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“This was just the beginning of me just having to prove myself. Prove my intelligence.”
Chicago Sky head coach James Wade has said these words before—he powerfully delivered them after the Sky won its first-ever WNBA championship title. When he’s asked about it over the phone two months later, the first thing the Memphis-native does is tell the story of what happened to him when he was 11 years old.
In sixth grade, Wade was an honor roll student. That is, until his school bussed him out to a predominantly white school the following year. Suddenly, his grades dropped. He got a D in reading and a C in math. It didn’t make sense. At home, his father had him reading the Book of Genesis, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. In his head, he could calculate “quicker than anyone.” And yet, the perception at school was that he couldn’t read at all.
“I [felt] like I wasn’t invested in,” he says.
Wade still has the report cards. He remembers that time vividly—it’s one of the reasons why he wanted to go into teaching initially. “This is an education in a different domain, but it’s another reason why I want all our players to feel appreciated. Maybe sometimes I don’t do the best job, but I try my best to make sure everybody feels appreciated and feels seen and heard. Because I know I wasn’t when I was growing up.”
What Wade did have was the game. “Basketball kind of gave me an outlet, where it was mine. I took joy from it. It’s the only thing that I had, really.”
Wade played college ball at Middle Tennessee State, Chattanooga State CC and Kennesaw State University before pursuing a 12-year pro career overseas, including stops in the United Kingdom, Russia, Spain and France.
The game, Wade says, had given him so much, and after finishing out his pro career, he “couldn’t imagine” his life without it. While he thought that he’d coach at the junior high or high school level, it was then-San Antonio Stars coach Dan Hughes who invited him to lunch and offered him an internship in 2012. All Wade needed was an opportunity, and a year later, he became a full-time assistant coach with the Stars and then spent the 2013 offseason in Russia as an advance scout with the FIBA Euroleague championship-winning UMMC Ekaterinburg.
After a three-year stint as an assistant coach of the Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomération (BLMA) in France, Wade returned back to the W and served as a player development coach with the Minnesota Lynx during the 2017 season, working directly with players like Sylvia Fowles, whom he says was “undervalued by the League” at the time. That February, he called her and proposed a challenge to her.
“I was like, Hey, Syl, this is what’s going to happen. We’re gonna win MVP. She was like, Let’s do it. I was like, We’re gonna win Finals MVP, we’re gonna win everything.”
And she did. “[That was] one of the first times that I said, This is what I want. And this is what’s going to happen,” he says over the phone.
From the minute he arrived in Chicago as head coach in 2018, Wade knew the Sky would see this moment. He’d let them know it, too. “I told Courtney [Vandersloot] and Allie [Quigley], We’re going to win a championship here. Sloot said, How? and I said, Don’t worry, just buy in. Everything will be fine.”
And, as only the third Black coach in the W to win a chip, he wants to be a light for other Black kids and coaches.
“I know that my rise to this place is unique. It’s not common. Every time I go to work, every time I get up, I know I’m not doing it for me.”
This story also appears in SLAM 236, featuring Chicago Sky’s Kahleah Copper. Shop now.
Photos via Getty Images.