“The Green Bay Way” more successful on hardwood than on paper


Let’s start with fundamental truth about the vast majority of books about a sports team: the primary audience is fans of, and others involved with, that team. So, even before word one, there’s an expectation that the book tells that specific group of people what they want to hear and reinforces the team’s legends and mythology. Put another way, most people who buy and read books like this aren’t looking for nuance or complexity.

Peter Kraker, the father of former Phoenix forward and assistant coach Mehryn (top photo), certainly delivers the goods for that constituency in The Green Bay Way, his newly-released love letter to/retrospective on UWGB women’s basketball.

The obvious problem for those who are reading from a neutral position or as a fan of a rival team is that you will likely be rubbed the wrong way by something early and often. For example, ideas like Green Bay’s commitment to academics are presented as something unique (the book coming on the heels of Youngstown State and Robert Morris finishing in the top three of the WBCA academic rankings while the Phoenix didn’t place in the top 25 adds a little bit of extra oof to those comments).

However, the most cringeworthy parts involved Kraker frequently – I don’t use that word lightly, much of the book is seemingly devoted to teaching through repetition – rhapsodizing about the old school, hard-working, team first, farm tough ethos of the program while setting up modern basketball based around offensive stars as the other side of the dichotomy, at one juncture taking it to the point of saying that 2018 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Arike Ogunbowale’s “offensive mentality [wouldn’t] have dovetailed with the blue-collar work ethic” at Green Bay.

That thread came to a crescendo during a review of the 2010-11 season, which marked the program’s lone trip to the Sweet Sixteen, a round that saw the Phoenix fell to a star-studded Baylor squad. In the buildup to that game, Kraker runs down the Bears’ three All-Americans, Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims, and Melissa Jones, singling out Jones as “a Green Bay Girl at heart.” Then, in the aftermath, he once again drove home his favorite morality play.

“I can still see the length of Griner, and the smooth, easy grace of Odyssey Sims, and how you just knew that these were two athletes meant for the ages. But I also remember the concentrated power of Green Bay, forged, and sculpted in early mornings, while others, including the girls from Texas, slept. I remembered the Phoenix taking the court like a Norse raiding party sweeping in from the frozen north, their European features set like flint, and absolutely no fear in their eyes.”

That simile is, uh, interesting.

Whether Kraker’s frequent belittling of some of women’s basketball’s biggest stars (who, of course, just lucked into some DNA and are either too selfish or too lazy to be Green Bay Girls), is just standard-issue smugness or hints at something deeper is open to interpretation, but either way, it’s not likely to resonate with people who aren’t reading the book to buttress their belief in Green Bay exceptionalism.

There are some technical issues as well, many tied to the fact that Kraker spent roughly eight years on the project. He devotes a brief chapter, along with several other sections and passages, to Green Bay’s 20-year run of Horizon League regular season titles, treated as current even through the streak ended in 2019. Another outdated fact, though one with less time to correct, involved referring to Jon LeCrone as the current Horizon League commissioner.

Carol Hammerle, the founding mother of Green Bay women’s basketball

Still, if you give up because of those shortcomings, you’ll miss a fascinating story. Fan woofing aside, the Phoenix are unquestionably the conference’s most successful program, and have been among the best in all of mid-major basketball. Along with those 20 consecutive regular season crowns (among 21 total in 27 years of Horizon League membership), the Phoenix boast 16 league tournament titles and 18 total NCAA Tournament appearances (the first of those coming as a member of the now-Summit League). Any basketball or sports fan should probably wonder what makes a program like that tick, and the book provides a rich answer running several layers deep.

A lot of it is a story about a remarkable amount of continuity, particularly for a smaller program (the Phoenix have only had three different people serve as head coach). But more than that, it’s a story about what the continuity allows, specifically a deeply-ingrained culture, a carefully-refined playing style, and a community that has developed in support of the program. Coaches have the latitude from administration to recruit for fit instead of skill, and in turn, players have the latitude from coaches to drive a lot of the decision making within the team, while pushing each other far above and beyond what the coaches would be able to do on their own. It’s a formula that’s maddeningly simple, yet nearly impossible to duplicate because of the various pressures associated with high-level competition and the decades of support that give Kevin Borseth the ability to do things other coaches can’t.

The Green Bay Way is at its strongest when it leans on its extremely deep roster of interviews – nearly 100 of them, running the entire gamut from star players and coaches to media and ordinary fans – to drive the narrative forward. That’s never clearer than when reviewing the tenure of founding coach Carol Hammerle in a chapter set against the backdrop of an alumni banquet, when Kraker had the wisdom to simply set his recorder on the table and transcribe stories.

Hammerle is a heroic figure who began in 1973 with just three or four players (the accounts vary) who had even played basketball before and, during the ensuing 25 years, set the program up for its more modern successes. Really, she’s an avatar for the entire women’s sports movement, and many involved in that world will identify with her stewardship of a program founded in the aftermath of Title IX, juggling multiple coaching roles in her early days, enduring sub-par facilities, constantly struggling for resources, support, and legitimacy, and making a hazy dash through several sanctioning bodies and conferences, culminating in an elevation to Division I in 1987 that was earlier than Hammerle would’ve liked and primarily driven by men’s basketball.

She left for Northern Illinois in 1998, just as the Phoenix were on the cusp of becoming a perennial power, handing the reins to Borseth, then Matt Bollant, then Borseth again (notably, Borseth left Green Bay for Michigan, then changed his mind five seasons later and returned while still holding the Wolverines job, speaking volumes about the appeal of the program for many). Each coach has, in turn, recruited tons of great players, with names like Chari Nordgaard, Nicole Soulis, Julie Wojta, Celeste Hoewisch, Kayla Tetschlag, Pam Roecker, and Amanda Leonhard-Perry dotting both the UWGB record books and Kraker’s interview schedule. Those individuals have all added their own touches to the program of course, whether it’s Bollant introducing the dribble drive or Nordgaard becoming a go-to player on a team that typically lacks them, but the overall system remains largely unchanged since the early days of the program.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a few words on The Green Bay Way’s design and layout, executed by The Teaching Press at UW-Green Bay. Despite the COVID pandemic that shut down key resources, not to mention an obvious lack of experience, a team of 20 student interns did a very capable job of creating attractive spreads that seamlessly integrated a healthy volume of photography and assembling them into a great display piece. At the same time, there were some key trade-offs made. Most pages have three columns of text to accommodate low-resolution images unable to span an entire page without help, making the book an extremely dense read (its 194 pages felt more like 294), with copy that crept a bit too close to the binding. But all in all, for a student-driven publishing house working on its second-ever job and given some daunting challenges, The Teaching Press did exceptional work.

Despite Kraker’s sometimes-problematic heavy handedness and frequent moralizing, ultimately The Green Bay Way gave me what I wanted, a review of the Horizon League’s historically dominant program and plenty of insight as to how it got to that point. I just wish I didn’t have to roll my eyes quite as often on the way there.

The Green Bay Way is available through the UW-Green Bay Bookstore or by contacting the author.

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