Thursday, May 19, 2016
By Nina Mandell
May 18, 2016
WASHINGTON — Long before Katie Smith, a 17-year veteran of the WNBA, knew she was going to become a coach there was no shortage of coaches who told her she would join their ranks one day.
“I’ll say it right in front of her,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said, walking by Smith as his team prepared to play the New York Liberty, where Smith was promoted to associate head coach this season. “I told her she was going to be a coach and she said no. Years ago when I coached USA Basketball, I said, ‘You know you’re going to end up being a coach.'”
Smith replied that she was going to go to dental school or do something else, but Thibault wouldn’t listen. Neither would Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, who picked her up years later for her 17th season in the league with the understanding that she was going to have a spot on the bench with a clipboard when she was finished.
By then she had agreed to give it a try. She had worked as a graduate assistant while she was finishing her Master’s degree at Ohio State. So after the 2013 season, Smith quietly retired from the league – telling the Wall Street Journal she was retiring because “I’m old,” – and joined the Liberty coaching staff.
“She has knowledge, experience and because she’s kind of seen it from the outside, you know going back to Ohio State in the offseason and being around that program I think gave her a different perspective,” Thibault said.
Laimbeer said he knew she had promise as a coach because of her competitiveness and understanding of the game. “I think she didn’t realize how many hours coaches put in, but she’s coming to grips with that and she does a fine job,” he added.
Smith’s life, which was once filled with workouts and shooting drills, is now full of scraps of paper that she grabs to draw plays whenever she sees one that she likes. Her big project now, she said, is trying to compile her notes into at least a Word document or through a computer program that allows coaches to draw plays and organize them by situation.
“My favorite (part of coaching) is to try to figure out how each player can have success in their individual world,” she said. “Some people are going to be the all-stars, some are going to be role players. But how do we get you to have the best experience and get the most out of that? And that’s not only practice and player development, but enjoying the ride a little bit.”
Smith, it seems, is something that every program would want in their coach: A dedicated mentor, smart and ambitious who left a mark in the history books during her playing career. She was promoted after only two seasons with the team and seems destined for a bigger job. So what’s next?
“Probably move onto a head coaching position, whether it’s in the WNBA or in college,” she said. “Women’s college basketball. I do want to be a head coach at some point, how that path goes, I’m not sure. … I have a great situation now, but we’ll see. I definitely want to give it a try one day.”
A trip over to the NBA or men’s side? Not for her, she said.
“The NBA is interesting,” she said. “I think you think about it especially with Becky Hammon as a trailblazer and Nancy Lieberman. But for me, being in the women’s game, something that gave me so much is something I’d like to give back.
“For me I think my heart lies with the women’s game.”
Laimbeer said he saw her going onto being a college coach next. “The WNBA is finite. There’s only so many jobs and the salaries are finite,” he said.
He said he didn’t see the NBA as the place where she should land either.
“I don’t think that’s in the cards,” he said. “I talked to her about that. It’s going to take a long time for a woman to be a head coach in the NBA and that’s where the money’s at … I see her as a college head coach.”
Smith is one of two WNBA legends on the Liberty coaching staff. She works alongside Teresa Weatherspoon, who came back to the team that she once starred on after being fired from Louisiana Tech. Weatherspoon, a self-proclaimed gym rat, is considered by the team to be incredibly valuable at player development.
Weatherspoon said when it came to sticking with the women’s game over looking for a higher-profile chance on the men’s side, she understood Smith’s decision. It’s part of why she came back to the league as well.
“You can’t knock other people’s goals and where they want to be and where they want to sit. You don’t want to in any way say that’s the wrong thing to do,” she said. “… Now how special is it when you come back to the WNBA and give everything that you can in this league because we talk about visibility, we always talk about the marketing aspect of the WNBA, the growth of the WNBA.
“So what would that say,” Weatherspoon asked, “if we all come back and be a part of that and keep it growing?”