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Jacobs: Ivory Latta relishes role on UNC staff

UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell withformer player Ivory Latta during a halftime ceremony where Latta's jersey was retired by the school at Carmichael Auditorium in  2008.
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell withformer player Ivory Latta during a halftime ceremony where Latta's jersey was retired by the school at Carmichael Auditorium in 2008. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Whatever her personal plan, however she envisioned her future, this wasn’t it. Not that Ivory Latta is complaining. Thanks to the intercession of two veteran coaches – one offering a competitive opportunity she’d almost despaired of realizing, the other proffering a chance she never wanted – she is prospering in overlapping careers, and quite happy about it.

Latta starred at point guard for North Carolina from the 2004 through 2007 seasons, leaving as the program’s all-time leading scorer and its top 3-point and foul shooter. She made first team All-ACC over her final three seasons, twice was an All-American, and was selected as both national and ACC player of the year in 2006. A 5-foot-6 native of McConnells, S.C., Latta led the program to three straight ACC titles and top-four finishes in The Associated Press poll. The 2006 and 2007 squads reached the Final Four.

Charismatic and unrelenting, Latta was dubbed UNC’s “Energizer Bunny” by coach Sylvia Hatchell. Smiling, talking, strutting, gesturing expansively on the court, she was a show in herself. “A lot of people think that my energy and the way I play is being cocky,” says Latta, now doubling as a pro player and one of Hatchell’s four assistant coaches. “I just see it as being confident.”

But what the Tar Heels faithful called “Latta Tude,” opponents found less endearing. Back in 2006, Duke post player Mistie Williams called Latta “tremendously annoying” and “hysterical,” noting: “She likes to boast, she likes to get attention. And, she can back it up. I think that’s why everybody loves her.”

The late N.C. State coach Kay Yow conceded, “Some people might not like certain body language at times, but she can play.”

Latta was picked 11th in the 2007 WNBA draft by the Detroit Shock. Soon the scoring-oriented playmaker (10.9-point average as a pro) was traded to Atlanta. There she was cut twice before landing with Tulsa. Latta spent the long offseasons playing in Israel and Turkey, basketball nearly a year-round occupation. But while she won championships abroad, her U.S. career was a disappointment.

“It was like I was on a steady road, long road, dark road,” Latta says. “It was like, I wouldn’t say a bad nightmare; I couldn’t say horrible because I was still playing the game, but I wasn’t feeling like I was contributing to the teams that I was on. I felt like I didn’t have the opportunity.”

“You drive this car”

Then, barely 18 months ago, Latta’s life changed dramatically. She had become a free agent; her first call was from Mike Thibault, deconstructing the Washington Mystics’ roster as the franchise’s new coach and general manager. Thibault, long an NBA scout and assistant and a WNBA coach, says Latta “was the person we went after because of her energy, her ambition, her 3-point shooting, her demeanor. We needed an injection of enthusiasm into this team, so that’s where I started.”

Thibault’s recruiting pitch was strikingly short on sweet talk, a tack Latta, yearning for honesty, found shocking but irresistible. “I told her I didn’t like her in college,” he says. “I don’t think she took parts of the game seriously enough or understood how her body language and how her actions affected teammates and referees, and those kinds of things. She’s very outgoing, very enthusiastic. But you have to know when that’s effective and when it’s not. It’s just part of the maturation process.”

The chastisement was oddly reassuring. “He’s like, ‘First of all, before we get anything out, I was not a big fan of yours,’ she recounts with pained amusement. “ ‘With that out of the way, I’d love for you to come to be the point guard of this team.’ He just told me straightforward, ‘Hey, listen, I’ll give you the keys and you drive this car.’ ”

The support provided a jolt of confidence to bolster the bravado. “That lonely road turned into sunlight,” Latta offers, smiling. “I’m serious, man. It’s amazing.” In 2013 and 2014 the Mystics reached the Eastern Conference playoffs with Latta pacing the team in scoring, 3-point percentage, assists and minutes played. She was named to the league all-star team both seasons. “He’s fun to play for,” Latta says of Thibault, likening him to a father. “I love him because he expects a lot from me. The same thing when I was here at Carolina with coach Hatchell.”

Prodded with praise

A permanent return to Chapel Hill wasn’t a consideration when Latta joined the Mystics. But Hatchell had other ideas. During the 2000s, she added former stars Sylvia Crawley (UNC Class of ’94) and Charlotte Smith (Class of ’95) to her staff as assistants. Later they pursued coaching careers of their own. Smith currently runs the Elon program. Crawley, previously the coach at Ohio University and Boston College, is a WNBA assistant.

When Latta did visit Carmichael Arena during breaks in her pro career, Hatchell prodded her with praise. “I think she’ll be a great coach, a great, great head coach,” insists the Hall of Famer, who missed last season while fighting leukemia. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

Latta wasn’t swayed. “I’m like, ‘Coach, stop saying that,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘Leave me alone, coach Hatchell. I don’t want to coach.’ ”

Latta held out until July 2013. She realized working with the Tar Heels would spare her body the wear of playing overseas during the long months the WNBA was on hiatus. (Unlike the NBA, which roughly parallels the college men’s basketball season.) She also got to explore a second career alongside the woman she sometimes calls “Mama.” “I’m at a point in my life, I’m 30. There’s life after basketball,” says Latta, who survived a breast cancer scare this year. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ So I love (coaching) now. It’s great.”

Having an active player on the coaching staff has unique advantages in recruiting and instructing impressionable youngsters. “She’s shown me a little bit of her tricks while she talks trash to me about her game,” says one admirer, UNC senior guard Latifah Coleman. “It’s always fun working with coach Ivory, because she’s a point guard and being that she’s been in our position it’s always easier talking to her to get her advice because she’s been where we’re trying to go. She’s always enthusiastic and always encouraging.”

Thibault supported Latta’s venture into coaching, believing it would make her a better player. The new role immediately caused her to pay stricter attention to scouting reports and the thought process behind his instructions. “She’s had those ah-ha moments where she’s gone, ‘Oh, now I get it!’ ” Thibault says. “You have more responsibility when you’re coaching. It’s a situation where now she has to have an impact on players just like I do with her. It’s one thing seeing and getting it, but now turning around and implementing it is a whole different thing.”

Latta also has embraced a more basic lesson. “Coaching has helped me learn more about myself,” she says, “and the girls are helping me learn more about myself. I can say this – the main thing I’ve learned from them is patience.” And that most certainly is a quality no coach – or disciplined player – can do without.

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