Las Vegas Aces: WNBA Champion Natalie Williams in Chapter Two

The way Natalie Williams tells it, the idea came from Holly Row. The former BYU student and University of Utah divisional was already working with the Utah Jazz as a radio analyst—in addition to her duties as a side reporter for ESPN’s college football crew—when she reached out to Williams with Chance. She was recruiting an all-female team to become the first all-female radio unit in jazz history. I also reached out to Krista Blunk, a Pac-12 network sports analyst and ESPN sports analyst, like Rowe and Williams, from Utah. But Williams differed from both Roe and Blanc in a very important way: she had never done radio work before.

It didn’t make much of a difference to Rowe, who thought Williams’ goodwill for basketball made her a no-brainer regardless. She was, after all, a four-time WNBA All-Star selection and three-time WNBA First Team; Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Fame winner. Not to mention its deep roots in Utah. She grew up in Taylorsville and graduated from Taylorsville High School, and played for the WNBA franchise formerly known as Utah Starzz. She lived in Utah until earlier this year, where she ran a program called the Natalie Williams Basketball Academy which, according to Williams estimates, helped propel about 65 young women into college basketball. She once owned a sports bar in town as well, and was one of the torchbearers before the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. Still, broadcasting? Williams knew a lot about basketball and Utah, but she knew nothing about television production.


WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces General Manager Natalie Williams at the team field at the Michelob Ultra Arena on Thursday, August 11, 2022 in Las Vegas.

David Jay Baker for Deseret News

However, she said yes. She always says yes. She has learned to say yes and accept the unfamiliar time over and over again during her long and varied career in the basketball orbit. For this particular opportunity, that meant studying jazz players and visiting Los Angeles Clippers, learning fun facts or special skills that might provide viewers with little-known insights. It meant studying when, as a color commentator, she was supposed to speak versus the person playing game after game. She credits Roe and the rest of the team for helping her up the pace, but don’t dare suggest she was nervous. Natalie Williams is not nervous. I’ve learned to channel stress into preparation, willingness to hope, and to believe that any new opportunity you seize will work. “Fortunately, I handle challenges well,” she explains. “I kind of like the excitement of being under pressure.”

On March 18, this position served her well during the women-only jazz broadcast. But before the new NBA season begins on October 19, Williams — for now, at least — has no plans to retake the role. There is a need to focus it elsewhere, with the opportunity to seize another new, more complex opportunity.

Williams’ dedication to seizing opportunity is perhaps best understood through the lens of failure. To be clear, Williams didn’t fail much; Even in her college days, she was a top dual-sport athlete at UCLA – the first woman ever to win an All-America Award in both basketball and volleyball in the same season. She led the Bruins to NCAA volleyball titles in 1990 and 1991, and was recognized as the nation’s top female collegiate volleyball player. Which is why, after graduating from UCLA in 1994, she set a goal of forming the 1996 Women’s Olympic Volleyball Team.

She trained for years, enduring morning practice at Balboa Park in San Diego until the games were just three months away. That’s when she got a call telling her coach Terry Leskewicz wanted to talk to her before practice. She walked into his office around 7 am, knowing that the news probably wasn’t good. “Unfortunately, we will hurt you,” he told her. So far, Williams describes that moment as “heartbreaking”. Instead of looking for a new opportunity, though, I got involved in one that was both old and new: basketball. That same year, she made the Team USA roster for the Taiwan-hosted Jones Cup, which put her on the Olympic radar again. It wasn’t top of her mind at the time, but after she led Team USA in the rebound and finished fourth in scoring, the Olympic pavement dream started to take shape again. “I might have a chance at this,” she said to herself.

Over the next few years, she adopted a positive outlook—especially in terms of getting along with her teammates. “When you’re traveling with the team, and you’re traveling all over the world, there’s always crazy things going on where things don’t always go your way,” she says. “And to always be the one to make the best of situations, that’s what I’ve always learned. …Try to think of a solution rather than adding more to the conflict. There’s no point in complaining about something out of your control. Just take advantage of it and figure out a way to make things better.” This particular lesson is one she tried to pass on to her four children, and one that served her well when she eventually made up Team USA and headed to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympics. With 7.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, Williams finished top He ranked fourth and third respectively in the team, while he was on the bench for a squad that included other greats such as Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoops.

