In honor of the 25th anniversary of the three-time WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury franchise, PhoenixMercury.com is reminiscing with those who have made this team a success over the past quarter century.
Tom Leander opened up the Mercury’s inaugural season as their play-by-play announcer as well as a member of the team’s first male practice squad. In the years since, Leander has remained courtside calling Mercury games and witnessing the franchise blossom into the championship-driven organization it is today.
THE PHOENIX MERCURY FRANCHISE WAS FOUNDED IN 1997. WHAT WAS GOING ON IN THE LIFE OF TOM LEANDER IN 1997?
Leander: “I was hosting and producing Suns pregame and halftime shows. On the side, they had me doing some Mercury games. That was actually my first taste of basketball play-by-play for the most part with the Suns. My most vivid memory is when we traveled, they would fly us to various cities and put a lot of money and effort into the production. It was the first time I ever worked with Eddie Johnson, met him in Houston. He was actually living in Houston at the time because he was playing for the Rockets. I’ll never forget the first five minutes of the broadcast doing the game with Eddie. We go to a commercial break and I went into my talk back and I told our director, ‘Wow, this is what it’s like to work with a professional play-by-play analyst.’ That was one of the coolest moments for me. That was before I started doing Suns play-by-play. We had a lot of fun. We traveled with the team to Houston doing the games against the Comets. I remember we were in Charlotte and LA. There was so much time and effort spent on putting those broadcasts on the air, especially those first couple of seasons when there was so much momentum with the novelty of the WNBA.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY FUN STORIES FROM BACK WHEN YOU WERE AN ORIGINAL MEMBER OF THE MEN’S PRACTICE SQUAD?
“I was on the practice squad along with Jeff Majerle, Dan Majerle’s brother, and A.J. Sulka, who was one of Dan’s best friends. Really good basketball players. Cheryl Miller, I think she may have come up with the idea to have five guys scrimmage against the Mercury team. We went down on the Suns practice court and I had to cover a little point guard from Australia. I think she was about 5-foot-2. Her name was Kristi Harrower. We were trying not be overly competitive and, lo and behold, Kristi Harrower just started hacking me. I’d take a shot and she’d just slapped my hand. Of course, Cheryl Miller’s not going to call a foul. Every time we got a turnover, we’d be heading down the court and Cheryl Miller would blow her whistle and stop the play and we’d be like ‘We have a fastbreak here.’ So, the cards were stacked against us, but it was a really cool experience to be on the forefront of the women practicing against the guys. I think it was very beneficial. It must’ve been because they still do it today.”
WHAT WERE THOSE PRACTICES LIKE UNDER CHERYL MILLER?
“Cheryl was interesting in that she wasn’t overly structured. It was a lot of scrimmaging and just playing by feel. Not that she’s not a good tactician or didn’t have plays, but it wasn’t as structured as many practices. I remember she would take part in practices because she was still pretty young at that point. She actually blew out her Achilles tendon making a move. She was demonstrating one of the drills and blew out her Achilles tendon and was on crutches for like the next six months. She was an interesting person and coached very intense, but also very lively. A big, big personality like her brother, Reggie.”
THROUGHOUT THE YEARS, WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES FROM YOUR TIME CALLING THE GAMES ON BROADCAST?
“Calling the games in Houston was always really special because those games were sold out similar to what it was like in Phoenix. I think the most passionate fans by far were in Houston and Phoenix. So, when we would go to Houston — the Comets were just racking up championships year after year — those were my fondest memories of the intensity on the court. They were just a juggernaut and so those were really intense games. We had a great team as well. We were always competitive and won a bunch of games in Houston, so not one particular game, but definitely any game against the Houston Comets where it was high intensity.”
FROM THE BIRTH OF THE LEAGUE AND THE BIRTH OF THIS FRANCHISE, HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE LEAGUE AND ITS PLAYERS GROW AND GAIN RESPECT THROUGHOUT THE YEARS?
“I think it’s awesome. One of my regrets is that I have not been able to call any Mercury playoff games because the networks pick it up. ESPN covers all the playoffs. I think that is a huge sign of respect for the league and the talent level. The notoriety of some of these players, like a Skylar Diggins-Smith, they’re bigger than just the game of basketball. They’ve been able to spread their wings and gain some of the attention that NBA players have gotten over the years. The WNBA draft now is a big deal. Before I don’t even remember, I don’t think they even televised the WNBA draft. Now, it’s just like the NBA where you’re trying to project who’s going to go in the first round. It’s really been impressive to see how it’s grown. The talent level was always really good. I don’t want to downplay the Mercury teams with Michelle Timms and Jennifer Gillom. The Mercury had a player by the name of Brandy Reed and she, to me, was the most and is the most athletic player I’ve ever seen on the court. She could jump, she could fly down the floor, she could rise up with jump shots. So, it’s not like the talent level wasn’t there. I just think there’s more of that talent that is balancing the parity throughout the league. That’s probably the biggest point is the parity because back then there were like two or three really good teams. Now, across the board, every game is very competitive.”
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK OVER THESE PAST 25 YEARS WITH THIS FRANCHISE, WHAT DOES THE PHOENIX MERCURY MEAN TO YOU?
“It means that I’ve had a chance to work with Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale, who is truly one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. To be able to sit side-by-side with her to do the games is the best part of my connection with the Mercury. I love the game and definitely being courtside. She’s such a pro and her ability to watch and described Diana Taurasi, it doesn’t get any better than that. That to me is very similar to my years doing play by play for the Suns with Steve Nash. I didn’t appreciate it at the time because I’m busy preparing and trying to make the correct call and identify the correct player. So, sometimes I’m not really in the moment going, ‘Wow, I am calling games with Diana Taurasi.’”