Katie Lou Samuelson was visibly shaking after the Sky selected her with the fourth pick in the WNBA Draft on April 10. She never expected to go that high. But little did Samuelson know, the best surprise was yet to come.
After doing a live TV interview, Samuelson was ushered to a flat-screen TV in a secluded space at Nike headquarters in New York. Samuelson thought she was going to watch highlights from her college career at Connecticut.
Instead, she received a surprise message from her idol.
“Congratulations on your amazing high school and college careers, Katie Lou,” Larry Bird said. “Your talent and determination will be a great asset to the WNBA, and I wish you continued success.”
Samuelson covered her mouth in disbelief. She fought back tears of joy as she mouthed the words, “Oh, my God.”
“Thank you for the honor of wearing No. 33,” Bird continued, “and I can’t wait to see what you will accomplish at the next level.”
When the video concluded, Samuelson froze in awe. She struggled to string words together.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” Samuelson said. “That is amazing. I was not … I … am speechless. He’s my favorite player ever, why I wear the number. Oh my goodness. Wow.”
Though Samuelson was born five years after the Celtics legend played in his last NBA game, she idolizes Bird. That’s because her father, Jon, would show her clips of Bird when she was growing up.
Samuelson grew to be obsessed with the way Bird played, to the point that she has worn No. 33 throughout her career. She plans to wear it with the Sky this season.
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As Samuelson prepares to join the WNBA for its 23rd season, the league is at a crossroads.
Almost seven months after Lisa Borders stepped down as president, the WNBA is still searching for her replacement.
While NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum fills the position on an interim basis, the WNBA also is preparing for its most intense negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement since the its inception. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has gained support from NBA players as the women push for wage increases and transparency with the league’s revenue, among other issues.
The WNBA also has a “marketing problem,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted in 2018.
Elena Delle Donne, one of the league’s most recognizable players, agreed with Silver’s assessment.
“We absolutely do not get promoted as our male counterparts do,” Delle Donne wrote in a statement on Twitter at the time. “Yes, I’m talking about the NBA. When you put millions of dollars into marketing athletes and allowing fans to get to know a player, they develop a connection.”
WNBA chief operating officer Christin Hedgpeth recognizes the league’s issues with brand awareness. Though she said the league has begun to address the issue, the WNBA still lacks players with recognizable star value.
Samuelson said she’s “absolutely aware” of the state of the league and plans to get involved once she’s acquainted.
“Clearly, the league is going to change in one way or another after this season,” Samuelson said. “So we have to be aware and ready to be able to help as much as we can.”
This offseason, the WNBA and the Sky have launched rebranding campaigns. Though the marketing endeavors are separate, they share a common goal: Both want to appeal to a younger, more vast audience.
The WNBA has a new logo and plans to incorporate female-empowering slogans into their marketing material. The Sky also have a new emblem, color palette and slogan: “It’s darkest just before the dawn.”
The Sky missed the playoffs the last two seasons, resulting in the firing of general manager and coach Amber Stocks. The team is desperate for change.
That’s where Samuelson comes in.
The Sky have good players — notably Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Cheyenne Parker — but they haven’t had a recognizable player with all-around star value since dealing Delle Donne to the Mystics in February 2017.
Samuelson has the potential to fill that void on Chicago’s crowded sports landscape. And she said she’d be more than happy to do it, though basketball is her priority.
“For me, I’m going to make sure that I’m doing what I need to do on the court,” Samuelson said. “But if I can do anything to help off the court, absolutely, I would be willing and enjoy that.”
Samuelson believes she has what it takes to be a top-tier player in the league, though she isn’t naive about the work required.
“I’m definitely confident in myself,” she said. “But I do think I have a chance, and I’m going to put myself in the best position possible to be able to do that.”
Sky general manager and coach James Wade also is confident in Samuelson.
“It’s going to be really hard to come into the WNBA and be a star. That’s tough,” Wade said. “But I think if you look at the roster and if there’s someone that can, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was her.”
Samuelson has the “it” factor. She was embraced by the Connecticut fan base for her shooting and personality. Samuelson has more than 18,000 followers on Twitter, and her top-knot bun has its own account, @33KLSBun, run by an anonymous fan.
“With the opportunity that I was presented with at UConn, I did a good job of just trying to connect with as many people as I could and being friendly to fans and stuff like that,” Samuelson said. “I think that’s helped me gain those types of followers.
“In the WNBA, we’re trying to reach different audiences and different fans. I think whoever can help with that, we’re all trying to do it. If I can help with Chicago or anything else, I’ll definitely be excited to assist in any way that I can.”
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Samuelson was destined to be a star from the time she picked up a basketball. Dribbling and shooting appeared to come naturally.
Perhaps that’s because basketball runs deep in the Samuelson family. Jon played at Cal State Fullerton and then professionally in Europe. He met his wife, Karen, while playing basketball in Newcastle, England.
Samuelson’s two older sisters, Bonnie and Karlie, played basketball at Stanford. Bonnie pursued a career outside the game after college. Karlie is a guard for the Sparks.
Jon didn’t try to build basketball stars. It just happened. His main goal was to share his love for the game.
