Assistant on the Far Side of the World

Harvard’s head coach wins gold serving as assistant for the USA Basketball Championships for Young Women team in Croatia last summer

SHEAR BLISS
Jessica E. Schumer

Harvard coach KATHY DELANEY-SMITH, seen here cutting the net at the Ivy League trophy ceremony last year, assisted the USA team last summer.

Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith found herself in a whole new world last summer, even if she didn’t get a magic carpet ride there.

Delaney-Smith helped guide the USA Basketball Championships for Young Women team (7-1) to a gold medal in the inaugural FIBA World Championships for Young Women, held from July 25 to Aug. 3. It took roughly 38 hours of travel by plane, train and bus to reach the playing site in Sibenik, Croatia.

But the change in scenery wasn’t the only thing new for Delaney-Smith, who was serving as an assistant coach for the first time in her career. Playing back-up to USA head coach Jim Foster was a shock in itself.

“I had a lot of trouble,” Delaney-Smith said. “I’ve never been an assistant my entire life, not at the high school level or any level, so it was quite funny.”

Delaney-Smith and Foster, who coaches at Ohio State, have a long friendship, sharing their experiences as coaches with each other. Each compliments the other’s professional abilities, with Foster adding that Delaney-Smith is “a terrific communicator” and “ego-less” before poking fun at her adjustment to being an assistant.

“She did a great job,” Foster said. “I’m sure she had a very sore tongue at the end of the month for the amount of times she had to bite it.”

Felisha Legette-Jack of Hofstra University was the other assistant to Foster.

Delaney-Smith had some time to become acclimated to her new role, since the USA team hosted a round of “friendlies” in Boston in July before heading to Croatia. Her husband and family members got in a few chuckles when she failed to fulfill her assistant coach’s duties early on.

“My job was to carry the clipboard,” Delaney-Smith laughed, “and they just hysterically laughed at me because I can’t remember the clipboard. I’d much rather talk to the team.”

Talking on the court was one of the things Delaney-Smith stressed when coaching. Communication was especially important because the team was composed of 12 women from 11 different colleges. Selections were based on trials held in May for the top players 21 years old and younger.

Delaney-Smith mainly worked with the guards, including Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen and Rutgers’ Cappie Pondexter, two players she might face in the NCAA Tournament next spring.

But a more obvious possible tension stemmed from two other players: forward Kendra Wecker and center Nicole Ohlde of Kansas State. The Wildcats knocked the Crimson out of the NCAAs in the first round last year.

“Did I hurt them?” Delaney-Smith joked. “I wanted to hate them…no, Kendra Wecker and Nicole Ohlde—definitely two of the best players in the country, and they just don’t come any nicer.

“They’re just talented and nice. I just thoroughly enjoyed coaching them—loved them to death.”

The players likewise quickly adjusted to having Delaney-Smith as their coach rather than their opponent’s.

They both said Delaney-Smith helped them understand the need to be more vocal on the court.

“It was a little different, because she’s been on the opposite side on the bench and on the court,” Wecker said of having Delaney-Smith as a coach. “I really did not know what kind of coach she was like when we played [Harvard]. I could tell that her players liked her, but I didn’t really experience that firsthand until this summer.”

Both Wecker and Ohlde said that getting to know Delaney-Smith off the court was “enjoyable.” The players had plenty of time to bond with each other and the coaches during their expeditions through the mountains of war-torn Croatia and to the Adriatic Sea resorts in the southern part of the country.

Ohlde teased Delaney-Smith for having said “Mexican 911” instead of “Rescue 911” (“Sorry, Coach”) and Wecker recalled Delaney-Smith jumping into the water on a boat tour to start a synchronized swimming class.

Such abilities did not go unnoticed by other members of the coaching staff.

“It’s very lucky for Ester Williams that Kathy did not continue to purse her synchronized swimming career,” Foster laughed.

But Delaney-Smith wasn’t always quite so graceful in her activities away from basketball. She broke her arm diving for a drop shot during one tennis match and spent the rest of the time with her hand in a removable cast after the orthopedic surgeon with the USA team advised against having a cast set there.

“I spent the whole 15 days with my hand in this light little portable thing, swollen, and I had to keep it up so it wouldn’t swell,” Delaney-Smith said. “I looked like an absolute idiot, actually. But it’s good humor. You need humor.”

Her ability to see the funny side of her injury speaks to her grounded nature that Foster finds “refreshing.” He complimented her all-out effort on the tennis court in the same way.

“It’s refreshing to have a coach that’s willing to get on the ground to save a point,” Foster said.

Aside from that fall, Delaney-Smith and the U.S. team were rarely tripped up during their time in Croatia. The one loss came against Brazil during the preliminary rounds and was avenged in the championship game, which the U.S. won 71-55.

Thirty-eight hours of travel later, Delaney-Smith was back on her home turf as Harvard’s coach. When considering which players from the summer she might see in the future, she mused that Pondexter’s and Whalen’s teams could stand between the Crimson and the Elite Eight.

“I’m sure we’ll meet several of them on that journey,” Delaney-Smith said. “Let’s just say that if that even happened, the basketball world would go into shock.”

Well, getting that far in the tournament would be a magical ride—and she has already survived the shocks of the Croatia trip.

It is a whole new world after all.

—Staff writer Brenda E. Lee can be reached at belee@fas.harvard.edu.

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