Katie Smith is known as a trail blazer who put the Minnesota Lynx on the map in the beginning stages of the WNBA. Smith earned five All-Star honors during her six and a half seasons in Minnesota, carried the Lynx to their first playoff appearance in 2003, and helped establish the “win or go home” mentality that still lives with the Lynx today.
Smith didn’t finish her WNBA playing career in Minnesota, but she was here to establish the foundation of the Lynx’s legacy and is now returning to add to it as a coach.
On Tuesday, Jan. 14, the Lynx announced that Smith would be returning to the franchise as an assistant coach. Her notoriety as a Lynx legend added excitement to the hire, but it wasn’t the only reason Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve decided to bring the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer on board.
Smith spent the last two WNBA seasons serving as the New York Liberty’s head coach but was relieved of her duties after the 2019 season. She heard from Reeve not long after being released.
“The day she was released from New York, I called her up and was like, ‘I know you’ve got a lot to process right now, but you have a home here in Minnesota. You have a spot,’” Reeve said at Tuesday’s media availability, “because she’s good, not because I felt bad for her. Not because she played in Minnesota. Because I think she’s good.”
Reeve and Smith’s relationship began in Detroit where Smith played with the Shock from 2005-2008 and Reeve served as an assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer from 2006-2009. There, Smith was a “fiery” player whose desire to win resonated with Reeve, and Reeve’s knowledge and level-headedness quickly earned Smith’s respect.
“Since then, (Reeve has) really been a mentor to me and a person I reach out to,” Smith said. “She shoots it to me straight and is somebody who is a real mentor to young coaches and women in the profession.”
In Smith, Reeve sees someone whose experience with preparing for games and free agency, communicating with players and directing assistant coaches will be unparalleled.
“I love that she was a head coach and is now going to be an assistant coach,” Reeve said. “I think those assistant coaches make the best assistant coaches. Once you’re a head coach, you understand what you really need to be doing as an assistant. I think that experience in totality in New York is something that’s going to be very good for our bench.”
Reeve will also lean on Smith to act as her “buffer” just as she did for Laimbeer back in Detroit.
“Everyone that we hire and some of the players are interpreters for me,” Reeve said. “There’s great value in that. Katie knows me. She doesn’t know me as a head coach, but she’s seen me. She’s heard the players tell stories, but she’s probably going to go through times where she recognizes, ‘I probably need to step in right here and figure this out and communicate and this is what Coach wants.’ That’s exactly what you want from your lead assistant is to be — whether it’s a buffer or interpreter, communicator — someone that goes, ‘Hey, this is what she wants.’
“There’s full buy-in, and trust is huge. That comes instantly with Katie on the staff.”
Smith isn’t concerned about transitioning from a head to an assistant for Reeve. She still plans to be as prepared and innovative as a head coach would be.
“It’s really just doing your job but also thinking like a head coach and bringing ideas to the table and not sitting back and waiting,” Smith said. “You know, prepping for the game just as a head coach and then going forward with the game plan. Always coming with ideas and how we can win games and how we can get better. I’m excited about that.”
Smith has watched and cheered for the Lynx from afar since she left Minnesota in 2005. She was even told to take her Lynx hat off from time to time while in New York.
“It’s admiration and respect because of the way (the Lynx) do stuff,” Smith said. “Because of the way they perform and can be consistent. The way the ownership group is supporting them. You strive to be this. You want to be able to do this on a year-to-year basis, be competitive. That’s what we’re all striving for, and they’ve set the standard.”
Smith no longer has to worry about wearing Minnesota gear or catching Lynx games when she can. It’ll be her job to do so — at least for the time being. Reeve is convinced Smith will have other head coaching opportunities coming her way in the near future.
“As I told her, ‘You’re not going to do this for very long,’” Reeve said. “She will be a very good head coach in this league. The situation in New York did not set her up for success, and I think (she) kind of got a raw deal there. Those stormy waters that you have to go through only make you stronger, only make you appreciate what you have here.
“I told her my job is to kind of give her as much experience as I can. If she’s here for a year, great. If she’s here for two, whatever. But our job is to then send her off to one of these jobs in the league.”
Reeve’s coaching tree has proven to be one that grows competent coaches as her former assistants James Wade (Chicago Sky, 2019) and Walt Hopkins (New York Liberty, 2020) have earned head coaching positions in the WNBA. Now, Reeve wants to ensure her female assistants are given the same opportunities.
“Of course we’re really proud of that,” Reeve said. “We’re proud that one, it looks like we’re hiring good people, and two, our franchise is one that people respect enough to give an opportunity. I want to make sure that continues as we hire females on our staff.”
Reeve still has to fill two vacancies on her coaching staff before the start of the 2020 season, but she’s committed to hiring all women.
“It seems strange to kind of stand here and kind of beat the chest about all-female, but that’s where we are,” Reeve said. “I said we’re in a crisis. Female coaches are in a crisis in terms of the opportunities (they receive). Less than half are coaching in college. Eight out of the 12 WNBA head coaches are men. We have to do better, and I want to be part of that solution. To that end, we will provide female assistants as candidates going forward.”
Smith will take over Hopkins’ former head assistant position, but the Lynx will need to replace former assistant Shelley Patterson, who went to New York with Hopkins, and their video coordinator before the upcoming season begins. Reeve said the Lynx are not in a hurry to finalize their hires as they prioritize free agency, which will kick off on Tuesday, Jan. 28, when teams are allowed to begin negotiating with free agents.