When Shelley Patterson graduated from Washington State University in 1984, she thought her basketball career was over. A guard for the Cougar women’s basketball team, she was among the state’s all-time leaders in assists and steals. But in 1984 there wasn’t much work for a woman in basketball. So she started a career in computers. That didn’t last long. In her free time she volunteered with a team at a local community college. That, and her persistence in applying for open positions with college teams, led to her first professional job in NCAA basketball in the mid-1980s. Since then, her coaching career has taken her into the American Basketball League and Women’s National Basketball Association, where she was head coach of the Chicago Blaze. Last spring, she returned to Washington as the new assistant coach of the Seattle Storm. One morning after practice at the Key Arena, she sat down with Hannelore Sudermann and shared some insights.
Follow your interests.
After college, I was working at Arizona State on computer operations. I ended up working the night shift. Computers back then weren’t anything like computers now. You had to put the tapes in, you had the wheels and the cards.
I was doing OK, but I missed basketball. I met this guy named Bike Medder, and he was the coach of the Scottsdale Community College team. I would go down there a lot and just kind of help out. He helped me find the NCAA newsletter and encouraged me to start looking up coaching positions. I applied to a lot of different places. I have lots of rejection letters-Auburn, Georgia.
It’s OK to start small. Just keep moving.
I ended up landing on a little school called Eastern Michigan University. This lady calls me, Cheryl Getts, the coach there. She was what I needed at that time. She brought me out to Ypsilanti, Michigan, sight unseen. That’s how I got started. I was there for two years. After that I ended up landing a recruiting coordinating job at Indiana University. Then I went to Ohio University, same position. I finally landed in the Atlantic Coast Conference for Wake Forest for about five years.
Don’t quit, change gears.
After one too many recruiting trips, I was ready to quit college basketball. I was at the University of Dayton at the time, and trying to keep Tamika Williams in Dayton. She went to the University of Connecticut instead. After all that work and after that failed, I just decided I’m tired of college coaching. But then I got a call from Anne Donovan [now head coach for the Seattle Storm]. She was in Philadelphia at that time [coaching the ABL’s Philadelphia Rage]. That’s when I started working with professional teams.
Seek friendship over rivalry.
I have worked with former NBA guys. They’re always skeptical about all this player interaction. But we always wait for the other team to come on the court to practice. And we always make sure we’re going to go out to eat together after the game.
Most of these women have played with each other either here or overseas. And I’ve coached probably half of them. If I don’t know who you are, I’ll try to find you and at least introduce myself to you.
Competing is cathartic.
I think sometimes sports helps you. It gives you a moment to take your mind off of whatever’s bothering you. For example, 1999 was a hard year. Kim Perrot [a player Patterson knew from the Houston Comets] died, and our team lost a player because of an eye injury. But having basketball helped. And at the end of the day, you go back and reflect in your room. You have your teammates to comfort you. It’s like a family.
Find a way.
I almost wish the league had been around when I played. I think I could have made it. I’m glad that right now there’s an opportunity for these players to stay here. I thought about going overseas, but for me at 5-foot-4 and a point guard, overseas we’re like a dime a dozen. Being able to stay at home and play basketball would have been great. My love for basketball is the same, but I would have been able to play a bit more and make money from something I really love. Instead of being a player, I ended up coaching and being involved that way.
As a coach, you try to be involved as much as possible. If we have to sit down and have a conversation, talk about somebody struggling with their shot, I try to, in a fun way, encourage them. I think the hardest part at this level is really motivating the players. They’ve been through this. It’s old to them. You have to figure out what’s going to motivate them. I’m so new to this team, I’m just figuring that out.
Moving is easy. Packing is hard.
I’ve moved around a lot. Now, though, I know how to pack. In Charlotte, two months before I was going to leave, I started packing. It’s always in the back of my mind: Someday, I’m going to have to move out of here.
Make the most of your time.
Something that’s appealing to me about the WNBA is that there are two seasons. I know that from approximately March through September I’m going to do this job. Then in the down time I go to a place called Harbour Island in the Bahamas. A friend of mine owns a hotel and restaurant and a beach house there. I’ve helped my friend build her house. The thing I like most is the bartending. I have a chance to meet some very interesting people…and I’ve created some more WNBA fans.