By Bailey Johnson
When Nicki Collen was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Dream in October 2017, one of the first things she did was start forming relationships with her players. Building a positive, selfless culture was key for the first-time head coach and she wanted to start on it early.
“(I wanted) them to understand who I was and that I truly was going to care about them as people as well as basketball players,” Collen said. “I think that part is important. If you want the best out of somebody, they got to believe that you believe in them, that you care about them.”
Now, at the beginning of Collen’s second season at the helm of the Dream, the culture she’s instilled in her players is visible every moment of every practice.
When you enter the gym for a practice, before you even step onto the court you can hear the players laughing, yelling, and having the time of their lives.
Fittingly, point guards Alex Bentley and Renee Montgomery are the driving forces behind the noise. Bentley can always be found hyping up her teammates and Montgomery’s antics during warmups always draw laughs.
“A loud gym is a winning gym,” Bentley said. “I’ve been a point guard all my life, since I was five years old. I’ve always been small and my coaches growing up and my mentors have always told me a winning gym is a loud gym.”
In Collen’s first season, the Dream went 23-11 — the best record in the franchise’s 11 seasons. The loud gym was the winning gym.
To create the positive, upbeat atmosphere that permeates the team, Collen developed three pillars for her players. No matter what, they were going to invest, compete, and empower one another. That empowerment turned into encouragement, and every Dream game and practice is filled with players cheering each other on.
“We’re a team,” Bentley said. “You’ve got to build that camaraderie by encouraging your teammates and keeping that line of communication open. We just have fun with it.”
In many ways, the atmosphere around the Dream is much more closely related to a college team’s culture than that of a professional team. Professional athletes play their sport for work, and it’s not uncommon for the daily grind of coming to practice to become draining and undesirable.
But in Atlanta, Collen and her players love coming into the gym each day.
“I enjoy my job,” Collen said. “There’s a passion in what I do, and I want them to enjoy their job because I think that not many people get to play a game for a living. I think they need to remember that when they’re working hard, they can still have fun. I just think when you’re working hard and having fun, it’s good to be in the gym. When you’re not having fun, it becomes work.”
Added Bentley: “We come in and it’s not like you’re going to work every day. Some teams go to practice — they wake up in the morning and they say, ‘Dang, I have to work again today.’ No. We come in here to get better. We come in here, we love being around each other. We love working together. It’s a beautiful environment to be working in.”