“You don’t know the struggles and battles everyone goes through every day. So I just try to keep an eye on everyone and make sure they feel supported.

Unfortunately, Williams’ WNBA career was relatively short due to her late start. She was bombarded by playing two sports for a large part of her life. “Teach me my body,” she explains of her decision to retire from the WNBA after the 2005 season. She needed ice baths after every game and after every workout. Once she realized it—and decided she wanted to be able to walk when she was in her fifties—she walked away, and thus faced the toughest question of her career: What next?

“When you leave an organization like WNBA and USA Basketball, and you’re no longer around peers and great people, and you don’t know what you’re going to do in the next life as a career — I mean, I think that’s the biggest, most difficult thing,” she says. It’s a reality for nearly all athletes, but it’s especially acute for WNBA veterans; Unlike former NFL or NBA players, there are no pensions and relatively few retirement benefits. Williams chose to experiment with training other young women, which she has done for more than a decade, culminating in the Association of Health and Physical Educators being named the 2020 Guiding Woman in Sports Award recipient.

A year later, in the summer of 2021, I headed to Las Vegas, where the Aces planned to honor the alumni of the franchise (the Las Vegas Aces franchise used to be the San Antonio Stars, which used to be the Starzz, which is why Williams was included even though he never played with Aces). She admits: “At the time, I didn’t realize I was in the interview process.”

This time, instead of Roe, the motive was Nikki Vargas. The former director of the Louisiana women’s basketball program was recently appointed by Aces owner Mark Davis as the team president. She happened to start a conversation during an alumni celebration with Williams, who happened to mention how she hoped to return to the WNBA one day. Their conversation ended there, and over the next few months, Fargas had a hit with her new team: She wooed Becky Hammon, a former WNBA All-Star who in 2014 became the first woman to hold a full-time assistant position. A coach position in the NBA, away from Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, she named her first coach in December. not finished.

At about the same time Williams was preparing to start broadcasting, she received a call from Vargas. “We’d like to ask, if you’d like to be our general manager,” Williams remembers telling her. Williams couldn’t believe her luck. She was hoping for a change – “Do you know when you have that feeling in life where you feel ready for something new?” She explains – but that won’t come easy. Taking on the role of the General Manager – which in this particular case includes managing the team’s day-to-day operations, from coordinating media appearances to negotiating contracts to resolving training needs and player disputes – means once again embracing something entirely new; Williams had never worked in a front office before. It could also mean moving her immediate family from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, while leaving much of her extended family behind. “It was confusing for me at first,” she admits.


WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces manager Natalie Williams did not work in a front office prior to joining Las Vegas Aces earlier this year.

David Jay Baker for Deseret News

She took the weekend to think about the show, then called Fergus again on Monday with her decision. On April 8, the Aces announced they were the new GM. When we spoke in late July, she had been on the job for just over three months and had recently started to feel better. At first, it was an “information surplus,” she said. But the more she listened and noticed Fergas and others, the more impressed she was, and the more confident she was in her growth. She knows she still has a lot to learn about the holiday season, but for now, she’s feeling optimistic. The Aces finished the 2022 regular season tied with defending champion Chicago Sky for the best record in the WNBA and advanced to the WNBA Finals, defeating the Connecticut Sun in four games. Williams has re-signed premium guards Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Bloom. And as with every other new challenge, she tries to stay positive and pass this on. “I try to see how people feel, and I see how they do,” she says. “You don’t know the struggles and battles that everyone goes through every day. So I just try to keep an eye on everyone and make sure they feel supported and always know that I am there for them if they need me.”

When she was trying to make Team USA, Williams focused more than anything on becoming an elite runner. “It kind of made my claim to fame,” she says with some pride, after all these years. “People would say Natalie Williams was amazing, and she was probably one of the best ever in women’s basketball history.” She knew that this was how she could add value to her team, so she refined this skill. I worked on it daily. Nowadays, this lesson still serves her well, but the throwback has been replaced by communion. with its players. with her coaches. with others in the industry. And she thinks a person’s attitude first is how she got that job. “Many opportunities in life come from who you know,” she explains. “And just make sure you treat people the right way and that you’re a great person.”

She tries to keep that diligent attitude in mind as a general manager – as well as in embracing any opportunities that might come her way next.

This story appears in the October issue of Desiret . Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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