South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has been attributed with saying, “A lot of people notice when you succeed, but they don’t see what it takes to get there.” For a coach that has had so much success, this is a pretty profound statement. It’s easy to overlook the challenging journey if the end result is the success you’ve worked so hard to achieve. What’s often lost on the fans, media, and the outside world in general is that success—not just immediate success but long-term, sustainable success—takes time. “I just think it’s [that]people want instant gratification, instant success,” said Indiana Fever head coach Christie Sides. “The masses, not the people on the inside who [are]involved every day, but we tend to listen to those [masses].”
There may not be a head coach in the WNBA who understands this unfair expectation right now better than Christie Sides. When South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston became their first overall pick, the Fever felt a changing tide within their team and community. But prior to winning four of their last six games, including three straight, the team was mired in a 3-15 skid since they started with a surprising 5-7 record. As a result, the masses have gone to their platforms to question Sides’ leadership, from her late-game adjustments to the player personnel on the court. The narrative has turned dark around 125 S Pennsylvania Street, so I sat down with Sides for an exclusive interview in hopes of understanding the 2023 Indiana Fever narrative a bit more.
This is what I learned.
Note: Some quotes have been altered or cut down for clarity and brevity.
Despite what some may believe, Sides is in Indianapolis to change a decayed culture around the Indiana Fever. Sides understands the weight of making this seismic shift and also knows it will take time to get the culture to where she wants it to be. “I think what has worked well for this team so far this season [is]we’re spending a lot of energy and time just trying to grow a culture, and to me, that is what this whole season is about,” Sides told me. “We got [eight]wins with a lot of games left to go. They had five last year. When you’re trying to build something that’s sustainable, you can’t skip steps, and to me, it’s just been about discipline and holding people to a standard. Maybe [it]isn’t showing on the court now, but it’s showing in our locker room, in our community, in our organization. … We just are figuring out who we want to build this organization with and around for sustainable wins. We always want to win, but we want to win in the future.”
This was the very first thing Sides said to me. Changing the culture in Indiana is clearly at the top of her mind. It certainly hasn’t always been pretty or even evident from the Fever’s play on the court, but Sides’ focus for this team isn’t just on how to help them win. It’s also on how you build a sustainable culture that people want to be a part of. For a team so young (third youngest in average age, youngest in average experience per player), this is a vital step in ensuring they can endure what comes their way down the road. And no, the changing culture isn’t always an on-the-court type of change, but it is an intangible, back-of-house type of change that can emotionally and mentally help this team win games.
To be sure, the on-court culture change is also a vital piece, and that involves changing how these young players understand basketball. Sides explained, “[We’re] teach[ing]the game of basketball to these guys, help[ing]them with their basketball IQ.” Sides then cited some examples of the basketball lessons she has been trying to teach. She told me about the struggles of helping her team understand that playing inside-out basketball doesn’t always mean passing it directly into Boston. It means understanding how and when to get the ball inside first, watch the defense collapse, and then find the uncontested shots on the perimeter. It’s a basic principle of this style of basketball, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn. Not for veterans, and certainly not for a young group of women learning to play together for the first time.
Even though Sides understands that there is a lot of change and growth that needs to take place within this team, that doesn’t make the close losses late in games this season easy for her to take. The club has played in a league-leading 24 clutch games, defined as teams leading by five or fewer points with five or fewer minutes left in the game. They have eight wins to show for all of that grunt work in keeping games close. “All of that [clutch time]is going to pay huge dividends for us in the next three to five years,” said Sides. “So that is what the focus has been. If you would have told me that we would have played so many close games this year, I would not have believed you. I just thought we just have a lot of work to do and share. And we went into this year [knowing]we have a lot of teaching to do, a lot of young players, [and]we were the youngest team in the league. I’m playing with rookies and second-year players. All we’re missing are a couple of vets, and it’s tough when you’re missing them from the close games that we’ve had.”
The Youth Movement
There may not be a more glaring issue with this team than their inexperience in this league. Throughout this season, I talked with Sides about this being a factor in their losing, and she has routinely said she doesn’t always want to blame the losing on that. But when I asked her again about it, she conceded that it’s definitely a part of it.
“I don’t want to blame [the losing]on the youth, but also, yes, [it]might be because of the youth,” said Sides. “So once we’ve had several of those games where it was losing, I wanted to change the narrative in their minds.” Sides recognizes the impact the inexperience has, but she also doesn’t want to make it the sole reason for their losing either. Sides is tirelessly working to find ways to connect cerebrally with this team and help them mentally learn what it takes to win and win consistently in this league. “You know these close games that we should have been able to close out. So I want to be like, ‘Okay, let’s not make it about the young and the experience anymore. You’ve been in them.’”
