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Gay WNBA coach Curt Miller opens up about bubble life: ‘It feels like Groundhog Day’

The Connecticut Sun head coach is back in the playoffs, and attempting to lead his team through the most challenging season in memory, all while trying to maintain sanity.

Connecticut Sun v Phoenix Mercury
Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller says this has been the most challenging season of his career.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Last time we caught up with Curt Miller, the openly gay head coach and general manager of the Connecticut Sun was feeling reflective. Away from basketball for the first time in decades, Miller was spending his quarantine thinking about his priorities, and how many years he’s spent slaving over game film and practice routines. At the end of each day, he got into the habit of putting down his phone, and spending extended time with his son.

Now, the only people whom Miller can see are WNBA players and coaches. Inside the WNBA Bubble in Bradenton, Fla., he lives on the same hotel floor as 11 of his 12 players, and all of his assistant coaches. Excursions are not allowed, outside of pre-scheduled beach time — teams are free to attend a private beach, one at a time, for a couple of hours on weekdays — and sailing trips around Tampa Bay. While Miller feels lucky to be in the warm weather, the arrangement can be stifling.

“It really does feel like Groundhog Day,” he told Outsports in a phone conversation. “You never know what day it is.”

The Sun arrived at the WNBA Bubble without their best player, All-Star center Jonquel Jones, who opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns. Two players on the Suns tested positive for Covid-19 when they arrived to the WNBA Bubble, and were forced to miss some of training camp (there have been no reported positive tests in the league since the initial round of testing). On top of those obstacles, WNBA players are rightfully focused on racial justice causes, joining NBA players in a league-wide strike two weeks ago.

Miller says he understands this season is about far more than basketball. He’s been challenged to look inward, and think about how he can better contribute to the fight for racial equality. “As a white coach going through this with a predominately Black team, it’s showing my action, and acknowledging where my shortcomings are, and where I can better, and trying to lead with action,” he said. “They want more from us. Some of that is education, but where can I take action? This is an opportunity to really try and help create change.”

Still, there is basketball to play, and Miller must help his players, as he puts it, “manage the monotony.” After starting the season 0-5, the Sun clinched a playoff berth this week, and are preparing for their fourth-straight postseason. In addition to the mental health challenges of the bubble, there are physical challenges, too. Miller says every team is ravaged by injuries, due to the strenuous schedule of playing every other day. The WNBA has successfully curtailed the coronavirus, but in a cruel twist of irony, is jeopardizing its players’ physical wellbeing with a severely condensed schedule.

“At times, I feel helpless with all of the injuries from all of the teams,” Miller said. “The steps to allow us to have a professional sports season, because of the success health-wise of the bubble in terms of Covid is great, but what we’re asking these players to do, and play every other day, is so contrary to putting their health first. We’re doing such a good job to keep them safe from Covid, but we’re putting them in such a tough situation to stay healthy, because it’s so hard on their bodies. It’s a little bit counter-productive.”

Connecticut Sun v Indiana Fever
Miller has struggled to keep his team healthy inside of the WNBA Bubble.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Outside of exercise — Miller says he’s in some of the best shape of his life at 51 years old — there are few respites from the bubble haze. There’s no meeting people for dinner or dates, unless you count pouring over X’s and O’s with your assistants. Even for Miller, who’s used to spending long nights in his office, it can be a little much. He says his family is his savior. Miller has been a legal guardian to twins for 20 years, and tries to keep up with them as much as he can, though it’s easier to call Brian Seymour than his brother, Shawn. The former just finished his senior year at Indiana University, and still works at the law school on campus. They gab about college life and how Bloomington, a quintessential Midwestern college town, is handling the pandemic. It’s a nice distraction.

Reaching Shawn is more challenging. He’s been incarcerated at an Indiana correction facility since 2014, when he was convicted of armed robbery. His sentence is for 13 years. With the Department of Corrections indefinitely barring in-person visits, Miller hasn’t seen him since early January. If they can connect twice per week, it’s a success.

“It’s just another added layer of making it hard to be away from family and loved ones,” Miller said. “It’s important for his mental health, to have connection to the outside world, and a release from the tensions and the stress and anxiety that goes along with being incarcerated as a young male. He looks forward to do that every day. That being down to two days adds anxiety and stress to what is already difficult for everybody in the criminal justice system.”

The WNBA regular season is slated to wrap up Sunday, and the postseason starts Sept. 15. The WNBA Finals, which the Sun reached last year, is scheduled for early October. If the Sun keep winning, they could be inside of the bubble from mid-July through Columbus Day. It’s been the most challenging time of Miller’s coaching life. He’s proud of his players, and ultimately, says he’s garnered even more respect for them during this arduous period.

When he emerges from the bubble, he says he will be a better coach.

“(I’m) a coach who certainly has more empathy and compassion, and is driven to try and take actions for change for the amazing Black players that I coach in this league, and the players that make up this league,” he said. “Truly, a coach that’s able to laugh at themselves a little more. You don’t have to be perfect. It is healthy to step away at times.”