Last month, during a road trip to Washington, the Chicago Sky met one of their biggest fans – former president Barack Obama.
Obama, who had called the team after it clinched the 2021 WNBA championship, met with the team at his foundation headquarters in the nation’s capital. After meeting and taking a photo with Obama, Sky head coach and general manager James Wade raced to his phone. He had to call his mom to tell her about his interaction with the former president.
For Wade, who is usually laid-back and immune to being starstruck, this interaction was different.
“Here’s what Obama said to me,” Wade started. “He said, ‘Hey, James. I’m watching you. I appreciate what you’ve done. And I’m very proud of you.’
“For [Obama] to actually take the time out to say that, it kind of gives you a reinforcement that you’re on the right track.”
For the 46-year-old Wade, it’s been a coaching journey he began a decade ago as an intern without any expectations and has since evolved into a championship-winning coach. It was a journey that featured stops on multiple teams, spanning a handful of countries and has found a grounded home in Chicago, where Wade has solidified himself as one of the best coaches and executives in the game.
Wade’s coaching journey continues this weekend at the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, when he will make his first appearance as an All-Star Game head coach.
“For me, just my journey being here or getting to this point, it says a lot for me and for my family to just come from where we’ve come from,” Wade said. “Sometimes we see these dreams, they happen on TV and you just think that it’s there for entertainment, and you would never imagine that you could be in that situation yourself.
“And so it just makes it real.”
Wade enters All-Star Weekend with a recent body of work that bolsters his place as one of the top coaches in the league today. He’ll take the sideline on his team’s home floor during the All-Star game as a head coach, as the reigning WNBA Coach of the Month for a team that has the best record in the league, and as a coach coming off a WNBA championship won on that same court just months ago.
As a kicker, his team will host the second annual Commissioner’s Cup, the WNBA’s in-season tournament, later this month against Las Vegas.
“That’s crazy, right?” James said.
But despite earning those accolades, hearing his name among other WNBA coaching mainstays such as Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller still leaves Wade in disbelief.
It meant the world to Wade when, as an assistant in San Antonio, he had the opportunity just to be in the same room as Thibault. He remembers being in awe of meeting Reeve, who later hired him in 2017 as an assistant. That sense of awe hasn’t left – even when Wade found himself in the same room as Reeve and Thibault, then as his peers, in January as a part of USA Basketball’s coaching staff for the FIBA World Cup Qualifying Tournament. It was Wade’s first coaching experience with USA Basketball.
While Wade may at times remark at how far he’s come and how much he’s accomplished in such a short period as a head coach, he’s grounded by the work he has put in to reach this point.
“The one thing that gives me comfort is how much work I’ve put into the game and how much I feel like I know it,” Wade said. “I feel like I’m meant to coach. I’m probably meant to coach more than I’m meant to do anything else, but for me it’s surreal.”
In 2012, Wade began his coaching career as an intern for the San Antonio Stars following a 13-year playing career overseas. Wade learned under then-head coach Dan Hughes, who saddled Wade with a lot of responsibility right away.
Wade got paid “next to nothing” and expected to be an intern in San Antonio for years. But Wade would have been OK with that. At a time when he was just trying to get his foot in the door, Wade wanted to put in the work. He wanted to grind. He believed that as long as he excelled in his role, his work would reflect it.
“When I was interning in San Antonio, me and my wife were talking like, ‘Hey, so if players need water, I’m going to go get it. If water spills on the floor. I’m going to wipe it up,’ ” Wade said. “I’m going to do whatever I can just to show my value.”
When the offseason came, Wade didn’t stop. Wade called Olaf Lange, then the head coach of the elite Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg. Looking for more coaching experience, he asked Lange if his staff needed any help during the season. Wade became a consultant and worked for the team for free.
“The one thing that gives me comfort is how much work I’ve put into the game and how much I feel like I know it. I feel like I’m meant to coach. I’m probably meant to coach more than I’m meant to do anything else, but for me it’s surreal.”
— James Wade
“He came to watch, learn, see how we ran the team,” Lange said. “When he made the transition from a player to a coach, he worked at it. I remember he would watch two or three WNBA games per day just to study the game. He was a true student of the game. … His work ethic developed him as a coach and the coach he is now. He’s as hardworking a coach or individual as there is.”
As Wade continued his coaching career, he decided not to put expectations on himself. Not when he became an assistant coach in San Antonio, not when he became an assistant in Minnesota or when he became the head coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky following the 2018 season. To do so, Wade said, would have been to limit himself. Instead he’s chosen to simply appreciate the process.
“I’ve never looked forward to anything, only, ‘How do we win the next game? How do we get better? How do I make this team a championship team?’ ” Wade said. “It was never anything about my career that I wanted to have as a coach, because I wanted those things as a player and I never got them. I didn’t want to make that mistake twice.”
Navigating the sideline for Chicago, Wade has created and implemented a style of play that Chicago Sky center Azurá Stevens says allows everybody to be unique but ultimately play together as a team. Everybody is able to showcase their own individual skills.
“I credit that to James,” Stevens said. “He’s created that type of environment here and type of system. It’s really fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of also.”
Stevens also said that this season in particular, in which the Sky are 16-6, that she’s seen more flexibility in Wade in the huddle. Instead of always dictating instruction to his bench, he’s incorporating his players into the game plan and including them in discussions on how to best adjust within the flow of a game.
“Some coaches aren’t like that,” Stevens said “They sort of say this is what we’re doing and that’s it but I think that’s been pretty awesome to see him being a little more flexible in that.”
That adaptability has been one of Wade’s biggest strengths as a coach, said Lange.
