August 3, 2013

Full-speed ahead for former Tar Heel Ivory Latta, on and off court

Ivory Latta is enjoying the best season of her seven-year WNBA career, but she’s also branching out into several commercial directions, including a signature shoe made by Nfinity. She’ll also be coaching at her college alma mater, North Carolina, this fall.

Normally chirpy and bubbling with enthusiasm, Ivory Latta sounded a tad worn down during a recent Sunday phone conversation. She was, with good reason.

The former York Comprehensive basketball standout had just played in the WNBA All-Star game the day prior, scoring an East team-high 15 points and capping a first half of the season that’s spun her in a busy whirlwind.

Aside from career-best play on the court, Latta launched a signature shoe with women’s sports apparel company Nfinity, prepared to release a children’s book and was hired to join the coaching staff at her college alma mater, North Carolina, which she will do during the WNBA offseason.

Amidst the hustle, Latta appreciated a rare Sunday afternoon of relaxing.

“I can’t take days off, take breaks while I’m still playing basketball, because basketball has opened so many opportunities for me,” she said. “With those opportunities I want to take advantage of them; every opportunity.”

New team, new shoes, new job, it’s all novel for Latta this year.

She left the Tulsa Shock after three seasons in Oklahoma and signed with the Washington Mystics in February. It took just 10 minutes into a phone conversation, and Mystics coach Mike Thibault had convinced Latta to join his team. Both have been delighted with the results thus far.

“You see the energy, but you see the shots she can get for other people, and when they lock in on some of those people, the shots that she can make,” Thibault told earlier this season. “We can see that there’s a different dimension to this team that was missing last year.”

Latta has adapted well to the new environs, leading the Mystics in scoring, 14.6 points per game and assists, 4.4 per game, while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 92 percent from the foul line. Statistically, it’s been the best year of the 5-foot-6 player’s career.

“It’s just the dedication and sacrifices that I’ve put in,” she said. “I’m in the right situation to be able to play my game and have a good time, so I just feel like I’m in the right situation in my career and in my life.”

When Latta earned the first All-Star selection of her seven-year WNBA career, that belief was confirmed. She played July 27 in front of a sold-out crowd in Uncasville, Conn., scoring 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting from behind the 3-point line in a 102-98 loss.

“I thought she put on one of the better performances of all the players,” said Latta’s York Comprehensive high school coach of four years, Paula Blackwell. “I think that just shows you, the kid can play. It’s amazing at her size what she can do.”

Latta, who had just recovered from a bout of flu, said the hectic All-Star weekend schedule was a bit much, “but I definitely made the best of it, trust me.”

Latta’s former college coach, women’s basketball Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell, is confident that she’ll bring the same energy and dynamism to Carmichael Auditorium, starting in October.

“We couldn’t be more excited to welcome Ivory back to the Carolina women’s basketball program,” Hatchell said in a release. “She was one of the most popular players we’ve ever had and I am sure that fans will be excited to see her back in Carmichael.”

What was occasionally joked about between player and coach became much more serious this year when UNC assistant Trisha Stafford-Odom departed, leaving a vacancy on Hatchell’s staff. Latta, who left as the Tar Heels’ all-time leading scorer and the 2006 National Player of the Year, was a natural choice.

“As a professional in the WNBA and overseas,” said Hatchell, “she has only expanded her knowledge of the game and I think she will be a great asset as both a coach and a recruiter.”

“It’s a humbling experience and I’m just gonna learn from her, sit there and learn,” said Latta, who hasn’t retired from playing and will return to the Mystics next season.

Latta exudes confidence on the hardwood, but she feels some nerves ahead of her first season as a coach. She admitted to thinking on occasion “oh my God, I’m really going to be a coach there,” but plans to take the bits and pieces she gleaned from mentors during her playing career, especially Hatchell, to shape her own style.

Latta should have no problem relating to a generation of Tar Heels who have grown up watching her crossover dribble. Blackwell thinks Latta will be an outstanding recruiter, partly because of her contagious magnetism, and partly because of her name recognition.

“If anybody could write a story of your life, I think hers has been perfect and fitting,” Blackwell said.

Still, one ground rule has already been established with UNC players Latta has contacted.

“I am your coach, but don’t call me coach,” Latta said, laughing. “I am Ivory. Man, call me ‘I’.

Does being called “coach” make her feel old?

“I’m not ready for that.”

Latta is ready for her shoe to be officially released this September. Nfinity is a female-focused company that initially approached Latta last summer. Latta had already worn one of its prototype shoes during the 2012 WNBA season when the company’s CEO showed up in her office one day last July. He came bearing a surprise.

“He brought the sole of a shoe in and I was like, ‘dude what is this? What am I gonna do with this?’” Latta recalls. “And he’s like, ‘we’re gonna start building your new shoe for next season.’”

From the sole up, the IL/12/T – pronounced “illest” and based on Latta’s initials and her jersey number – was designed and constructed. Latta was playing pro ball in Israel, but contributed throughout the process. The IL/12/T incorporates design elements of many of the shoes, men’s shoes, Latta coveted as a teenager. To have unique signature footwear still requires a pinch every now and then.

“This is a great opportunity,” Latta said. “Now when I’m in Atlanta and other places I see AAU teams with my old shoe, and I’m like, ‘man, that’s totally a blessing.’”

Her high school alma mater may soon be sporting the shoes, too.

“I tell ‘ya, we’re in line for them,” said Blackwell, who coincidentally played basketball at Furman with Nfinity basketball brand manager Rushia Brown. “Rushia is already looking out for York, and I told her we definitely want to wear Ivory’s shoes. We’re definitely rocking the Ivory Latta shoes.”

Latta guessed about 90 percent of the WNBA players wear men’s sneakers. She hopes to begin lowering that figure with her red-soled sneaker that’s intended for women, and has increased support to decrease female susceptibility to knee injuries. The NCAA kept track of injury data during the early 1990s and found that women were three to four times more likely to tear an ACL than their male counterparts.

“The majority of my injuries were in the knees,” Latta told Dime Magazine earlier this year, “so these shoes give women the stability we need and are also comfortable.”

After the brief All-Star break, Latta and the Mystics were back in action against New York on Wednesday. Perhaps tired physically, Latta was mentally raring to go, especially with Washington in line for a playoff berth despite having seven new players.

“It’s definitely given us a sense of hope,” Latta said. “From where this team came, from to where we are now, it’s a tremendous blessing. We’re getting better and we’re not a complacent team.”

That suits Latta just fine. As ambitious as she is quick, the former York Cougar is starting to prove there is much more to her than weaving through WNBA defenders.

“I was thinking about life after basketball three or four years ago,” Latta said. “It’s opportunities on all cylinders.”

The children’s book that she plans on releasing iscalled “Despite The Height,” a nod to its 5-foot-6 author, who despite usually being the smallest player has routinely dominated courts she’s frequented. The book espouses one of the key lessons that Latta’s parents imparted upon her, something she remembers especially when she feels stretched too thin.

“Without a doubt I do get drained, I do get overwhelmed, I do get tired,” Latta said, “but when opportunities present themselves, my mom and dad always told me ‘go get it.’”

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