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‘If I’m going to do this, I want to be great’: Tammi Reiss uses player-driven style to thrive as Syracuse assistant

first_img Comments Published on March 23, 2019 at 9:10 am Contact Michael: [email protected] | @MikeJMcCleary UPDATED: April 10, 2019 at 10:08 p.m.It’s been over 20 years, but Tammi Reiss will never forget the first time a player made her cry. Early March, right before she loaded a bus with her Syracuse team for a trip to the ACC Tournament, she sat in the Carmelo K. Anthony center and chuckled.In 1995, in her first stop as an assistant coach, Reiss had recruited high schooler Hillary Howard for three years. Then-Virginia head coach Debbie Ryan heeded warnings — Howard’s parents went to Duke, and she had a sibling there at the time. Reiss saw it too, but she thought she could change Howard’s mind.Howard was “the perfect kid,” Reiss said. 4.0 student at Scarsdale (New York) High School. Incredible work ethic. Great family. Howard put Virginia in her final three.But one day, Reiss’ phone rang.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“Coach,” Howard said. “I’m so sorry. I love you.”“’Hills, it’s alright,” Reiss remembered saying. “Don’t worry, I support you… Getting to know you for the past three years, it’s been awesome.”Reiss hung up the phone, and then the tears came. Three years. And then it was over. She marched into Ryan’s office.“Debbie, I’m going home,” she said. “I need a day.”Reiss knew ultimately it was a mistake to get as connected as she was to Howard. She vowed she’d never grow that close to a recruit again. But she has and she will. It’s what makes it all worth it when a player buys in. It’s what makes her player-driven style so effective, former players and coaches said. And it’s what has helped her develop a key role as a guards’ coach for the Orange (24-7, 10-8 Atlantic Coast) with the dream of one day having her own program. Reiss knows she’d susceptible to heartbreak, but “if you don’t put yourself out there, you have no shot in hell.” Each year, she sits back, surveys the floor and asks herself: “Did I give my best to each kid?”“You guys see the finished product,” Reiss said. “You see these kids running up and down the court and how we play and you don’t see all the things that go in from day one. The hours on the phone, the text messages, those kind of things. The film work, the sessions, the fights, the love, the crying the… (it) all culminates to that.”***When Jenny Boucek arrived for her freshman year with Virginia, everybody compared her to the recent graduate Reiss, who led the Cavaliers to three-straight Final Fours as a player. Both defensive stoppers who thrived on competition, their games were built on toughness.Reiss stayed close to the program a year after graduation, and worked out with Boucek frequently. The two were “kindred basketball souls,” though Boucek said she was surprised Reiss gave her so much attention. They competed over the “stupidest things”: who drank a Coke faster, who won the team’s track workouts, who was in the best shape.“She made me feel like a little sister,” Boucek said. “I wanted to make ‘big sister’ proud.”Max Freund | Staff PhotographerAt the end of the season, Reiss joined the program as an assistant. Boucek had no doubt that her mentor would be a good coach, but it surprised her because Reiss always had other interests. Ryan said Reiss never fully bought into coaching as a career path with the Cavaliers.Reiss left UVA and pursued acting, landing a co-starring role in 2003 movie “Juwanna Mann.” Basketball pulled back. Reiss was drafted fifth by the Utah Starzz in the inaugural WNBA draft, then joined their coaching staff. Twenty years after her playing career ended, she called San Diego State head coach Beth Burns, who had an open spot on her staff.“I want to get back into coaching,” Burns remembered Reiss saying. “And I want to come work for you.”“Tammi,” Burns said. “No, you don’t.”“This is a grinder job,” Burns said. “I don’t know if you want to do this.”“Yes,” Reiss said. “I do.”So, Burns relented. In what Burns called the “single biggest one-year turnaround” she’s seen, Reiss developed star guards Courtney Clements and Chelsea Hopkins. Clements wanted to be a pro, and Hopkins wanted to find consistency after two meniscus tears limited her game predicated on athleticism and speed.Burns told Reiss to “figure it out” in handling Clements and Hopkins. Reiss worked with each of them every day, and similar to Boucek, competed alongside them. She cursed, yelled and dropped “F-bombs,” Hopkins said, but they always knew her intentions were good. Reiss realized players’ lives outside of basketball, and brushed up on pop culture to communicate with them.When players had a disagreement with Burns, Reiss wasn’t afraid to tell them when they were wrong. Hopkins and Clements both went onto WNBA careers. And when Hopkins’ grandmother, who died of cancer shortly after Hopkins graduated, was sick, Hopkins said Reiss was one of the only people she felt comfortable opening up to.“I understand,” Reiss said. “Some kids are communicators. Some kids: ‘I need time.’ Some kids: ‘I’ll come to you.’ Others, you’ll have to go to them.”“That’s all part of the dance.”***Earlier this month, Reiss gathered Syracuse’s guards and handed around eight slips of paper. She told them all to write down one thing that she could help them improve. For Kiara Lewis, she wanted Reiss to watch film with her. Isis Young wrote that Reiss helped her better understand the “purpose” behind every drill. And, though Emily Engstler wasn’t with the team at the time of the exercise, she said the biggest thing she would ask her to teach was “focus.”Engstler had been out for five games for not “doing what she has to do to be a student athlete,” SU head coach Quentin Hillsman said, a characterization many around Engstler suggested was related to academics.Max Freund | Staff PhotographerEngstler had known Reiss for five years, from the start of her recruiting process to now, and she didn’t get any sympathy from Reiss. Reiss didn’t change the way she handled Engstler. Player development is a process. She has dedicated herself to it.“Coach Tammi’s a really good person,” Engstler said. “To be able to call her, text her and meet with her and just discuss, to understand that everything’s going to be OK. And there’s this goal at the end of the tunnel whenever something happens. I appreciate her more than anyone right now.”Sitting in a chair in the back of the Carmelo K. Anthony Center, Reiss reflected on her biggest failures, her biggest goals. In that moment, she found serenity. She wants to be a head coach of her own one day. She craves the ability to do just what she was doing: sitting in her chair, looking back at from which her group came, and trying to imagine what’s ahead. After some time, she rose from her chair, eager to start the process again.CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, the team Howard put in her final three was misstated. The Daily Orange regrets this error. center_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more