Throughout the 2019-20 season, Ridiculous Upside will detail each coach’s journey to the Westchester Knicks. In the first edition of “Coaches Circle,” Westchester Knicks assistant coach Lisa C. Willis details what it means to be the first female coach in New York Knicks history, how the NBA Assistant Coaches Program will help her make a transition to the G League coaching bench, and more.
Lisa C. Willis’ chapter as a basketball player is filled with numerous accomplishments dating back to her time at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She owns the UCLA record for threes made in a season (70) and triples made in her collegiate career (186), which was a facet of her game she brought to the WNBA when she led the league in three-pointers in 2008.
Nancy Lieberman ranked her as the best defender in the nation and the former UCLA Bruin was the first player in the program to tally 100 steals in three straight seasons. She competed with the 2005 USA Team and won a gold medal in Turkey.
After being selected with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft, she played four seasons in the WNBA with Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty and Sacramento Monarchs. Willis also played overseas in Vologda, Russia, Greece, Kayseri, Turkey and Latvia.
After retiring as a player, Willis never thought she would join the coaching bench.
“No. Not at all,” Willis tells Ridiculous Upside. “I have such a crazy basketball journey. I knew I liked teaching basketball, but coaching wasn’t something that I aspired to do. I kept getting opportunities right after I retired, so I decided to go coach a year in college and I was a head coach at Montreat College in North Carolina. I was like, ‘No this isn’t really for me.’”
“I went back to my player development business (Think. Work. Play!), but then just last year I coached a girls high school basketball team in Virginia (T.C. Williams High School) and I fell in love with coaching. I guess it’s about timing because it wasn’t until last year that I said, ‘You know what, I love what I’m doing.’ I love having a group that I can really work through and carry them from the beginning to the end. I’ve had teammates where I knew eons ago like all they’re going to do is coach once they’re doing playing. That was not me.”
Lisa participated in the NBA Assistant Coaches Program, which is designated to help former players make a transition to the coaching ranks and front office roles. Willis noted that there’s a stereotype that former athletes do not work hard, which is a stigma she didn’t want associated with herself. The former players know the work load will be high and the program does a great job at mentally preparing them for that, as Willis noted.
Willis feels the ACP will help her make an easy transition to the coaching ranks of the G League.
“Without that program, I don’t want to say that I would be lost because I know basketball,” Willis said. “But some of the things that you need to know about coaching like the video, the analytics, the player relations, the scouting, and the player development. ACP gave us a really good hands on look with what it would be like here, so this transition is way smoother than I could have imagined it otherwise.”
Since the ACP was established in 1988, approximately 60 percent have earned coaching jobs at the NBA, G League or collegiate level.
On Oct. 28, 2019, Willis received tremendous news from Ryan Borges, Manager of Basketball Operations for Westchester. On the other end of the phone, Ryan told her, ‘Hey I have good news. We’re going to hire you for this position’. As Lisa thanked Ryan, she set her phone down for a brief moment and thanked Jesus. While it’s only the start for her as a G League assistant coach, it was the culmination since her playing career finished.
When the pen hit the paper, Willis became the first first female coach in New York Knicks’ history.
“It means a lot. It means a lot of different things,” Willis detailed. “Personally for my journey, my basketball journey, it’s just a blessing to be here right now. This is almost like a culmination of a lot of the things I’ve been doing post playing days. And so it’s just a blessing, an honor, and privilege to come right back here where I’ve been apart of the MSG family before. Now to be back; that’s awesome. But then you know women coaching in the NBA that’s still very new. And again it’s a privilege to be apart of a movement that allows people, younger and older, wherever they are to dream.”
Prior to arriving in New York as an assistant with the Westchester Knicks, she coached at T. C. Williams High School and Montreat College. Along with that, Willis is known for her perimeter game and defense from her playing days, which is two facets of the game she plans to bring to the Knicks.
“Those same things and a boost of confidence,” Willis said. “Shooting is something that a lot of people know me for. I’m essentially serving as a shooting coach for some of the guys here now. I’m helping people become better shooters. It is just an area that I succeed in. I love defense because that’s where you really get to use your mind. For me, I wasn’t fast so I really got to play chess while people were playing checkers on the court. I know a lot of little nuances that can help defenders defend better, so I definitely plan to bring that as well.”
One player Lisa is working with with shooting is Zak Irvin and Tim Bond is a player that she said has shown interest in working with her.
“A little bit of motivation and inspiration,” Willis continued. “I can imagine it being tough being in the G League for somebody who all they wanted to do was play in the NBA, but this is apart of their journey. It’s apart of the process and it’s a really great opportunity. I just want to make sure that these guys understand that at all times they’re exactly where they’re suppose to be. If you get that shot, we’re here to prepare you for that shot. They’ll see other guys get called up and it’s not going to be them, so I just want to be that positive person and that positive voice that these guys have in their ear.”
Lisa is known for her inspirational talk where she discusses discipline vs habit, giving yourself credit, and more. The Knicks assistant coach has a YouTube channel, “Lisa C. Willis Inspires,” where she looks to build strong players and strong people. While Willis will play a role in the growth of the players on the court, she will look to help build players off the court in Westchester as well.
“Absolutely. I’m going to have to see how it fits within my current role,” Willis said. “As a coach and as a player development coach in my own business, I got the best results when I focus on the person and not the player. It’s hard to really take somebody from point A to point B, if you don’t even know who you are caring. I mean here, we need to win now, so it’s a little bit different than coaching in high school and college.”
“They’re still people and they’ll play harder for you; if they trust you and they know that you have their best interest in mind,” Willis continued. “Not that you’re just using them because they can shoot. When I was a player, a common thing to say was, ‘They just treat us like machines than once we’re injured then you just go to the next machine.’ I never want a player to feel like that whether I’m the one that’s treating them like that or somebody else. I don’t want them to feel that way because it’s not a good thing.”
The Knicks are still in the opening stage of their season. It’s hard to project how a G League team will perform due to the amount of change the roster is likely to see, but Westchester has solid players on their roster and the coaches who in detail with their development. Willis has different forms of success and she goes into detail on what she would consider a successful season.
“I think there are different levels of success,” Willis said. “I think that if we’re getting better every week, every day and every game, I think that builds a championship team. The wins and loses. I know certain people look at that and those are important. If we lose our home opener, which we’re not. Knock on wood. That’s not indicative of how the season will go. Let’s take what we’ve learned from this and move forward.”
“I think we’re going to be a winning team, so it’s like we have to make sure we keep learning from our wins. It’s easy to learn from your loses. It’s a little harder to learn from your wins and get the players to rally behind the nitpicking that we do because we see the long term. We see the big picture and they might not. I say all that to say getting better every day and winning the championship. That’s where my eyes are set and that would be a successful season.”