Indiana coach Stephanie White really wasn't sure she'd be in the WNBA this long. After retiring as a player, she spent four years as an assistant at the college level, and then went in that capacity to the WNBA's Chicago Sky.
"I bought into the idea of former players staying in the league to help the current players understand where we've come from and where we have to get to," White said. "To be a part of molding that next generation of players. Because you could take it for granted, very easily, if you've grown up with the WNBA and didn't know it could be taken away."
And White found she also liked the challenge of coaching the world's best women's players -- even if in the back of her mind, she still thought she might be headed back to the college game pretty soon. Then in 2011, she came back to her home state of Indiana and began to work for the coach who'd recruited her all those years ago to play at Purdue.
"I learned more from Lin Dunn in the four years with her than I had learned in the rest of my entire career," White said. "About what to expect, how to play the chess match."
Now, in her first year as the Fever's head coach, White is trying to lead her team to a championship. Game 1 of the WNBA Finals begins Sunday (ABC, 3 p.m ET) at Minnesota's Target Center.
It all seems practically ordained, right? Indiana is where White was a legend in high school (Seeger) and college hoops (Purdue), and so of course, this is the place where she should be pursuing a professional title.
As obvious as the narrative looks to be, White didn't exactly plan it all out to go like this. She has an unending curiosity about basketball -- one way that she and Dunn are very much alike -- and it seemed likely that she'd become a coach. It was not an absolute: White is also a natural in front of the camera, and you could have seen her making broadcasting a full-time, rather than part-time, career.
In this way, she is also like her counterpart for Minnesota, Cheryl Reeve, who was also an intense, highly competitive guard in college with another promising career path open besides coaching.
Reeve got a degree in computer science and management information systems at La Salle in 1988, and then earned her MBA two years later. She could have been headed to a career in finance, perhaps, or with the IRS, for which she interned. In retrospect, it appears obvious that would have been the wrong fit; Reeve clearly was born to coach. Luckily, she realized that very early and began that path.
Now White and Reeve will square off against each other in a WNBA Finals series that is a showcase of sorts not just of today's top women's basketball players, but also its professional coaches.
Reeve, at 49, has her program in its fourth appearance in the WNBA Finals in the last five years. She has talked a lot about what she has learned along each step of the way: from college coaching to being a WNBA assistant, where she matched wits (and sometimes barbs) with former NBA players Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn on the Detroit Shock staff.
For a while -- actually up until the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals -- it looked as if Reeve would be going against Laimbeer in the WNBA Finals. Which would have been very interesting.
However, White's Indiana team rallied to beat Laimbeer's New York Liberty in Game 2, and then largely controlled Game 3, getting the clinching victory on the road at Madison Square Garden.
Afterward, as the Fever celebrated their East championship, White stood next to her team's star, Tamika Catchings, as they accepted the trophy. They were actually playing contemporaries, both in college and in Catchings' early days in the WNBA, before White retired in 2004.
White is 38, and Catchings 36. They are now in that category of "old school," and they understand each other well.
"Slow, but methodical. A very smart player," is how Catchings frankly describes White back in the day. "What you see as a coach is the same as she was as a player."
The "slow" part is something White would laugh at and agree with; speed was not her forte. But that was the thing about White; as a player she always focused on her positives, not her negatives. And, as Catchings said, you see the same thing in White as a coach.
That does not mean she doesn't get fiery at times and challenge her players. She most definitely does. But that is not her essence as a coach. She is not trying to intimidate anyone into playing better. She wants to inspire and collaborate.
"She honestly knows the game inside and out," Indiana point guard Briann January said. "She's a players' coach. She's one of the best motivators I've played for. She's leading the way, and I wouldn't want anybody else at the helm."
The relationship between White and January is one of contrasts in terms of the way each plays (or played) the same position. A lot of their dialogue is about figuring out how to see the same things the same way, and both are willing to work on that.
With Reeve and her point guard, Lindsay Whalen, it's different: They very quickly found themselves to be of the same mind. They have that instantaneous and effortless communication that doesn't even need words. They pretty much always know what the other is thinking.
"I love playing for her," Whalen said. "And when we're having some empty possessions, I can usually know what she wants to do next. We have a great relationship."
Reeve acknowledges that one thing the Lynx have taught her is that there really doesn't have to be the kind of crackling, barely contained antagonism -- among the players, or between the team and the coaches, or aimed toward the "outside" world -- that seemed an omnipresent part of the teams she helped coach in Detroit.
For the Shock back then, they needed that as fuel. And while Reeve often feels that the Lynx don't get their due -- and tosses that out as motivation -- in general, it's an organization that has elevated to the top based on mutual respect, hard work, and harmony.
Those are things that also have been a trademark of the Fever. Under Dunn and now with White as head coach, Indiana has been a "whole exceeds the sum of the parts" team.
"She honestly knows the game inside and out. She's a players' coach. She's one of the best motivators I've played for." Fever guard Briann January on coach Stephanie White
Yes, there is the future Hall of Famer Catchings at the center of it all. But her prodigious athletic talent is not even the greatest gift she has given the Fever. Rather, it's her leadership style, which has always been one of showing her teammates that they really can play harder, not just telling them that they should.
When Catchings was interviewed after Game 3 of the East finals, she was asked what kept motivating her. When she said she was doing it for her teammates, it produced a genuine "ahhhh" response from them. Corny as it might sound, it was authentic -- and exactly the environment that White believes in. You would have heard the same thing among Purdue teammates when White was playing there.
"I understand the value of doing it together," White said. "And when you're playing for something that's bigger than yourself, you tend to be able to come through things that many might not believe you can."
Reeve is a bit edgier than White -- there's no denying that -- and she's also a little more willing to say publicly exactly what she thinks. But White very likely will get to that same place, because she is quite aware of both the challenges and the strengths that the WNBA has. She knows she is an important voice for the sport.
White and Reeve are a decade apart in age, but in the most important ways, they are really cut of the same cloth. One of them will come away with the 2015 WNBA title. Both are making a major impact on their profession.