Archdeacon: Tamika Williams-Jeter — ‘I am going to do all I can for this city’

When she was growing up on Retford Drive in Jefferson Township, she said her parents – even though money often was tight – made sure their four children got to see more than just Montgomery County.

“I lived in a neighborhood where, when a kid came up to me and said, ‘I’m going out of town,’ it meant Detroit or Cincinnati or maybe Indianapolis for the Circle City Classic,” Tamika Williams-Jeter said.

“But my parents, because they were from Mobile, Alabama, always traveled, especially going back down South. We’d stop in all these places, sometimes Nashville, sometimes Knoxville. And we’d go to New Orleans and Orange Beach and Destin, Florida, and Pensacola.

“Biloxi, Mississippi, had casinos, but my parents weren’t gamblers and they didn’t really drink. But my Auntie Mama Rita liked to gamble and I’d go along. I was maybe just 12, but my parents put a cap on me, and I tried to look 25.”

That was one of the only times in her life where Williams-Jeter tried hard to be somebody she was not.

She’s the new women’s basketball coach at the University of Dayton because of who she really is.

And it’s about more than just her being one of – if not the – most accomplished women’s basketball players ever to come out of the Greater Dayton area, which is known for its female hoops stars.

She starred at Chaminade Julienne – where she scored 2,015 points in a hall of fame career, was named Ohio’s Miss Basketball, at age 17 was featured in a seven-page spread in “Sports Illustrated” and was considered the nation’s top high school recruit.

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

At the University of Connecticut, she was named the National Freshman of the Year, scored 1,402 career points, was on two national title teams and ended up in the Huskies’ Ring of Honor.

A first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Lynx, she made the WNBA’s All-Rookie Team and still holds the league’s all-time mark for field goal percentage in a season. But after seven years as a pro, she decided to coach and that took her to the benches of Kansas, Kentucky, Penn State and Ohio State as an assistant and to India to coach the national team.

One of her best efforts though came last season when – joining former Minnesota coach and now Wittenberg AD and Hall of Fame alum Brian Agler – she took over the Tigers’ struggling program.

Despite inheriting a team laden with freshman, she led Wittenberg to an 18-8 finish and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.

While all that further galvanized her local “mystique,” as UD Athletics Director Neil Sullivan described it, this wasn’t a warm and fuzzy hire, he said.

“I told people early on: ‘Memory Lane is closed. This was more than just being a hometown hero. While we have a deep respect for that … at the end of the day, it came down to who she was as a person and our basketball talk: Xs and Os, recruiting, how she’ll build a staff, the type of culture, style of play, things like that.”

The conversations impressed Sullivan.

She showed who she really was and that’s a trait that has served her well in the past and, UD hopes, will do so again in the present and future.

Here’s are some examples:

»It’s why the U.S. State Department, often in conjunction with NBA Global, sent her around the world – giving clinics on basketball, health, education, women’s empowerment and leadership – often in places U.S. politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens had trouble getting into. Over the years, she spent time in what’s now some of the most war-torn areas of Ukraine, as well as Russia, across Africa and in China.

» It’s why both UD administrators and people in the city of Dayton – especially West Dayton – hope she serves as an inviting bridge between a community and a school that, in the past, sometimes has had little exchange back and forth.

»And it’s why Sullivan and others around the Flyers basketball program are confident she eventually can replenish a roster that is suddenly riddled not only by the loss of five seniors and super seniors who finished their careers last season, but also the recent departure of the team’s top two returning players: Makira Cook, UD’s leading scorer and Most Improved Player in the Atlantic 10 last season, and 6-foot-5 Tenin Magassa, the Flyers top shot blocker and second leading rebounder.

Both entered the transfer portal after coach Shauna Green left for Illinois 13 days ago.

And one of the two incoming recruits – 5-foot-6 guard Kam’ren Rhodes from Georgia – decommitted from UD once she learned of Green’s departure.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Although the team has lost its top six scorers and top six rebounders from last year’s 26-6 NCAA Tournament team, Williams-Jeter is embracing the challenge.

She has begun cultivating the young players who remain on the UD roster and incoming recruit 6-foot-1 Saija Cleveland from Houston, and she’s mining the list of available international players and especially the nearly 900 players in the transfer portal.

“Finding talent is not going to be an issue,” she said. “What I’m more concerned about is character.”

She already has a bead on two players from Power 5 schools and said she could land as many as six players from the portal.

She’s aided by the program’s reputation – 10 NCAA Tournaments in the past 13 years – and the facilities, both UD Arena, with its $72 million makeover, and the Donoher Center, which she saw for the first time last week.

She said it’s one of the two best basketball facilities she seen in all of college basketball.

While she’s remaking the team, she’s also trying to put together a staff and she’s trying to find a home in the Dayton area that she, husband Richard Jeter, himself a former pro basketball player, and their boys, 6-year-old R.J. and a 2-year-old Jo Jo, all will like.

As for being overwhelmed by all that’s on her plate, she shook her head to that notion the other day:

“I kind of mosey to the pressure.”

