It's full speed ahead for Liberty coach Katie Smith

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

At some point, perhaps in October, Liberty coach Katie Smith should sit down and leisurely hit the mental rewind on what is one of the landmark periods of her life. Smith will be able to think back on 2018 being her first season as a head coach, and being the year that she was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Right now, though, it's hard to find any time to reflect.

"I threw something together," Smith said last week about her speech preparation for the WBHOF's induction ceremony Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee. "It's been a little rough to put down your thoughts on the past when you're in constant game mode and prep mode. I'm going to enjoy my day, and we'll see how the speech plays out."

Smith was the only one of the seven inductees who nailed the hoped-for time limit of 5-7 minutes; she spoke for 6. And it was a reminder of some of Smith's qualities that perhaps get obscured by all her high-level, sustained success and talent as a player: She likes discipline, order and predictability.

The last one, in particular, is the furthest thing from guaranteed in a career in athletics. And maybe even more so in women's basketball.

"I chose a career where it was possible to be back at home, driving to my Christmas shopping," Smith said during her speech, "and finding out the league I was playing in was shutting down. By a reporter calling me for my reaction. That's how I found out the ABL folded.

"Or you could be named the head coach [of the Liberty] and then find out that your team is being sold. As I said, 'How on earth is this my life?' Not a shot at security, or certainty, or a well-worn path. Just this amazing game choosing me. And I honestly could not be more grateful."

Indeed, Smith went from the national championship game as a freshman at Ohio State ... to missing the tournament the next two years ... to playing her last college game at eventual NCAA champ Tennessee ... to two ABL titles at home in Columbus, Ohio ... to the ABL folding ... to a spot in the WNBA with Minnesota ... to a lopsided trade to Detroit, where she helped the Shock win two titles ... to that franchise leaving Detroit ... to finishing her WNBA career playing for three different teams ... to going into coaching.

That's where she is now with the 3-4 Liberty, who host Las Vegas on Wednesday. It will be a chance for Smith to face Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, a longtime mentor going back to her playing days in Detroit and then when he was the Liberty's head coach.

"I appreciate Bill, and I've said that many times, but I got to do a lot," Smith said of her time as Laimbeer's assistant. "I got to have a voice; I got to do scouts. I didn't come in like, 'What do I do?' "

Rather, she began her head coaching career with a sense of calm and trying to stay in the moment. The Liberty are now playing in a different venue, the Westchester County Center, that is -- to say the least -- very different in size and vibe from previous longtime home Madison Square Garden. Neither Smith nor her players know for sure when the Liberty officially will be sold -- MSG has had the franchise on the market since late last year -- or how that eventual sale logistically will impact the team.

Tina Charles, who is averaging 22.3 points and 8.1 rebounds, remains the Liberty's stalwart post player. New York's top draft pick, guard Kia Nurse at No. 10, has been terrific so far off the bench, averaging 14.6 points. Veteran guard/forward Marissa Coleman, whom the Liberty picked up after she was waived by Indiana, is starting and averaging 8.0 PPG; she hit the winning shot against the Fever on Sunday.

Center Kia Vaughn reported a little late because she was playing in the Turkish league finals. Center Kiah Stokes has had a foot issue that has limited her to three games. Sugar Rodgers (knee) and Brittany Boyd (Achilles) have recently gotten back into action. The Liberty are still waiting for the return of guard Epiphanny Prince from a concussion.

But injuries and players coming in late are among the uncontrollable things all WNBA coaches must deal with. There are more of those than usual for Smith right now. But her personality has adjusted to being good with that.

"It's weird ... I feel like I should be more upset sometimes,'' Smith said. "But I think I approach it more like I did as a player: 'OK, let's find a way to go get this done.' You've been through it, and know things that you cannot predict are going to happen. It's not something I get too worked up about."

Take last Thursday's loss to Connecticut, where New York led 86-84 with 5.6 seconds left. The one thing the Liberty couldn't afford was surrendering a 3-pointer. But Connecticut's Shekinna Stricklen hit one at the buzzer -- and got fouled as well, making the free throw to add insult to injury.

Sun 88, Liberty 86.

"It does crush you a little bit," Smith said. "Then you're thinking about just a few things different here or there, and we win."

But by 4 a.m. the next morning, Smith was taking an Uber to LaGuardia airport for her flight to Knoxville. The fact that her connection went through Detroit was just one of those 'the universe is winking at you' kind of coincidences.

It was with the Shock that Smith got into the best shape of her life, expanded her leadership skills and formed a good player/coach relationship with Laimbeer. It was in Detroit that the seeds for Smith's coaching career were sown.

The material was always there, though.

"I looked up to Katie, even going back to college," said fellow Hall of Fame inductee Chamique Holdsclaw, who played for Tennessee against Smith in 1996 in her final game with the Buckeyes. "I admired the way she played and carried herself."

Tina Thompson is going on a similar journey this year as Smith, being inducted into the same two Halls of Fame while starting a head-coaching career, at the college level at Virginia. Thompson and Smith were on the U.S. national team together for several years, plus played one season together (2012) with the Seattle Storm. Both retired as players in 2013, and now both are on the sideline.

Smith, though, is in season right now -- and she hopes that will be the case deep into September. The Liberty have lost in the single-elimination second round the past two WNBA postseasons, and in the Eastern Conference finals the year before that. Smith isn't thinking directly about the 2018 playoffs now. But to some degree, it is always on her mind.

"Close games sting, because you don't want them to bite you in the end," Smith said of qualifying for the postseason. "But you also don't want to panic. You want to trust the process, which is kind of a corny line. But it's true.

"So many WNBA teams are tough. If you don't show up, you're going to get beat. I believe this is as wide open as it's been in a while. The biggest key is just make the playoffs. That's the goal: Get in and then see what happens."

And then, whenever it is all over this year, Smith can catch her breath and spend some time marveling at all that 2018 has meant to her.