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Whisenant Merely Is on Loan to California

By Rick Wright
Of the Journal
    Sacramento is where John Whisenant hangs the two most recent of his many hats: coach and general manager of the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs.
    Albuquerque is still where his heart is.
    "That's home to Joyce (his wife) and me," says Whisenant, who'll bring the Monarchs to the Pit on Wednesday for a WNBA exhibition game against the Minnesota Lynx.
    "We've been in Albuquerque 30 years, and we raised our family there. We're dyed-in-the-wool New Mexicans."
    So, then, why the current California address?
    Like those other New Mexico transplants, Sacramento Kings/Monarchs owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, Whisenant can't resist the squeak of sneakers on hardwood. A highly successful Albuquerque real-estate developer and home builder who has owned race horses and piloted his own airplane, he's always been a coach first.
    Whisenant, an Oklahoma native and a New Mexico State graduate, got his first coaching job almost 40 years ago at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He came to Albuquerque in 1972 as an assistant to Norm Ellenberger at UNM but resigned in '79 to concentrate on a burgeoning business career.
    Whisenant kept the rust off by coaching his son Justin's AAU team, then signed on with the New Mexico Slam— a minor-league men's professional team— in 1999. When he left the financially decaying Slam in February 2001, it appeared his days on the sideline finally might be over.
    In fact, when he left Albuquerque for Sacramento in December 2002, he neither expected nor wanted to coach the Monarchs. Whisenant first enlisted as assistant general manager, with the stated intention of replacing Jerry Reynolds as GM this year.
    But when the Monarchs struggled to a 7-11 start last season, coach Maura McHugh was fired. Whisenant, urged by the Maloofs to take the reins, did so.
    "I didn't really want to do it, but I was intrigued by it," he says.
    Sacramento went 12-4 the rest of the way, the best record in the WNBA during that period, and made the second round of the playoffs before being ousted by coach Michael Cooper— who played for Whisenant at UNM— and the Los Angeles Sparks.
    Whisenant, whose only prior experience coaching females was a few games with an AAU team that included his daughter, Jordan, says he finds that basketball is basketball.
    "As I tell these ladies I'm coaching (in Sacramento), I've got two daughters, two sisters, a wife and a mother," he says. "So, I'm used to having women telling me what to do.
    "I coach the same Bob King-Norm Ellenberger defense that's still dominant if you do it correctly, and you still get beat for layups if you do it incorrectly. I can't tell that (coaching women) is any different."
    Coaching point guard Ticha Penicheiro, Whisenant says, probably isn't much different from coaching point guard Jason Kidd. Penicheiro, like Kidd, is a supremely gifted passer and ballhandler but an inconsistent outside shooter.
    "Some teams," he says, "Cooper's in particular, take advantage of her by playing off her and kind of playing you five-on-four."
    As coach, Whisenant will try to promote Penicheiro's strengths and hide her weaknesses by redesigning the Monarchs' offense this season. As general manager, he has tried to sign some better outside shooters.
    Whisenant, 59, has signed a three-year contract as coach and hopes to continue as general manager well beyond that. Still, he says, he and Joyce will come back to Albuquerque when their stint in Sacramento is done.
    My guess, though, is that the Monarchs won't be his final coaching destination.
    Rick Wright's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Albuquerque Journal. E-mail him at rwright@abqjournal.com