Timing has played a key role in James Wade’s WNBA coaching career, dating 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 career abroad ended, Wade saw himself coaching at the junior high or high school level. He wanted a nice, quiet life as a teacher who also coached. Starting a family was also important to him.
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 went out to dinner regularly,” Hughes recalled. “Those conversations were like one coach talking to another. I said, ‘When you’re done playing, I’ll give you a job.’ ”
Wade had met Hughes through his wife, Edwige Lawson-Wade, an Olympic silver medalist and member of the 2008 WNBA Finals team of the Stars. When Hughes offered Wade a position as a coaching intern, Wade thought he would clean toilets, hand out and wipe the floor if a player fell. Lawson-Wade told her husband to take the job, be the best intern he could be, and maybe in a few years he would 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 was not far from making the playoffs — and he was right. They had a regular season record of 20-14 in his first year as head coach and earned their first playoff spot in two seasons when Wade won the Coach of the Year accolade.
His championship experience as an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx, overseas assistant with BLMA and UMMC Ekaterinburg and, perhaps most importantly, his life experience made him the right person for the job.
“I knew that if there was one person she could make believe in herself, it was me,” he said.
Basketball had been a big part of his childhood. He was friends with all 27 of his first cousins and all the boys played. Wade was the sixth oldest; the five older than him are all 6-5 or taller.
The height difference made him work much harder, with the chip on his shoulder eventually becoming a character trait. Wade said that today he is still motivated by a desire to have children to prove people wrong.
He saw that same desire – along with plenty of talent – as he watched the Sky’s rugged, hard-working roster going into the 2019 season.
Wade’s talent for seeing what was in players wasn’t new. In fact, his player development skills were what Hughes first noticed years before. One of the first players Hughes assigned to Wade to join the Stars was three-time WNBA All-Star forward Sophia Young, who could see Hughes flourish under Wade’s leadership.
His players now talk about him as 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 that this is what you have to do to win games for us,” said DeShields. “I appreciate that because it makes my job easier when there is transparency.”
In his dual roles 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 first round in 2021, for forward/center Azura Stevens. In 2020, Wade selected Ruthy Hebard as eighth overall. This year he selected guard Shyla Heal, also eighth overall.
The decisions to draft Samuelson and Heal have come under fire, but in the long run those choices have paid off. Stevens, now 100% after injuring her knee last season while playing in the WNBA bubble in Florida, has been a pivotal part of the Sky’s playoff success this year, averaging 10.8 points, 7, 8 rebounds and one steal. Security guard Dana Evans, for whom Wade traded Heal plus draft assets to the Wings in June, is the backup point guard behind Courtney Vandersloot who has wanted the Sky for years. Vandersloot has an average of one minute less playing time than last season.
Of course, after signing a four-year contract extension in January, Wade also helped the Sky land one of the greatest free agents in WNBA history, the point-forward Candace Parker. Bringing in a player of her caliber poses unique challenges that are nothing like bringing in a role player, Wade said. His job was to marry her established identity and experience with the identity he built with the Sky over two years.
It started off hard. Parker was out with an ankle injury for nearly a month to start the season. During that time, the Sky dropped seven in a row and couldn’t begin to build up the on-field chemistry Wade envisioned. He had a moment during that slump, he said, when he wondered if he was able to get the most out of the team.
It was Parker who told him, “We’re fine.”
The Sky is more than OK. After finishing the regular season 16-16 and entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, they will play for their first WNBA title starting Sunday.
“This year was tough,” Parker said after Game 4 of the semifinals. “To get into the locker room and see people get up, that’s the most important thing. We’ve got a lot of people standing up.”