UAlbany women’s basketball hires former WNBA star

June 29, 2016

Yolanda Griffith is still decorating her office at the University at Albany. After all, she just drove up on Monday from Nashville, Tenn., where she was staying with family, and began her job as a Great Danes women’s basketball assistant on Tuesday.

“I’ve actually got a trophy case in here, so I can use that, right?” Griffith said with a laugh on Wednesday, when the school announced her hiring.

She has enough hardware to put in there, if she chooses. A pair of Olympic gold medals from the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games. Her 1999 WNBA Most Valuable Player award. Her trophy from her induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago. They’re honors from a remarkable career that earned Griffith, a 6-foot-3 center, recognition as one of the top 15 players in WNBA history in 2011 voting. She was a seven-time All-Star during an 11-year career with Sacramento, Seattle and Indiana.

Now Griffith, 46, will try to help new head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee keep UAlbany on a winning trajectory as the five-time defending America East Conference champion.

“We already know what Katie (Abrahamson-Henderson) did before Joanna got here,” Griffith said. “It’s a winning tradition. I’ve been very successful in my career and I just wanted that winning feeling again.”

She worked as a University of Massachusetts assistant the past two seasons. The Minutemen went 24-36 over that stretch and Griffith found herself unemployed after head coach Sharon Dawley was let go.

After interviews at Providence and St. Francis (Pa.) didn’t pan out, Griffith hired the sports marketing agency Coaches Inc. to promote her. A few days later, she got a phone call from Bernabei-McNamee, who said the two hit it off right away even though they didn’t know each other.

“In my opinion, it was one of those immediate fits,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “I think her personality and my personality mesh really well. I really enjoyed talking to her on the phone, and that’s when I thought this would be a very good hire for our program. A women’s basketball icon.”

Bernabei-McNamee made it clear she was looking for more than a name when she brought on Griffith.

“Absolutely, I think her name will help promote our program, but that is probably the last reason why I hired her,” she said. “I hired her because of her character, basketball knowledge and her ability to teach the game.”

Bernabei-McNamee said Griffith will work with UAlbany’s post players. The new assistant already had the chance to meet the returning players.

“We had conversations yesterday,” Griffith said. “One of the players was like, ‘I hope you invested your money well.’ I said, ‘Oh believe me, I did.’ Who I am can intimidate young ladies, make them nervous.”

Bernabei-McNamee said Griffith, who retired from the WNBA in 2009, treats her players the way she would have wanted to be treated.

“You can’t be laid back in this game,” Griffith said. “The game is a simple game, but it’s changing every day. Really, it’s about the personality of the players, who you can push, or who you’ve got to stay not so aggressive with.”

Griffith joins holdover Mary Grimes and new hire A.J. Cohen as the assistants on Bernabei-McNamee’s first UAlbany staff.

Griffith said she’s close to completing her degree online from the University of Phoenix. She played at Palm Beach Community College and Florida Atlantic before going pro in 1993. Besides the WNBA, she played in China, Germany, Italy, Russia and South Korea.

msingelais@timesunion.com • 518-454-5509 • @MarkSingelais