How Sky coach James Wade rose from intern to title-winner with three teams

·6-min read

There were times this season where James Wade wondered if he was enough for the Chicago Sky. Yet when the final buzzer of the 25th anniversary season sounded and confetti cannons blew, it was Wade who donned the "Champions" T-shirt and hat, his son in his arms, answering questions as the title-winning head coach.

Wade is the third Black head coach to win a WNBA title, leading the No. 6-seeded Sky past a 16-16 regular-season record and through a postseason gauntlet that included current MVP Jonquel Jones (Connecticut Sun) and former MVPs Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota Lynx), Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury) and Diana Taurasi (Mercury). 

The "firsts" always receive the most recognition, but Wade's rise to a title is no less worthy. His reflections on what it means to be visible as a Black coach who has worked hard to be seen will be one of the lasting moments of the 2021 WNBA Finals. 

James Wade: I've always had to prove my intelligence

After clinching the title in Game 4 at a raucous Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Wade got real about where he's been and what a championship next to his name means. And after the way Wade had to start the season, the perspective of doing it as a "Black man from Memphis" holds a larger significance. 

"It's big to do something in this space, and I'm just going to keep it real, I've always had to prove my intelligence. Always," Wade told reporters in a postgame news conference. "So how do you do that? You do that through hard work. And they say, 'OK, he's a hard worker,' but the hard work gets your intelligence in the room. So once you work hard, people start to listen to you." 

Wade had to work his way up coaching ranks, first as a scout in Europe and then with his first shot in the WNBA as an intern with the San Antonio Stars in 2012. It's a stark contrast to some coaches who have done far less before quick hires.

"I understand that, and I've understood that from an early age, that I have to be different or not just different, just be visible and represent good visibility instead of — what's the word — routine or the visibility that they try to put on us," Wade said. "So it's important. It's been important, and it's going to always be important." 

Wade's run up the coaching tree

Members of the Chicago Sky pose with the championship trophy.
Members of the Chicago Sky pose with the trophy after winning the 2021 WNBA championship. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Diversity in coaching has been an issue for the WNBA just as it has for other major leagues in the United States. When Wade was hired by the Sky in November 2018 as general manager and head coach, he was one of three. That number remained stagnant until the Atlanta Dream added a fourth in Tanisha Wright this month. 

Wade came up as an intern and assistant after joining two-time WNBA champion Dan Hughes' Stars staff. His wife, Edwige Lawson-Wade, had played for Hughes there. But when Hughes was the first to tell him he thought Wade would be a great coach, Wade "thought he was crazy as s***." 

"I didn't believe him," Wade said in the most emotional moment of a special night. "Me and my wife laughed at the idea, and then my wife said, 'Maybe he sees something in you that you don't see.'"

Hughes was in Chicago for Games 3 and 4, both Sky victories, and it meant a lot to the former assistant.

"To have somebody, especially a middle-aged white man who doesn't look nothing like you, doesn't come from your experiences, to say, 'Hey, look, I believe in you,'" Wade said. "I thought I was going to be an intern for him for three years and he hired me as an assistant after the first year, and I have no idea why he did that. He's an amazing man, and I don't think he'll get enough credit. He changed my life. He absolutely changed my life, and I'm forever indebted to him."

Wade stayed with the Stars through 2016 while also working as an advance scout for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia and an assistant for BLMA. In 2017, he joined the Minnesota Lynx under four-time champion Cheryl Reeve and they won that year's title. 

It was three titles in less than seven months for Wade between the Lynx and UMMC, where he was an assistant for the Euroleague and Russian League championships in 2018. 

Riding faith in the Sky

Faith in each other and the process came up often throughout the Sky's unlikely run to a title. Wade addressed a question about it on Sunday by going back to his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee.

"I had no choice. You've got to have faith or you die," he said. "Like you're born behind the 8-ball, so you put that into all your experiences, and you show them how it's going to be done."

This team needed to rely on faith after a rocky road that started with injuries and absences due to national team commitments. It also began with controversy when, in the fourth game of the season, Wade said a white official told one of his players "explain to your boy" during a game. The term "boy" has historically been used as a derogatory term for Black men.

Even without that racial component, it was a clear sign of disrespect to a coach who was more reserved on the sidelines than over-the-top. And a way to pre-judge Wade's worth, an issue he noted as a newly minted championship coach showing other Black children they can do it, too.

"It's not just for my son," said Wade, who has a 3-year-old son, James "Jet" Wade. "It's for every young Black kid that comes up behind me that you pre-judge because they have their pants down or they have their hat on backwards. You know what, and since I said that, why don't I put my hat on backwards and just represent that.

"But never judge a book by its cover. I'm not perfect by no means, but I'm always trying to do the right thing, and it has nothing to do with my color. It has nothing to do with that at all or has nothing to do with the fact that I say 'um' every three words. It's just the way I am.

"I know the game of basketball, and, um, I know what it takes to be a champion, and here we are."

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