The WNBA season kicks off in roughly three months, and Chicago is bringing in some new personnel.
James Wade will begin his first season as the head coach of the Sky and joining him as an assistant is E.C. Central alumna Bridget Pettis. The East Chicago native has been a member of the league both as a player and a coach since its foundation, and her career in basketball can be traced back to her time with the Cardinals.
Pettis played for Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach Roberta DeKemper and during her sophomore and junior seasons, she helped E.C. Central win its first two sectional titles in 1987 and 1988. Over her final prep campaign, Pettis averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Her No. 12 jersey has since been retired.
In 1997 — after a standout career at Florida in which she set the program record for made 3-pointers and led the Gators to their first NCAA tournament berth in 1993 — Pettis was selected by Phoenix with the seventh overall pick in the inaugural WNBA draft. She played eight seasons in the league for the Mercury and Indiana, scoring 1,408 points and playing in a Phoenix franchise-record 154 consecutive games before moving on to coaching.
After losing in her only WNBA Finals appearance as a player in 1998, Pettis won two WNBA championships as an assistant coach for the Mercury in 2007 and 2009.
So why do I have a sudden interest in Pettis, who graduated nearly 30 years ago and has already been written about on multiple occasions? Well, when news broke about her landing a new job and joining a WNBA staff for the first time since 2017, I reached out to the Sky.
The team put me in contact with Pettis, and I had the privilege of speaking with the Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer about her East Chicago roots and her illustrious career since leaving home.
Q: You’ve played and coached basketball at the highest level. When you graduated from E.C. Central, did you think you’d be where you are now?
A: Honestly, I didn’t dream of the WNBA experience. I did have my vision set and my focus set on playing professional basketball overseas. I think the rest of it was just a big surprise and an even bigger blessing.
Q: How much did you enjoy your career as a Cardinal? And how proud were you when the school retired your jersey?
A: I remember those days, great times. I was fortunate to have a Hall of Fame coach, Roberta DeKemper, who pushed me. She got the best out of me at that age, and she encouraged me to keep going. I give a lot of credit to her and my family, and my community. I grew up in the East Calumet projects. It was a lot of love there for me to keep on playing basketball and keep on doing what it was that I loved to do.
Q: What made you want to come back and coach again, specifically with the Sky?
A: Well, it’s home. I got an opportunity to come back home. And even with as much as I love the game, I want to give back to the community and the people I grew up around, and the youth. I want to help bring basketball back and help the Chicago Sky also excel at a higher level. So just giving back has been my whole focus.
Q: How excited are you to join head coach James Wade and this young Chicago squad?
A: Me and Coach Wade, we dance to the same beat. He gets it. He won a WNBA championship (with Minnesota in 2017). He knows what it takes. I’m just excited to support him and have his back on what it is he’s trying to implement. We have a meeting almost twice a week just to stay in the loop and get ready for the season.
Q: A lot of people love to play but don’t always go into coaching. Why did you decide to take that route?
A: I didn’t plan it. I remember I was still playing in Phoenix and Paul Westhead, the coach of the Mercury, he must of saw something in me that I didn’t see and he just told me, "You gotta coach." So he put me on the staff, and that’s kind of how it happened.
Q: Do you think you made the right decision?
A: It’s been almost 14 years, so yeah. I feel like I played the game to the maximum potential of myself. And when a person experiences something like that, just naturally I think I would want to give that back and help other players to get that same experience. I got to play the game of basketball and leave it without any regrets. I want players to have that experience, if they get in the WNBA, to really give everything they got and have peace with letting the game go.
Q: During your senior year at Florida you nailed eight 3-pointers in a win against Georgia, which was then a school record. Do you remember that game and how it felt to get that hot?
A: Oh yeah, I remember that game because I had my friend, Lady Hardmon (Grooms) on the other side, who played for the Georgia team and we were just going at it. The rim got bigger for me that day, and the competition was good. We just talked a lot of mess.
Q: In your one WNBA Finals appearance as a player in 1998, Phoenix lost to Houston, who was led by Cynthia Cooper. Years later you were able to come back and win two championships as an assistant coach. What was it like to get to the top and come up short, and then stick with it to eventually come away with a title in a different role?
A: Well, it worked. We ran into the three-headed monster back in the day with Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, and I have much respect for them. To have that much talent and figure out how to play together, it was well deserved as they had their little reign for a while. And then later, I won a championship as a coach. I don’t know if it would have been any different. All I know is that it was an amazing experience to do it two times.
Q: You had the chance to play with and coach Diana Taurasi, who many consider to be one of the greatest basketball players ever. She’s entering her 15th season with the Mercury. What sets her apart?
A: I’ve never met a player that is as competitive, as focused and dedicated to the game as Diana is. Her success doesn’t hide behind her name. She put in work. I watched it. I witnessed it. I was a part of it. I hope a lot of young girls see what it is she gave to the court. And I just hope to see more players develop into that caliber of a player.
Q: What’s it like to face each other at this stage of your careers, especially knowing how much you achieved together?
A: Well, I’ve been coaching for a while. I’ve been with the (Los Angeles) Sparks and Tulsa (Shock), so I’ve been against Diana for quite a while now. But when it’s time to lace up the shoes and get ready to go, I don’t care what your name is. We ain’t got time for all of that. We ready to ball.
Q: You talked about coming home and giving back to the community. What was it like growing up in East Calumet and how much pride do you take in being from the Region?
A: It was good in the hood. That’s what it was. It was good in hood. You know people kind of have their perspectives of growing up in the projects, but mine was different. I had a lot of love there. I felt safe, felt that everybody around me really wanted me to just keep my talent and do something with it. That will always be home.
I honestly could have talked to Pettis for hours about her basketball career, but what resonated with me the most during our 10-minute conversation was the contentment she’s found after her playing days and the love she has for her hometown.
Anyone who knows me, or even follows me on social media, recognizes that I am very proud to be from Romeoville, Illinois.
Romeoville is where I grew up. It’s where I dreamed of playing in the NBA and becoming one of the greatest players to ever play the game. And for a while — just like every other child — I really thought it was possible.
But unlike Pettis, I never had my high school jersey retired, starred at a top college program or played in the championship round of a professional league. However, one thing we do share is the love of the game and the peace to let it lead us toward rewarding careers we hadn’t envisioned.
Three years ago I would have never thought I’d be the one asking postgame questions and transcribing interviews. But since joining my school newspaper in college, being a sports reporter is the best job I could have ever asked for.
The athletes, coaches, teams and fans are ever-changing, so there’s always a new story to write or marquee matchup to cover. And as far-fetched as it sounds, deep down I still believe I have a chance to make it to the NBA one day — just as I imagined as a kid.
The only difference is that when it finally happens, I’ll be punching the keys of my laptop while someone else dribbles the ball.