When North Carolina women’s basketball Coach Sylvia Hatchell first told Ivory Latta she would make a good coach one day, the two words that came to Latta’s mind were “no” and “why?” Even a few years ago, it just did not sound like a career path for the former Tar Heels all-American point guard.
But Hatchell remained persistent, the memories of how Latta’s infectious personality “just makes everybody around her feel special” enough to continue the sales pitch. Nonetheless, a call to Latta last fall — “Are you ready to coach?” — proved fruitless, with the 28-year-old point guard choosing to earn a six-figure salary playing professionally overseas.
But Hatchell couldn’t “think of a better fit” when an opening on her staff became available in May. So she offered another job to her former pupil, who by then had joined the Washington Mystics and had good reason to change her mind. Last week, North Carolina officially announced Latta as Hatchell’s newest assistant coach.
“I’m at a point in my career now, my life, where I have to think about my mom and my dad,” said Latta, who learned four years ago that her father, Charles, had been living with Parkinson’s disease in South Carolina. “That played a huge, huge part because I’ve been overseas in so many situations where they didn’t want to tell me he was in and out of the hospital. Being so far away, my dad is my best friend and him going through that situation and me not able to be there, it [stinks].
“It was hard because honestly and truthfully, I feel like I’m leaving a lot of money. But at the same time, I’ve got to start thinking about long term and my family.”
A current WNBA player coaching in the college ranks is not unprecedented: Tulsa Shock guard Candace Wiggins is an assistant coach at Occidental College. But Latta remains a bit reticent about how her life is about to change again, just five months after becoming the centerpiece of new Mystics General Manager-Coach Mike Thibault’s rebuilding project.
Latta is averaging a team-high 14.9 points and 4.1 assists as Washington eyes a return to the WNBA playoffs this fall. The Mystics (8-7) are in third place in the Eastern Conference with a home-and-home series against defending WNBA champion Indiana on tap beginning Friday night in Indianapolis.
Thibault believes Latta will be a natural on the recruiting trail and noted the various systems she has played in during her professional career and the “inquisitiveness” she shows even about routine drills during practice. He thinks the move to the bench also could extend Latta’s WNBA career, eliminating the wear and tear of playing year-round overseas.
The only downside, Hatchell said, is Latta’s WNBA career could make life a little tougher on the rest of her staff during the summer. Latta, though, already has begun preparing for some of the new responsibilities.
“Holy smokes . . . I’m really focused on what’s going on here right now, but at the same time, if I need to make a recruiting call, I have to make a recruiting call,” Latta said after practice Wednesday afternoon. “It’s very overwhelming. I’m excited about the opportunity and humbled by it, but I’m a little nervous because it’ll be my first coaching job.”
On that note, Thibault and his son, Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault, walked by Latta on the Verizon Center practice court and offered some thoughts.
Eric noted he “just went by the seat of my pants” during his first two months as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth last season. “You’ll figure it out,” he added.
Mike Thibault joked about waiting by his phone for the inevitable 2 a.m. call in which Latta tells him, “Coach, these guys are crazy.”
“I’m gonna show up in December or January and see if she’s starting to lose her hair like me,” Thibault said with a laugh. “She’ll be waking up in the middle of the night going, ‘Now I know what he’s saying.’ ”