Reaching out beyond the court

Agler was among those attending the introductory press conference at UD Arena’s Connor Flight Deck on Monday.

A week earlier he had shown what a champion he was of hers when he urged her to at least look at the UD job after Sullivan first had called him to say he was interested in talking to her.

Even though it would be a blow to him and Wittenberg, Agler urged her to at least look at the job. She was reluctant, but he told her she was ready to be a D-I coach.

And when she mentioned him while up at the podium, Williams-Jeter broke into tears.

While several notable athletes and coaches – all with Greater Dayton ties – were in the audience, some of the attendees who meant the most to the 41-year-old coach were the elderly women, some of whom were neighbors when she was growing up, others who were educators with her mom, Jo, a high school math teacher for four decades at Roosevelt, Meadowdale and Colonel White.

Her mom was not there. Williams-Jeter said she was dealing with dementia and had had “a little episode.” Her dad, George – initially an educator who then worked decades at General Motors to better support his family – died in 2013. He was a Vietnam vet and suffered from the complications that came with his exposure to Agent Orange.

He had been a great storyteller – I listened to his tales several times – and he was especially proud of his kids.

Williams-Jeter said her hire would have had her dad hugging Sullivan 20 times and Brian Agler 20 more.

“If I went down to the VA Cemetery, his bones might be dancing on his grave right now,” she smiled. “I’m sure he’s looking down, happy.”

Her dad would know what this meant, not only to his daughter, but also the city of Dayton.

“When I met with (UD) President (Eric) Spina, he talked a lot about the community of Dayton,” Williams-Jeter said. “He wanted to bridge the gap.”

Sullivan said the same thing the other day: “We talked a lot about what we can do here beyond basketball in the community. It’s important to us, it’s important to her and it’s important to our president. She already has some great ideas.”

And she’s getting more each day.

“I’m hearing from so many people,” she said. “They’re saying: ‘It’s amazing Dayton made the move and hired a minority and it’s you. A Dayton person! You’re one of us. The gap is bridged.’

“Representation does matter to them, and I am going to do all I can for this city.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

More than basketball

As we sat in her office at the Cronin Center the other day, she was visited by one of her most promising returning players, 6-foot-3 freshman Brynn Shoup-Hill who, because of the veteran roster, played sparingly in 23 games last season, but showed promise with her three-point shooting.

Her AAU coach had called Williams-Jeter the night before to see if the new coach really wanted her.

“Do I want her?” Williams-Jeter said she told him. “I was like, ‘I can make her an All American.’”

But now, as she and the freshman spoke – just as they had a day earlier – Williams-Jeter told her she especially liked her because “you’re more than just a baller.

“Kids who only have basketball and no other interests don’t have a balance and if something goes wrong, they often can’t bounce back.

“You talked about art and I thought, ‘OK, I have a weirdo like me!’ No matter what I accomplished, basketball was never my whole life. I liked art and concerts and being involved on campus.

“It’s important that you know there’s a bigger world out there.”

Williams-Jeter did and that’s why the State Department and NBA Global enlisted her to be a sports envoy who travelled around the world for a few years, mostly when she was a pro.

“I could have told you 10 years ago this was going to happen in Ukraine,” she said.

“The State Department sent us there after a female (government official) had been taken and imprisoned by the Russians, who then installed one of their own people in the office.

“An American government official couldn’t get the access athletes could. We were in Kyiv and then went to the East to Donetsk.

“We had basketball clinics, but we also spoke about doing the right things and empowerment and women’s issues. And we heard from plenty of people who were angry. They wanted Russians out of their country and not (threatening) their independence.”

Credit: SKIP PETERSON

Credit: SKIP PETERSON

She travelled across Africa – including Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya – and told of going to the Congo with Dikembe Mutombo, stepping out of the plane and suddenly being surrounded by AK-47s.

“In Sri Lanka, you had a Muslim population fighting a Hindu population who were fighting a Buddhists who were fighting Christians,” she said. “There were AK-47s everywhere and we’re on the Indian Ocean, trying to fit into a tuk-tuk (a cramped motorized rickshaw) and right then you know you’re a long way from home.”

But she carried many of her Retford Avenue lessons with her around the world as she did everything from help build basketball courts to educate women and girls about HIV and AIDS.

In Shenyang, China, she held basketball clinics while talking to underserved girls about health and wellness, getting an education, self-worth and leadership.

Several times in her travels, as her sessions with people in need came to an end, she’d take off her basketball shoes, sweats and jersey and hand them out.

“I’d give away all my clothes,” she said.

Well, not quite everything.

When she got ready to come to her introductory press conference the other day, she said she had to search her closet for something that would match UD’s colors.

She found a red blouse, but then had to settle on some pants that she worried might have a little too much purple in them and didn’t look like Flyers’ blue.

“It turns out, though, they were fine,” she said.

There was no need to go looking for that old prop – the cap from her Auntie Mama Rita’s days in the Biloxi casinos.

This time she could just be who she really was and, standing there at the podium, speaking from the heart, she never looked better.

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