Timing has played a key role in James Wade’s WNBA coaching career, going back to his start on Dan Hughes’ staff with the San Antonio Stars in 2012.
At that point in his life, after his 13-year playing career overseas had ended, Wade envisioned himself coaching at the junior high or high school level. He wanted a nice, quiet life as a teacher who coached on the side. Raising a family was important to him, too.
He certainly didn’t see himself coaching a team with one of the best players in the game to the WNBA Finals.
But Hughes did.
“James and I would go out to lunch periodically,” Hughes remembered. “Those conversations were like one coach talking to another. I said, ‘When you get done playing, I’ll give you a job.’ ”
Wade had been introduced to Hughes through his wife, Edwige Lawson-Wade, an Olympic silver medalist and member of the Stars’ 2008 WNBA Finals team. When Hughes offered Wade a spot as a coaching intern, Wade thought he’d be cleaning toilets, handing out water and wiping down the floor when a player fell. Lawson-Wade told her husband to take the job, be the best intern he could be and maybe, one day in a few years, he’d be considered for an assistant role.
That happened the following year.
In 2018, Wade was tapped to replace Amber Stocks as the Sky’s coach/general manager. At the time, he said the team wasn’t far off from making the playoffs — and he was right. They had a 20-14 regular-season record in his first year as a head coach, earning their first playoff berth in two seasons as Wade won Coach of the Year honors.
His championship experience as an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx, overseas as an assistant with BLMA and UMMC Ekaterinburg and, perhaps most important, his life experience made him the right person for the job.
“I knew if there was one person that could get them to believe in themselves, it was me,” he said.
Basketball had been a big part of his childhood. He was close with all 27 of his first cousins, and all the boys played. Wade was the sixth-oldest; the five who are older than him are all 6-5 or taller.
The height difference made him work that much harder, with the chip on his shoulder eventually becoming a character trait. Wade said he’s still motivated today by a childhood desire to prove people wrong.
He saw that same desire — along with a lot of talent — when he took a look at the Sky’s gritty, hard-working roster going into the 2019 season.
Wade’s knack for seeing what was inside players wasn’t new. In fact, his player-development skills were what had stood out to Hughes first, years earlier. One of the first players Hughes assigned Wade to work with on the Stars was three-time WNBA All-Star forward Sophia Young, whom Hughes could see thriving under Wade’s direction.
His players now talk about him like family. Guard Diamond DeShields, drafted third by the Sky in 2018, said earlier this season that Wade sees his players for who they are and encourages them to be authentic.
“James makes it very clear this is what you have to do in order for us to win games,” DeShields said. “I appreciate that because it makes my job easier when there’s transparency like that.”
In his dual role as coach and GM, Wade has been able to build the kind of teams he wants to coach. With his first draft pick in 2019, he selected UConn forward Katie Lou Samuelson, who lasted one season with the Sky before being traded to the Dallas Wings, along with a 2021 first-round pick, for forward/center Azura Stevens. In 2020, Wade selected forward Ruthy Hebard eighth overall. This year, he selected guard Shyla Heal, also eighth overall.
The decisions to draft Samuelson and Heal have come under fire, but long-term, those choices have paid off. Stevens, now at 100% after injuring her knee last season while playing in the WNBA bubble in Florida, has been a critical piece of the Sky’s playoff success this year, averaging 10.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and one steal. Guard Dana Evans, for whom Wade traded Heal plus draft assets to the Wings in June, has been the backup point guard behind Courtney Vandersloot that the Sky have wanted for years. Vandersloot is averaging a minute less of playing time than she was last season.
After signing a four-year contract extension in January, Wade also, of course, helped the Sky land one of the biggest free agents in WNBA history, point-forward Candace Parker. Bringing in a player of her caliber comes with unique challenges that are nothing like those that come with bringing in a role player, Wade said. His task was to marry her established identity and experience with the identity he’d been building with the Sky for two years.
It started out tough. Parker was out for nearly a month with an ankle injury to start the season. During that time, the Sky dropped seven straight and were unable to start building the on-court chemistry Wade had envisioned. He had a moment during that slump, he said, when he questioned if he was capable of getting the most out of the team.
It was Parker who told him, “We’re OK.”
The Sky are more than OK. After finishing the regular season 16-16 and entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, they’re playing for their first WNBA title starting Sunday.
“This year was hard,” Parker said after Game 4 of the semifinals. “To come into the locker room and see people get back up, that’s the biggest thing. We have a bunch of people that get up.”