“What I think [Wade has] always done well is he’s known when to keep it very simple,” he said “He understands the moment and wherever the team is at. Do they need something simple or just encouragement and waking up or do they need a play? If they do, he’s absolutely capable of drawing it up. Not all coaches can do this.”
Despite Wade’s proficiency as a coach, sometimes X’s and O’s can only go so far in leading a team that can execute the play on the whiteboard.
Enter general manager Wade.
“I think as good a job as James has done as a coach, I think he has done maybe an even better job as a GM,” Lange said. “If you don’t have the right team in the WNBA at that level, you can’t be a great coach. You need the talent.”
Before Wade’s arrival, Chicago had been a franchise that could draft great players but wasn’t necessarily able to attract talent or hold onto their stars. Between 2006 and 2013, the franchise drafted stars Candice Dupree, Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne. All eventually requested to be traded.
“You look at the Chicago franchise, how many high-caliber players have left this franchise over years and years,” Lange said.
Wade has changed that. He’s managed to keep the Sky’s core together, first re-signing Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. In the past offseason, he re-signed the Sky’s Finals MVP Kahleah Copper.
Wade also proved he could bring in big-name free agents and solidify the Sky as a league destination. He signed Candace Parker in free agency in 2021 and followed up this past offseason by signing Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP.
What may separate Wade as an executive, however, are the moves he’s been able to make beyond his traditional starting five. Wade signed Rebekah Gardner, previously a standout overseas, who as a 31-year-old rookie has been one of the best stories of the season. In 2020, he traded for Stevens, who has become a key piece to the Sky’s success over the past two seasons. Add guards Julie Allemand, acquired in February from Indiana, and Dana Evans, acquired in June 2021 from Dallas, and Wade has constructed arguably the deepest team in the league.
James’ success as a general manager, particularly this offseason, makes him a front-runner for WNBA Executive of the Year, which is awarded at the end of the regular season. Should James win, he would be the first Black general manager to earn the honor, which was first awarded in 2017.
When Wade won the 2021 WNBA championship in October, he became the third Black coach in league history and the first Black coach to win a title in 12 years. Corey Gaines won with the Phoenix Mercury in 2009, and Michael Cooper won twice with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.
“I think especially for our league, you don’t see a lot of Black coaches get opportunities. I just think it’s really incredible what he’s been able to do in his tenure,” Stevens said. “It’s awesome to have been able to win his first championship in three years. Then doing it as a Black man as well. I think society does a lot to try and put down Black people but I love seeing Black people be successful.”
Wade is currently the only non-interim Black male head coach and only Black male general manager in the league this season. (Fred Williams with the Sparks and Carlos Knox with the Indiana Fever are interim coaches.)
“I’ve said it before, the opportunities are very rare [for Black men] and so I have to understand the responsibilities that come along with that. I have to do the best I can,” Wade said. “I have to do the best I can and put in all the work and represent our organization to the best of my abilities. Because I know that I’m providing the opportunity for someone that looks like me to come in the door and ownership is not as questionable to actually give that person an opportunity.”
Wade referred to Gaines and Williams as helping to open those doors for his opportunity. He is aware that if he can continue to succeed in the league, it will make it easier for the next Black male coach.
“That’s what I know, that responsibility, I carry a load. That’s what I want to do,” Wade said. “I don’t want to take opportunities away from anyone, but I also want those options to be available, especially for the Black man that’s passionate about the game and wants to coach the best athletes in the world.”
Since he started coaching in Chicago, Wade has always been aware of the position he holds as a Black man in charge of one of the city’s professional sports franchises. In an acceptance speech he gave after being awarded the 2019 WNBA Coach of the Year award, he spoke about how he hoped he could be an example for kids on the West Side of Chicago.
Three years later, as a championship head coach and general manager who will take the sideline as an All-Star head coach on his team’s home floor, Wade’s purpose hasn’t changed. He emphasized that everything that he does and accomplishes is for “the young Black kids and minority kids” who are coming up behind him.
Said Wade of the message he hopes those kids take away from seeing him during the WNBA’s most star-studded event of the season: “It’s a brother doing it. And it’s not that he’s coaching; that’s like a little side piece of it. The fact that he’s leading. He’s actually leading them and they’re having fun and he’s sharing in their joy and not taking away from it.
“Seeing a Black man in leadership positions is something that is very rare,” Wade said. “And so when you see it, it gives people that look like you, or even minorities that don’t look like you, hope. It gives them hope that maybe their life doesn’t just have to be what we call blue-collar. I think that’s really important.”
On Sunday, Wade will look out onto the Wintrust Arena floor and see fruits of his coaching journey in the WNBA. Down the sideline, he’ll see fellow All-Star head coach Becky Hammon of the Las Vegas Aces, whom he coached while in San Antonio. On Team Wilson, he’ll see Natasha Howard and Fowles, with whom he won a title in Minnesota. He’ll see his four Sky All-Stars (Vandersloot, Parker, Meesseman and Copper), who have helped power his team to the top of the league so far this season, with the hopes of becoming the WNBA’s first repeat champion since Cooper’s Sparks in 2002.
Before ever sitting on a WNBA bench, Wade watched the WNBA All-Star Game every year, seeing stars such as Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes represent the game’s best. When Wade’s wife, Edwige Lawson-Wade, starred in the league and played with or against some of those former All-Stars, he recalled watching in awe. But Wade never thought he would have the opportunity to be a part of that big stage. That, in part, is what will make Sunday special.
“I put a lot of weight into it,” Wade said. “All-Star represents you being a staple in the basketball community.
“I’ve always grown up with not a lot. And so to put myself in the situation and have the support that I’ve had, coaching future Hall of Famers and kind of representing the best of the best. It says a lot about just giving people hope and understanding that dreams do come true.”