Sky head coach James Wade holds the WNBA championship trophy.

Sky head coach James Wade holds the WNBA championship trophy.

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

James Wade is Sky’s championship salesman

Wade envisioned the Sky as WNBA champ, but his empowering style is what got them there.

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Sitting at Max and Benny’s in Northbrook, Sky guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley and their soon-to-be new coach/general manager, James Wade, talked business.

The conversation in 2018 was more of a sales pitch, and Wade’s proposal was colossal.

“We’re going to get a championship,” he told them.

Wade hadn’t been hired yet, but Sky owner Michael Alter wanted his longest-tenured players to meet with coaching prospects. As the trio discussed how they would bring Chicago its first WNBA title, Wade thought all he had to do was convince the team’s certified leaders it was possible. He’d fine tune the details later.

Those details would include overhauling the Sky’s culture, finding the right assistant coaches, drafting and trading for the best players to fit his system and signing the most significant free agent in franchise and league history.

But long before any of those steps could be taken, before Wade sat across from the league’s top point guard and best three-point shooter in a suburban deli, he began laying the foundation.

It all started in Memphis, Tennessee.

Wade grew up surrounded by family. He has 27 first cousins, all of whom he’s close with, and basketball was the family sport. Although people told Wade his dreams weren’t realistic, his love for the game kept him committed. And his parents’ sacrifices, particularly those of his mother, Carolyn Stevenson, allowed him to pursue those dreams fully.

Of all the characteristics Stevenson instilled in her son, humility was at the top.

“Everything that’s happened for me the last five years has been great to share with her,” Wade said recently. “She was at the press conference when I got hired and was the first person I called when I got coach of the year. She’s been there the entire time. I’ve told her everything first.”

Wade won his first WNBA championship as an assistant on Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx staff in 2017, was named the Sky’s sixth head coach and GM the next year, won coach of the year in 2019 in his first season at the helm, led the Sky to their first title in 2021 (he was the third Black coach to win a WNBA title after Michael Cooper with the Sparks in 2001 and 2002 and Corey Gaines with the Mercury in 2009) and earned an assistant spot on Reeve’s Team USA staff this year.

His trajectory as a coach has been on a rapid incline despite his having little to no expectations for himself.

By contrast, as a player, Wade found himself disappointed by unmet expectations. That disappointment, he said, prevented him from being present and appreciative of specific moments and experiences. After retiring from playing professionally overseas in multiple countries, he decided he would shift his mentality.

When Dan Hughes tapped him to join his San Antonio Stars staff, first as an intern in 2012 and then as a full-time assistant in 2013, Wade didn’t get caught up in what the opportunity meant for his future. He was arguably too humble, thinking he would spend years as an intern before the possibility of earning a promotion.

“Through the course of his year as an intern, I found him essential,” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to go into that next year without him. A lot of it had to do with his effectiveness with players.”

Players and peers often say what sets Wade apart is his knack for developing relationships. In his dual role as coach and GM, this has been indispensable, helping him sign top free agents Candace Parker in 2021 and Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP, in February. Beyond his rosters, he also has been able to hire quality assistants who complement his style and his players.

Before joining Hughes’ staff in San Antonio, Wade spent a considerable amount of time with the team because his wife, Olympic silver medalist Edwige Lawson-Wade, played for the Stars. On one occasion, Lawson-Wade approached one of the player development coaches, Olaf Lange, and asked if he could put Wade through a workout. She told Lange her husband needed extra help with his shot, which she felt was off. Lange agreed to work with Wade after a practice.

“I passed him the ball, and he put it behind his head in the most awkward form I have ever seen in my life before throwing the weirdest airball,” Lange said. “My eyeballs popped out when I saw that, and he just cracked up laughing.”

A friendship was formed that day, leading to the two coaching together. First, when Lange was the head coach of UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, Wade joined his staff in 2017. In 2019, Wade hired Lange to join his Sky staff, leading to Lange working closely with 2021 WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper in her development the last two years.

Sky head coach James Wade talks to Courtney Vandersloot during Game 2 of last year’s WNBA Finals.

Sky head coach James Wade talks to Courtney Vandersloot during Game 2 of last year’s WNBA Finals.

Rick Scuteri/AP

Before that first conversation with Wade in 2018, Vandersloot had heard from players across the league, including Parker, that he had had a significant impact on their careers. Vandersloot was a free agent after the 2018 season. After watching some of the league’s best players leave the Sky, including Sylvia Fowles (2015) and Elena Delle Donne (2017), she told Alter if she was going to stay, the next coach had to be someone players wanted to play for.

Once hired, Wade had to establish a championship culture where there was none.

“We were on the right track,” Vandersloot said. “We had a roster that wanted to create that culture. James had to find our non-negotiables, set the tone and lead us there. We had a great roster, but we had no one, including myself, that understood what it was to sustain a championship culture.”

Although it certainly helped, signing Parker before last season didn’t guarantee the Sky a title. Wade still had to get the team to accept new roles, check egos and embrace the sacrifices it would take to get there.

One of his most significant coaching tests came in the final week of the regular season. The Sky were 15-15 and coming off an eight-point loss to the Mystics when they hosted the Las Vegas Aces in their second-to-last game. They got trounced by 33 points — their worst loss of the season. Everything looked off.

Three months earlier, after they lost their seventh straight game in one of the worst skids in franchise history, Wade had questioned if he was still the right coach for this team. But his players never doubted it.

Now, at this critical juncture in the season, with the playoffs approaching and their last three years of work at stake, Wade backed off. He let the players take control, which led to a team meeting where everyone shared who they were playing for. By the end, everyone had named a teammate. Players felt like they were in control of their destiny. There was a shift — one that Vandersloot says led them on their title run.

This season, with the championship culture established, his starters back in place and a couple of additions that could prove to be significant upgrades, Wade’s biggest coaching job will be managing outside expectations. The team isn’t simply looking to defend the title. It’s attempting to become the third team in WNBA history to repeat in what could be the final season for two future Hall of Famers, Parker and Quigley.

This season, the Sky are playing for a storybook ending.

“It’s a special story seeing what they’ve done so far,” Wade said. “But the book isn’t finished.”

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