When the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) debuted in May 1997, Katie Smith was a member of the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball Association (ABL), Tamika Williams and Courtney Coleman were entering their senior and sophomore years in high school. Seven years later, the trio – all who have connections with Ohio State women’s basketball – are successful players in the league.
Smith, a letterwinner and two-time All-American at Ohio State from 1993-96, currently is the student assistant for the Buckeye women’s basketball team as she prepares for dental school at Ohio State. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Smith continued playing professional basketball with the Quest in Columbus. When the WNBA came to life the following year, Smith stayed with the Quest but eventually moved on to the WNBA after the ABL folded.
The WNBA expanded with two new teams in 1999 – the Minnesota Lynx and the Detroit Shock. Former Quest coach Brian Elger moved on to take over in Minnesota and Smith was eventually allocated to the Lynx.
“Obviously there were two different leagues at one point and I personally wanted to play in the ABL,” Smith said. “There was a team in Columbus. I liked the season and it was based on the grassroots of basketball. There wasn’t as much hype. It was exciting that there were two leagues and with the folding of the ABL, it was nice to have another option to play here in the United States. Obviously they have some help from the NBA, whether it’s the people in the front offices, the arenas or just the format of how to go about things. It’s been successful so far and they are starting to branch out and find ways to make it better.”
In five seasons with Minnesota, Smith has started all but one of her 159 games, played in four All-Star games and has earned All-WNBA accolades four times. In 2001, she set seven single-season records: points (739), scoring average (23.1 ppg), free throws made (246), free throws attempted (275), 3-point field goals attempted (240), minutes played (1,234) and average minutes (38.6 mpg). Additionally, she led the league in 3-point field goals made (78) in 2003. Williams, an assistant coach for the Buckeyes under Jim Foster and a native of Dayton, Ohio, made her WNBA debut in 2002 when she joined Smith as a member of the Minnesota Lynx. After winning a national championship and graduating from the University of Connecticut, Williams was selected as the sixth overall pick in the 2002 WNBA draft by Minnesota. She was the fourth teammate from the UConn senior class to be taken in the first round of the draft. Sue Bird was drafted first by Seattle, Swin Cash was chosen second by Detroit, Asjha Jones was picked fourth by Washington and Williams was the sixth selection.
“That was really great,” Williams said. “I was the last one who pulled it in, but I didn’t even think I was going to go that high. We couldn’t have expected anything better.”
In two seasons with Minnesota, Williams has started all 56 games of her career. Last season, she led the WNBA in field-goal percentage (.668) and averaged 8.9 points per game.
In 2003, former Ohio State head coach Nancy Darsch was named the first new member of head coach Suzie McConnell Serio’s coaching staff for the Lynx. Darsch possesses nearly 25 years of coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels, including a 12-year stint with the Buckeyes. She coached Smith at Ohio State and led the 1993 squad to the NCAA championship game.
“I was excited when I heard she was our assistant coach,” Smith said. “I have always had a good relationship with Nancy. I think she really knows the X’s and O’s of the game. She has been through college, the Olympics, the WNBA – she’s been through it all. With Suzie being our new coach, she has a lot of knowledge to share. It’s a lot of fun to have her on the bench.”
Former Buckeye Courtney Coleman, who helped the 2002-03 Ohio State team to a NCAA tournament berth, was drafted as the first pick of the second round and the 13th overall selection in the 2003 WNBA draft by the Connecticut Sun. Coleman joined another former Buckeye, Adrienne Johnson (1993-96) as a member of the Sun squad.
“I was really nonchalant about it,” Coleman said. “I didn’t know if I would go first round, second round, or even if I would go at all. In reality I never could have guessed what would happen but I was excited. It’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
When Coleman was preparing to enter the draft and continue her basketball career, she was fortunate enough to get some advice from Williams – who came to Ohio State last season as the student assistant under Foster after her rookie season with the Lynx.
“I told her to save her money,” Williams said. “If you save it, you can spread it out. It’s really easy to see the amount of money coming in and get carried away, but it’s only for the season and you have to stretch it out. I also told her to play hard. They (Connecticut Sun) are definitely going to keep her. They want to go young this year so she is going to have a big opportunity to get some good minutes or even have a shot at starting. I think she’ll have a big impact on the Eastern Conference this year.”
“She helped out a lot because I really didn’t know anyone on our team,” Coleman said. “She told me about everyone and she told me about what I would be doing. Everything she said was exactly everything that happened. That helped me out so much because when I got there I kind of had a head start on certain things.”
Coleman left Columbus and headed for Hartford to play in front of some fans that also enjoyed watching Williams play her college days for the Huskies. As a rookie, Coleman appeared in 20 games for the Sun, averaging 1.8 points per game.
“I was the only rookie on the team and had never been to Hartford,” Coleman said. “They have a really big fan base because of the UConn women’s team. The first game we played was against the Sparks and it was on national television. I didn’t know if I was going to get to play but I actually got in. The game was almost sold out. It was really exciting but I was a little nervous. It was kind of overwhelming.”
For now, Smith, Williams and Coleman have steady summer jobs playing in the WNBA. They will, however, be some of the first to admit it’s always good to have a back-up plan.
“Enjoy it, work hard, play hard and do what you love for as long as you can,” Smith said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t think the WNBA is what you’re going to be doing for the next 10-15 years and think there will be tons of money. Certain players make great money. With other players, the money is okay. It’s a job. You have to have other options. Basketball isn’t going to carry you for the rest of your life. To take the connections you have and the people you meet through the WNBA is a great way to network and progress.”
Smith, Williams and the rest of the Lynx will tip off the 2004 WNBA season May 20 at Seattle. Coleman and the Sun begin the 2004 season playing host to the Phoenix Mercury May 22 on ABC Sports.