. It’s not merely “the athleticism” of men and the “fundamentally sound” women. There’s a baseline somewhere — good basketball is good basketball — no matter if the dramatis personae are named Erin or Aaron.

“A lot of men need to do this for the humility side of it,” McAlister said. “It’s not easy. One on one, (Sun guard) Courtney Williams is one of the toughest covers I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve covered everyone around here from Mark Jones to Mikey Buscetto. Courtney’s tough. I’d say that Joe Macho needs to come lace ’em up and see what it’s like.”

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro 

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