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June 27, 2018

A Coach’s Creed: Team Over Self

The Liberty’s new head coach brings passion and an open, straightforward approach to every game and practice, and to each interaction with her team. Her goal, she says, is to lift up and empower her players.

In the huddle with her team. Katie Smith says she takes notes on nearly every game she sees — from college to the WNBA to the NBA. "I am always open to ideas," she says. (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

Katie Smith, in her prime as a WNBA star, shone in all parts of the game. A scoring guard by trade, she could flip to any role — playmaker, rebounder — whatever was called for. In game-speak, she had court vision.

As one of the sport’s all-time greats, she was aggressive and tenacious, and sometimes a bit impatient. By her own account, she was something of a perfectionist, winning respect by holding herself and her teammates to a high standard. Then came a subtle turning point, when a friend suggested to Smith that she could inspire more if she were more encouraging.

“I began thinking, how can I bring people along with me,” she says. “How do I empower? How do I use each person’s strengths so we can make the team stronger as a whole?”

For Smith, facing new challenges as head coach of the New York Liberty, these are words to live by. After four years as an assistant coach with the team, she is now guiding an intriguing blend of seasoned players with fledgling talent. For three seasons, the Liberty, with Tina Charles as their centerpiece, have been near the top of the league. Now, with an evolving supporting group, Smith envisions a more athletic team that is stalwart on defense.

“Smart and disciplined, but I also want them to express their talents on the court,” she said, spelling out her blueprint.

 

Laughing, Pointing And Cajoling

These are heady days for Smith. She was recently inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and is headed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this year. Her portfolio glitters. Upon retiring, she was the leading scorer in the history of professional women’s basketball, has won a WNBA championship and has helped the U.S capture three Olympic Gold medals.

Conceit is not part of Smith’s makeup, and everyone around her tends to settle on one word to describe her — authentic.

“She’s totally regular, totally invested in us, totally authentic, ” says the veteran, Brittany Boyd. And Shavonte Zellous says her coach “is able to give each one of us attention. It’s pretty amazing.”

On a recent morning, Smith presided over a brisk planning session at the team’s training center. She sketched out strategies on a whiteboard, tossing out ideas and pausing for input. “Yeah, I like that, that’s good,” she said. “How about this? What do you think?”

Minutes later she was flying around the court during a rapid-pace practice. She laughed, pointed and cajoled. At times, she took the ball to make her point, shouting over the screeching of basketball sneakers. When she saw something she liked, she treated it like a small victory, pumping her fist.

In her training center office, her 14-year-old labradoodle, Logan — named for Smith’s hometown in central Ohio — rested serenely at her feet. In breaking down her team, no detail is overlooked, but her analysis comes down to a core idea: team before self.

“In the Olympics, no one remembered who started or who scored the most points,” she said. “They only remember we won the gold. When you lose that idea, it’s like being on Google Maps when you get ahead of yourself and get off the route. You have to press the re-center button to get back on course.”

 

The Liberty have a crammed schedule this week, including two upcoming home games at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y. They host the Chicago Sky Friday night, June 29, and the Seattle Storm Tuesday night, July 3.


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