For Chicago Sky's new head coach, the dream gets real
At age 39, Amber Stocks knows she's ready to be a basketball head coach. After all, she has been dreaming of this moment since she was 9.
"I knew when I was in fourth grade that I wanted to be a basketball coach," Stocks said. "Basketball is a huge part of my family. There are coaches in my family. My dad was a coach, my brother. It's just something I grew up around. I knew early on that I wanted to coach basketball … not just for fun, but as a profession."
On Tuesday, Stocks, who grew up in Ohio and is one of four siblings who all played college basketball, was named the new head coach of the Chicago Sky. Although she has not been a head coach at any level, she was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks, which won the 2016 WNBA championship.
Sky owner Michael Alter acknowledges there is a risk to hiring someone at the professional level without head coaching experience.
"Amber was not very high on our list of candidates when we started looking," Alter said. "But every time we talked, our interested in her got stronger. We were impressed with her keen basketball knowledge and her youthful energy and positive approach.
"Any time you hire someone new, it's a risk, but with Amber we became very comfortable with that risk."
Perhaps that's because Stocks can be so convincing. She says, without hesitation, that readiness is a nonissue.
"I've known for a while that I've been ready to be a head coach. Just because I haven't been one yet, doesn't mean that I haven't been ready or that I haven't had opportunities. I have had opportunities in the past. They just weren't the right fit. When this opportunity came up, I felt it was the perfect fit."
For starters, it's the perfect scenario for her family. Stocks will move her two sons, LJ (9) and Spencer (6) to Chicago, which will put them about halfway between both sets of grandparents, who live in Madison, Wis., and Indianapolis, respectively. And there are other relatives in Chicago.
"Getting to move back to the Midwest and closer to family was a huge part of the allure for me," Stocks said. "My kids are excited, and they get what this is all about. This is the life they've grown up in.
"They eat lunch on the court, they do their homework on the court, they've learned to run the scoreboard and pump up the balls. They both love basketball."
Stocks also loves the opportunity to coach a player of the caliber of the Sky's Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA most valuable player.
"Elena is such a phenomenal talent," Stocks said. "Getting to coach talented players like her who have such a special feel for the game is so fun for a coach. Elena has such special qualities, and so does Cappie (Pondexter) and Courtney (Vandersloot). I want to empower big-time players like them to make big-time plays."
Stocks says she will draw on her love for chess to strategize ways to put players in the best position for success. Chess, she says, has helped her become a more analytical coach.
"I like the chess of basketball, the game-by-game strategy," Stocks said. "I like the analytics, the stats, analyzing film. I joke that my happy place isn't by the pool, it's sitting down watching film on my laptop. I'm very much a student of the game."
One of her favorite things is talking hoops with everyone from the father of her sons, James Whitford (head men's basketball coach at Ball State), to some of her most influential mentors in the women's game: Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick, Ohio State's Kevin McGuff, LSU assistant Mickie DeMoss, Duke assistant Al Brown and former Cincinnati coach Laurie Pirtle, Stocks' college coach.
"I've picked up something from every coach," said Stocks, who worked for two years under the late Pat Summitt, Tennessee's legendary coach. "I can talk X's and O's all day with guys like Al Brown and Kevin McGuff. But I also think I'm a players' coach. I think I learned a lot about dealing with players off the court from Pat Summitt that I hope will carry over now."
Stocks, a 5-foot-11 small forward at Cincinnati, set some records for 3-pointers in college and had the opportunity to go overseas after graduation and play in Spain. At the same time, she got the opportunity to join Summitt's staff.
"I figured, so many people get the opportunity to play overseas," Stocks said. "Not many people get the chance to learn from Pat Summitt. I knew I wanted to be a coach, so I hung up my high-tops and grabbed a whistle and headed to Tennessee.
"I'm so glad I did. I learned so much. It was the best decision I ever made."
Stocks hopes her most recent decision will be just as good.
• Patricia Babcock McGraw also works as a basketball color analyst for games involving DePaul University, the Big Ten, the Big East, Northern Illinois University, Chicago Sky and the IHSA. Follow her on Twitter@BabcockMcGraw.