As the Charlotte 49ers’ women’s basketball season wore on last December, a familiar feeling resurfaced and began to gnaw at assistant coach Tanisha Wright.
“I started to get the itch,” Wright said. “I was missing competing as a player. The spirit of being able to compete. Quite frankly, I thought I’d gain that feeling through coaching, but that just hadn’t materialized. My competitive spirit was still there and jumping around inside me.”
Wright was in her first season on 49ers coach Cara Consuegra’s staff. It had also been nearly two years since she had stepped away from her 12-year career in the WNBA, where she is one of just 10 players in league history with at least 3,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,200 assists.
She recognized the feeling. It was time to go back.
Playing again this summer, this time for the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, Wright, a 5-foot-11 guard, plans on returning to the 49ers when the WNBA season ends.
Coaching in college and playing pro in the summer is possible for women because those seasons are not concurrent like the men’s are.
“I’m definitely happy with my decision and how it’s worked out,” Wright, 34, said. “(Minnesota) is a great spot and being able to compete at a high level was something I missed.”
Wright had been at that elite level for 12 years in the WNBA and overseas. The 12th overall pick in the 2005 WNBA draft, Wright played 10 seasons for the Seattle Storm and two for the New York Liberty. She helped the Storm win the 2010 WNBA title and was named to the league’s all-defensive team seven times.
Worn down mentally
But it finally wore her down, as much mentally as physically. So after the 2016 WNBA season, she decided to take a break. How long that would last or if it would be permanent, she didn’t know.
“I’d been traveling for so long, I’d missed so much time with my family, I needed to walk away,” she said. “But I needed to be free to do whatever I wanted to do. I needed to regain whatever it was I was missing. I was able to build some relationships. But I had no idea if it would be temporary or not.”
Wright recharged by spending a lot of time with family in New York and relaxing at her home in Charlotte, where she has lived since 2006. That was convenient when she reconnected with Consuegra, who was Penn State’s director of player development during Wright’s career with the Nittany Lions.
“I went about my summer (of 2017) not knowing what I was going to do,” Wright said. ”But I regrouped and talked with Cara and it seemed like a good opportunity for me to get some experience and maybe help me figure out what would be next for me.”
Consuegra hired Wright, who quickly took to being a coach. But it wasn’t long before even Consuegra noticed that Wright needed something more.
“I wondered if that door was still open,” Consuegra said. “She had never really formally announced her retirement. I think her getting into coaching kind of renewed her fire for playing and gave her that itch again for competition. She kind of realized she was missing it.”
Wright knew that if she were to return to the WNBA after missing a season, she’d need to get back in shape in a hurry. So she started training in January, juggling that regimen with the duties of a full-time job on the staff of a Division I program.
“When January hit, I had to proceed to get myself in shape,” Wright said. “If I was going to do this, I first had to see if my body could handle taking a year off.”
Word also got out that she was considering a comeback. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve was the first to contact Wright.
“When we learned she was going to play again, that was the only player that we wanted,” Reeve told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Wright is playing a key role for Minnesota as a substitute, averaging 4.1 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists entering their game Friday against the Seattle Storm.
“When you leave for a year, it takes time to get acclimated, to get your rhythm back,” Wright said. “The girls are so much bigger, stronger and faster than they used to be. It’s a different kind of basketball in this league.”
Rare, not unheard of
Wright’s pro-player, college-coach situation is rare, but it isn’t unique. Her Lynx teammate Lindsay Whalen is also the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ head coach. The Phoenix Mercury’s Briann January is an assistant at Arizona State.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley played for the Charlotte Sting while she was head coach at Temple in the mid-2000s. Jennifer Rizzotti, now at George Washington, coached at Hartford during her time as a player in the NBA. Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta was an assistant at her alma mater of North Carolina from 2016-17 before resigning to concentrate on her playing career. Sydney Colson of the Las Vegas Aces was an assistant at Rice from 2015-17.
Consuegra said she conferred with UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell and Rice’s Tina Langley about hiring Wright while not knowing if she might return to the WNBA.
“They both told me it was a no-brainer, do it,” Consuegra said.
Wright has had an impact on the 49ers.
“She’s been there,” said junior guard Jade Phillips, a transfer from Syracuse. “The stories she tells me, the workouts she puts us through. I think it helps us know what to expect if we want to go to the next level. I know what the milestones are for me for when I go pro.”
Wright won’t be able to accompany the 49ers when they leave next week on a 10-day, three-game preseason trip to Spain. But she’ll be back in Charlotte and ready for another go-round with the 49ers whenever the Lynx’s season ends.
“I miss my girls tremendously,” Wright said of the 49ers. “I try to keep in touch as often as I can.”
Wright said she’s keeping her options open for the future. She doesn’t want to commit to playing again, or know if she’ll want to continue coaching after next season. On the other hand, she might want to continue to do both.
“I’m kind of trying to live in this world where I try to live in the moment,” she said. “I don’t want to make any decisions about next year, or the next year or the year after. I’m going to live in the moment and wherever God takes me, that’s where I’m going.”