Sides then detailed to me a few moments over the past month when the team had chances to close out games and couldn’t, and she explained how those extra few wins could have changed how the Fever feel about themselves. With that said, Sides has been using these losses as opportunities to teach her players the right mentality to have when they lose. “So then you lose by 15 or 20, [and]the next game you’re still trying to teach these young players [that]this is the WNBA. You got to get to the next game. You gotta let that [loss]go. I don’t want to keep talking about it being the youth. In the big picture, these guys haven’t had these kinds of experiences, and you’re playing against veteran players on most other teams, on all of the other teams. [They haven’t been] in the same situations.”
What Sides understands is that yes, the inexperienced Fever have collectively been let down by not knowing what they don’t know, but she also brings emphatic attention to the close games they’ve fought in. The consistent letdowns in those spaces don’t happen if they don’t get there in the first place. Sides knows her team has the capacity to grind out these wins, and that has nothing to do with the lack of experience.
Sides spent a good amount of time during our conversation putting the blame on herself. She takes the losses personally and feels there are always things she could have done differently. Sides is well aware of how much people blame her and how much blame she attributes to herself. “Well, I mean, that’s my job, right? Like I’m going to take all the heat regardless, win or lose. The players win and the coaches lose, right? We’re the reason; that’s what you sign up for. [I] know, of course, when a team loses, it’s always the coach’s fault. There [are]things that I could have done different[ly]. There'[re]always things when you look back, hindsight’s like, ‘Yep, could have done this here and that there.’”
But just blaming yourself as a coach isn’t going to change anything. Sides realizes that to help herself grow as a leader, she needs to instill confidence in her players first. “I asked our players one time, like, ‘Hey, I think we’re all playing pretty good. Raise your hand if you think we’re playing pretty good.’ And I was like, ‘Can you lift your hand up a little bit more?’ And they all stretch out, and that’s what we need from this point on. Everybody’s got to give a little more.”
That everybody includes Sides herself. “I’m the first person to go home and put myself in the mirror and figure out what I did wrong,” Sides said. “What could we have done better? What did I not do in this situation? I’m okay with that.”
That type of introspection is a hallmark of any good coach who wants to grow as much as she wants her players to do the same. Sides can’t change the unchangeable, but she has spent time with her coaching staff all season working to correct mistakes and to better cater a game plan toward her personnel. Is she perfect? Certainly not, but that doesn’t mean this team can’t still find ways to be successful this season. They already have, especially of late.
Sides’ self-analysis has been one of the clearest aspects of her coaching this season. “[I’ve learned] you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. When you talked about our record early, you got to feel pretty good, and that can be really dangerous. You go on a seven to eight game skid. You can get pretty low. And for me, everything I do is about those players in that locker room and my heart.”
Despite all the negative from the outside, most of which Sides says she is able to ignore because she isn’t on social media, Sides can see the positives and the things to be proud of in this team. “What I appreciate the most is [that]these players are battling,” Sides reflected. “These players are playing like the one. [A] compliment I get from coaches across the league is regardless of what happens, these guys play.”
You can look at all of the numbers that show this team hasn’t grown much from their poor 2022 season that ended on an 18-game losing streak. For all of the turnover issues, defensive miscues, and inconsistent play this team has had this season, the one thing Sides continues to harp on is the toughness this team plays with. “Like I said, the best compliment [I get] is your players work so hard; they just play so hard. But when it doesn’t end with the win for them, and that’s the only way you’re going to feel good about it, it just crushes me because they are putting in all that work. And they deserve those wins. So [eight]wins, [I’m] happy with that.”
Sides is also especially proud of the way her team speaks up for itself and that they have found a few veteran voices to help guide these youngsters.
“They get tired of listening to [coaches], to hear our voices. You grow more when your teammates are talking to you and teaching you to listen. When Amanda [Zahui B.] came here, I had no relationship with her. I talked to her the day the trade [happened]. She has done so much for Aliyah and for Victaria Saxton, and just the things that she’s doing as a veteran leader, understanding, and she knows her role. She is trying to help those guys be better, not just basketball players but professionals. So to have more than one voice, you know, it just really helps.”
Sides then told me the story of how members of the team went to Las Vegas for the All-Star game to cheer on Boston and guard Kelsey Mitchell. “I think we had five wins [when players were selected [for the game]. With a team with five wins and two [players]on the All-Star team, you have something good working for you, right? And it’s maybe not going to be happening right now. It’s what we’re trying to build for.”
It’s these brighter moments in a season of struggle that has made this a rewarding first year at the helm for Sides. The outside world can talk all it wants to about what they think they know is happening in Indianapolis, but Sides understands that what truly matters is what the Fever believes about themselves and that they are on a journey toward building for the future.
“These guys are working really hard, and they are going to make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes. There’s no question about it. But what they’re doing is for our future and building something that’s going to be sustainable, and I’m very excited about that.”