Here is one thing Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and Katie Smith agree on — completely, 100 percent: Neither one thought Smith would ever walk into Target Center as a head coach.
“I said more than once I didn’t want to coach,” Smith said.
Said Reeve: “She always said, ‘I am not going to coach.’ ”
But here we are.
The Lynx play host to the New York Liberty on Saturday night. It is a battle between two 2017 playoff teams looking to find a rhythm. It will also mark the first time Smith — the Lynx’s first true star — will walk into a game at Target Center as a head coach.
Smith, the former All-Star recently elected into both the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Hall of Fame, was named New York’s head coach last fall, when it was announced that Bill Laimbeer would leave New York for Las Vegas to take over the franchise that had just moved there from San Antonio.
Since then Smith, who won two titles in Detroit with Laimbeer as her head coach and Reeve as her assistant, has been discovering the joys and frustrations of being the one in charge.
“I’m not surprised that I love it,” Smith said.
Before the 2013 season Smith got a call from Laimbeer, who wanted her to come to New York to play her final season, then move into the assistant coaching ranks. Smith, who scored more than 7,000 points in her pro career in the ABL and WNBA and was named a part of the “Top 20 at 20” by the WNBA in 2016, agreed. She was an assistant for two years, then Laimbeer’s associate head coach starting in 2016.
“It’s a lot more work on the coaching side,” said Smith, 44. “But it’s a lot of fun. You’re around the game. You’re trying to help our players have success.”
The preparation, the practice, the development of a game plan? Smith is good with all that. She said she’s still learning the process of in-game adjustments and decision-making. Known as a fiery competitor as a player, she has also had to learn that, as a coach, she can prepare the team, then allow the players to execute on the court.
In the process of acclimating to coaching, Smith is part of a trend Reeve is happy to see. Namely, players who had great careers in the first 20 years of the WNBA moving into coaching at both the pro and college level.
“I love it,” Reeve said. “I’ve said, this is the next thing that needs to happen for our league — players turning coaches. Because we have so many talented players. And they have so much left to give. So I think it’s really important to have that, that infusion.”
Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen is also the Gophers head coach. Backup guard Tanisha Wright is an assistant coach at North Carolina-Charlotte.
“It’s going to happen,” Smith said. “Tina Thompson [Smith’s teammate, briefly, in Seattle] just got the job at Virginia. You have Lindsay. As more people come up through the ranks in our game, they will move into assistant coaching positions, then become head coaches. It’s not for everybody. But for some it’s a natural progression for someone who loves the game, is willing to put in the work, who wants to give back.”
Smith said she has taken a lot from both Laimbeer and Reeve. Reeve, in particular, helped show her the value of honest communication.
“I could have real honest conversations with her as a player,” Smith said. “She would give you honest feedback. She was a student of the game. She put in the work. I learned from that. I want to be prepared every day for my players so they know they’re being put in the best situation. She was my go-to.”
And now she’s coming back to Minneapolis — a place Smith still thinks of as her second home — as a head coach.
Reeve is happy to see it.
“I think she probably learned some things that helped her [from Laimbeer and her], but all of her personality as a coach is 100 percent Katie Smith,” Reeve said. “I told her that she has surprised me, how much she’s enjoyed it, how she seems to embrace the coaching side. Despite saying she’d never coach.”