- Sarah Spain, Contributor, espnW.com
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Ivory Latta has been a winner all of her life.
A high school All-American, she is still the leading scorer in South Carolina prep basketball history -- boys and girls. At North Carolina, she won nearly every award out there, including ACC, ESPN.com, Basketball Times and USBWA Player of the Year honors in 2006. She's even got her own day (Jan. 10) in her hometown of York, S.C.
After growing accustomed to success, it's tough for Latta to stomach losing. And lose she has. Her Tulsa Shock won just three games last season and are 9-59 in the last two years. The team began last season under GM/coach Nolan Richardson, who resigned in July after a 1-10 start. Teresa Edwards took over as coach, but Tulsa never found its way, losing a WNBA-record 20 straight games.
"It was really stressful," Latta said of last year. "With all the coaching changes and management changes ... it was kind of like a dark cloud over us. We needed more structure. We needed more discipline. And with this new coach, we're definitely gonna have it."
That new coach is Gary Kloppenburg, who has experience in the college, international, NBA and WNBA ranks. Latta has been emailing with Kloppenburg throughout the offseason and is convinced he has what it takes to turn things around in Tulsa.
"I can truly say he's the first WNBA coach I've had that actually told me what he expects from me, what he wants and how he wants his team to be run," Latta said. "His passion and the way he wants to turn around the Shock; we have no choice but to give our arms, legs, whatever to play hard for this guy."
Kloppenburg has been busy since accepting the job, acquiring Tameka Johnson through a trade with the Mercury and adding three more former first-round picks in Chanel Mokango, Jene Morris and Scholanda Dorrell. He also selected Tennessee's Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh, Miami's Riquna Williams and Maryland's Lynetta Kizer in the draft.
Latta is excited about Kloppenburg's moves so far.
"We added Tamika, she won a championship in Phoenix," she said. "We added Scholanda, she's won a championship before. We re-signed Amber Holt, who plays on both ends of the court. [Kloppenburg's] got a nucleus and he's just adding and adding. He sees something in this group that other coaches didn't see. He's gonna make it work."
When training camp opens Sunday, Latta says her focus will be on leading the team into a new era of winning.
During most of the offseason, Latta was focused on helping win another battle. She serves as an ambassador for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, helping to raise awareness of a disease that has touched her family. Both her father and paternal grandmother suffer from Parkinson's.
"My dad has had it for some time now and he kinda had it when I was in college but they didn't tell me until two years ago," she said. "My dad is my best friend, he's my buddy, he's my bro-dog. When they told me, they knew that I was going to be hurting. My whole life I've seen him as my hero. Now to see him like this, it devastated me."
Latta used to act as a ball girl for the semipro baseball team her father owned, the Charlotte Bombers. The youngest of seven kids, she says she got her love of sports from her dad and her tough love approach to life from her mom.
"My mom would not let my dad be negative about [his Parkinson's]. She's like 'I'm not having any of that, so you need to get yourself together right now!'"
After initially struggling to come to terms with her dad's condition, Latta has gotten stronger and wants to help others become more aware. At the end of March she hosted a charity event in Atlanta, drawing fellow WNBA stars, NFL and NBA players to Midtown Bowl for a Bowl-A-Thon to benefit the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.
"I made a promise to my father," Latta explained. "While you're still here, while you're living, I'm going to make people aware that this is a serious disease."
The same strength and determination she's shown in her fight against Parkinson's is evident on the court and in the locker room. Energetic and endearing, Latta takes great pride in keeping her teammates and coaches smiling and laughing, even during the worst of times.
With that energy, Latta hopes to lead Tulsa into contention this season.
"Our goal is not to win seven games or just win more than last season," she said. "That's not a good goal at all. We want to make the playoffs. ... This is going to be a turnaround year for the Shock."