When the girls were younger, Jon built a basketball court in the backyard of their home in Brea, California. He would work with each of them on their shooting. Sometimes while Bonnie and Karlie worked out, Katie Lou wandered off on her own, dribbling a basketball around. Jon remembers watching Katie Lou when she was 5 trying to chuck shots up to the rim.
As the girls got older, Jon used to take them to different gyms to get in their 200 to 300 shots. He stressed the importance of practicing their shooting, no matter how monotonous.
“My biggest thing with the girls was, however long you practice, you still have to get your shots in,” Jon said. “Other kids will practice for two hours and think that might be enough. That’s team practice, but you still have to get your individual shots in.”
Katie Lou took her father’s advice to Connecticut, where she regularly arrived early or stayed late after practice to shoot.
After the Samuelsons finished their workouts, the sisters would stage some intense one-on-one battles.
“We’d always have to end them early because they’d end up in a fight or something,” Jon said. “Or somebody would get hurt. I had to stop it before they got too mad.”
That’s not to say the Samuelson sisters couldn’t play nice with one another on the court. Despite being two years younger, Katie Lou — who goes by “Lou” — often played on Karlie’s team before high school. She was so good, no one could tell the age difference.
“She never really noticed a difference,” Jon said. “She just always thought that she belonged on the court. She has that kind of confidence to just walk right on there. She just always fit in.”
At Mater Dei High School, the Samuelson sisters led their team to the 2012 state championship.
“It kind of just seemed like basketball was always what [my sisters and I] wanted to do, so that’s why we stuck with it,” Katie Lou said. “It’s been such a big part of our lives and it’s given us so many opportunities that we can’t picture our lives without it.”
After Katie Lou heard her name called at the draft this year, she stood and turned to Karlie, who was the first person she hugged. Later, Karlie joined Katie Lou for a post-draft photo shoot for the WNBA.
“It’s so nice to have her by my side,” Katie Lou said that night. “This is an incredible experience. I’m so happy she’s here.”
Then her competitor switch flipped.
“Now I know I’m playing against her for sure,” she said. “I’m excited to get that opportunity to see what happens.”
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Nothing could separate Katie Lou from basketball — not even injuries.
When she was 13, she broke her right wrist shortly after winning the local free-throw competition, which qualified her for the Elks National Hoop Shoot tournament.
“She said, ‘I’m going to start practicing right now,’ as soon as she broke her hand,” Jon recalled.
Katie Lou was so determined to win the tournament — as Bonnie and Karlie did — that she shot with her left hand, though she’s naturally a righty. Surprisingly, Katie Lou was fairly successful and almost reached the final round.
“She did really well,” Jon said. “It was pretty crazy.”
Katie Lou faced adversity again during the 2016 Final Four game when she broke her foot. The Huskies went on to win the championship. Despite the injury, Katie Lou considers that night one of her college highlights.
Though sitting out UConn’s title game was difficult, Katie Lou’s biggest basketball challenge came after her junior season. After playing the entire year on an injured ankle, she needed reconstructive surgery to repair two torn ligaments on the lateral side of her foot.
Katie Lou said the hardest part of her recovery was realizing that she needed to listen to her body better. She also struggled with not being able to practice.
“She kept wanting to get back on the court, and she kept having to be told, ‘You can’t do this,’ ’’ Jon said. “It was a slow process, but I think it helped her learn to listen to her body more and realize she can’t play through everything.”
Katie Lou wasn’t able to participate in full-contact activities until the beginning of last season. After returning to full strength, she averaged 18.5 points and 45.3 percent shooting, second-best on the team. She also averaged 6.3 rebounds.
Despite the injuries, Katie Lou never doubted her chances of playing in the WNBA.
“I was pretty confident that this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew I had the ability to get myself to this point. So I wanted to push myself and really just focus in to be as extra prepared as I could be. And when it came down to the draft and stuff like that, you never know. That’s kind of out of your control at that point. So I was just positive and excited to get the opportunity.”
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Samuelson spent the last few weeks enjoying time with her family in Huntington Beach, California, before joining the Sky for training camp, which starts Sunday. She’s almost ready to graduate and was finishing her last online class, classical mythology.
Samuelson said she feels prepared to make an immediate impact with the Sky, though she expects growing pains along the way.
“It’s always a step once you go from high school to college, it’s an adjustment,” Samuelson said. “When you go from college to the WNBA, it’s a big adjustment. You need to be able to pick it up quicker than you do in college. For me, I just want to be able to impact as much as I can right away. And to be able to do that, I have to be ready to battle, be tough [and] get a little stronger.”
Wade is glad that Samuelson motivates herself to be successful. It makes his job as a coach easier.
Wade thought highly of Samuelson when he was an assistant coach with the Lynx. He believed her versatility on the floor made her a deadly offensive weapon. And at the time, he thought she would complement Lynx stars Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles.
When he joined the Sky in November, Wade realized Samuelson, a 6-3 sharpshooting guard, was the best fit for this team, too.
“She can come in and be a very good piece for our team,” Wade said. “She could be a very important core piece, and I think that she will. She’s going to help us out.”