- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Nicole Powell stood on the court in front of the visitors' bench in Maples Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, looked up at the screen above center court and smiled widely as the strains of the "Welcome Back Kotter" theme boomed through the speakers.
The video highlights showed a young Powell, wearing her trademark headband, etching her spot in the Stanford women's basketball record books as a three-time All-American.
When it was done, and the Stanford fans stood and applauded, it was time to get down to business. For Powell, that meant coaching the opposing team.
Powell, a 10-year WNBA veteran and former Stanford All-American, is in her first season as an assistant college basketball coach at Gonzaga under Kelly Graves. And Graves believes he has found a gem in an unexpected place.
"I'm impressed with her attitude, her personality, her work ethic," Graves said. "She's impressed a lot of people around here."
Powell might be a new coach, but she's not quite done being a player. The 6-foot-2 forward has one season left on her contract with the Tulsa Shock. She passed on the opportunity to play overseas in South Korea to take advantage of what turned out to be a surprise opportunity.
It was late summer when Graves was looking to replace Julie Shaw, who took the head-coaching job at La Verne in Southern California.
Graves had been leaning toward hiring someone with WNBA experience. He had talked to Ruthie Bolton, one of the league's founding players, at Spokane's Hoopfest event over the summer, and "it really got me thinking that this was something I'd be interested in."
He also had conversations with Natalie Williams, one of the best rebounders in WNBA history, and Cheryl Miller, who indicated she might be interested in getting back into coaching.
It was a call from Seattle Storm assistant Jenny Boucek that brought Powell into the picture. Graves was on a golf course in Oregon with his sons when Boucek convinced him to call Powell.
"I had never thought of her because I knew she was still playing," Graves said.
Powell, meanwhile, hadn't really even been putting out feelers. Having earned her degree in urban studies from Stanford, she was thinking about working for the city of Phoenix -- her hometown. She had completed a public relations internship in New York in 2010. Powell wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do, but "I was starting to think about it in a really serious way, because I can see my career is starting to wind down and I've been thinking about what I really want to do."
She'd told only a couple of people that she had an interest in coaching -- and Boucek, who had coached Powell in Sacramento with the WNBA's Monarchs -- was one of them.
"I was committed to going to South Korea when I got the call [from Graves]," Powell said. "I didn't know him, but I knew of him and the program. We had a great conversation. He was really energetic."
Graves talked to Powell for three holes on the course that day. He asked Powell if she could fill out the application by midnight. The position was closing and she needed to act fast. Graves asked Powell to come to Spokane, Wash., for an interview, and she was able to make the trip following a Shock game in Minnesota.
"She was the last one to visit," Graves said, "and in the 10-minute drive from the airport to the school, I knew."
Powell knew as well.
"The timing was a bit of a surprise, but for me it was the right time and the right place," Powell said. "These are people I could see myself working with and learning from, and I was sold immediately."
In her first few months on the job, Powell has learned to trust her instincts and experience.
"I know I have experience, but I didn't know how that would translate," Powell said. "I really do have an eye for detail. But I wasn't sure how I would see the game from the sideline. I think I am seeing the right things. Then it's a matter of being able to explain things. You can see it as a player, you may know it, but it's really about teaching. That's been a fun challenge."
Powell is one of three active WNBA players who are coaching in college this season; the others are Ivory Latta at North Carolina and Alysha Clark at Middle Tennessee. Powell believes that her variety of experiences with coaches at every level is guiding her own young career.
"All of us WNBA players have the experience of having different coaches, college coaches, two or three pro coaches, coaches overseas," Powell said. "We've been exposed to so much. It has been nothing but helpful to me. I'm always drawing on my own experiences."
Graves is thrilled that his players are benefitting from Powell's experience as a professional. It's exactly what he was looking for when he hired her.
"She inspires me to work harder," Graves said. "I look out my office window and I see her out there on the floor, working with a player one-on-one. She's very thoughtful. We've been doing things the same way for a long time and I really wanted somebody new and fresh.
"She's got a lot of credibility with the players. She's done it. She's been a success, she's had a 10-year career. She understands ethic and she understands role and the kids really respond to her."
And Graves is confident Powell will be a strong recruiter, with name recognition among the players she is recruiting.
Powell isn't thinking too far ahead to what her new job means for her playing career. She's 31. She has one year left on her WNBA contract, and she thinks it's unlikely that she will play overseas again.
"I don't have a definite plan except to make sure that next year is a really special one," Powell said. "That's all I'm worried about right now."
17dBonnie D. Ford