Our ambitious 25-part series of articles reflect on the WNBA’s 25 years through the eyes of those who played a part, large or small, in its beginning and sustained growth throughout its quarter-century existence as a major league.
This week: A league lifer
Fred Williams is a WNBA coaching lifer. Serving as the Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach since 2019, Williams has coached professional and collegiate women’s basketball for over three decades.
After a successful head coaching run at Southern California (1995-97), Williams migrated to the then-upstart WNBA—we first met him at a league free agent camp in Chicago. “I thought the WNBA had a good backing” from the NBA, Williams recalled. “Seeing one of my players get drafted, which was Tina Thompson [the W’s first-ever top draft pick], I felt that for me as a coach, that I could coach players on a daily basis.”
Williams has held head coaching roles with the Utah Starzz (1999-2001), Atlanta (2012-13)—which he became only the third Black male to lead a team to the Finals (2013)—and Tulsa/Dallas (2014-18).
“It wasn’t easy; it was pretty hard” being a W head coach, noted Williams. “You have to work your butt off.”
He was about building or rebuilding winning squads: “Some of the teams that I took over were pretty much bottom of the pack, and [I] built them up to be playoff contenders.”
Not unlike most pro coaches in any sport, especially a Black coach who doesn’t get to fully see the fruits of their coaching labor, Williams said he still relishes the tons of players he coached over the years.
Such as Adrienne Goodson, a third-round pick who played a total of 14 years, and a 2002 All-Star who played for Williams at Utah. There he also coached the late Margo Dydek, “the first 7-2 center to come into the league.”
At Dallas, he coached current Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, one-third of the famed “3 to See” in her early years, and veteran Angel McCoughtry in Atlanta, a five-time All-Star and two-time scoring champ, now in Las Vegas.
“We always have had a great relationship,” said Los Angeles center Amanda Zahul B.—Williams drafted the former Gopher and coached her first season at Tulsa. The two this season are reunited in L.A. “He’s just an amazing person,” she said of Williams. “I took every player that I stepped on the floor with; I’ve always had a joy that they’ve been coached and taught,” continued Williams.
Being among the few Black males either as a WNBA head coach or an assistant coach, virtually the entire quarter-century existence of the league, “I took a lot of pride … It was just rolling [my] sleeves, getting after it, just proving yourself, especially as an African American man. I just had to work harder,” explained Williams.
Due to health and safety precautions, Williams did not coach in the Wubble last season due to the pandemic. Instead, he watched game films and live games on television from his California home. “That was the tough part,” he said.
The Sparks renewed Williams’ contract in January. He brings his vast coaching experience to Head Coach Derek Fisher, one of three Black WNBA head coaches this season. “A lot of my role with Derek is to help him with the personnel decisions on the floor,” he said. “My major role is to teach people to do better.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.