Noelle Quinn returns home on new journey as Storm coach

Noelle Quinn talks to reporters
Seattle Storm coach Noelle Quinn in 2019.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Share

In choosing how she would be known in the Twitterverse, Noelle Quinn didn’t pick the obvious. She didn’t choose her own name for her Twitter handle. No, @IAmSoLA45 chose her city.

The showcase of Quinn’s Los Angeles roots and jersey number that she wore at Torrance Bishop Montgomery High and UCLA before taking it to the WNBA and overseas showed her allegiance to her hometown and the sport she learned there.

Only recently did Quinn, who was promoted to head coach of the Seattle Storm on May 30, change her Twitter handle to her name, but make no mistake, @Noey_Quinn is still so L.A.

“On my chest and on my back, all around,” Quinn said during a recent phone call.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The lessons she learned growing up in basketball-obsessed L.A. have helped Quinn emerge as a top young coach in the WNBA. The 36-year-old Quinn, who served as an assistant for the team during the last two seasons and won a championship as a player in 2018, became the first Black woman to serve as head coach of the Storm when she was promoted seven games into the season after Dan Hughes retired.

The defending champion Storm (12-4) play the Sparks (6-9) at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday. It’s the start of another circuitous path for Quinn, who has already completed one full circle as an L.A. native who played for her hometown Sparks and now returns to her native city as a coach.

Noelle Quinn and Candace Park celebrate a Sparks win over the Storm in 2009.
Noelle Quinn and Candace Park celebrate a Sparks win over the Storm in 2009.
(Hector Mata / Associated Press)

She never envisioned this journey.

Quinn grew up in what she calls “the heart of L.A.” on 82nd Street and Western Avenue. She was about 10 minutes away from the Great Western Forum, where the Showtime Lakers and Quinn’s favorite player, Magic Johnson, ruled. With her older sister and her mother Golden, Quinn’s life revolved around family, school and basketball.

Quinn started playing in boys leagues at around 8 years old at Westchester Park, a straight shot west on Manchester from her house. All-girls leagues weren’t popular yet, but Quinn relished any chance to hoop.

Advertisement

“It wasn’t just about being a girl in that aspect, more than just being someone who was a basketball player who just loved to play,” Quinn said.

Four years after Quinn started playing organized basketball among the boys, she got a glimpse at what her future in the game could hold. The then-12-year-old girl was in the sellout crowd at the Forum on June 21, 1997, for the WNBA’s inaugural game. The Sparks hosted the New York Liberty.

The entire city was buzzing about the new league, especially with the Sparks anchored by Lisa Leslie, an L.A. legend. Quinn watched Leslie sign autographs and interact with fans after that first game and was in awe.

“I’m sitting in the stands and they don’t really know they’re inspiring me,” Quinn said. “That’s the thing about basketball: Someone can really not know you, watch a game and it can change [their] life.”

Quinn blazed her own trail with successful stops all over L.A. In Torrance, she won four state championships in basketball and another in volleyball at Bishop Montgomery, where she returned to coach the girls’ basketball team to a Southern Section title in 2017. In Westwood, the 6-foot combo guard was named Pac-10 freshman of the year in 2004, led the Bruins to the conference tournament championship in 2006 and ranks seventh on UCLA’s all-time scoring list.

Noelle Quinn poses for a photo while at Bishop Montgomery High.
Noelle Quinn was The Times’ prep player of the year at Bishop Montgomery in 2002.
(Beatrice De Gea / Los Angeles Times)
Noelle Quinn coaches her alma mater in 2018.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

While Quinn never expressed a desire to get into coaching, Pam Walker, a UCLA assistant at the time, saw potential. Quinn knew the game, studied scouting reports and was always observing in ways that would help her stay ahead of the opposition. What made Walker confident about Quinn’s prospects after basketball was that she always held aspirations that couldn’t rest in a trophy case.

“She understood that basketball wasn’t her end destination,” said Walker, now the program’s director of operations. “It was going to be about affecting people, just living her life in a way that she could be proud of, something that her family could feel good about.”

Golden Quinn was the anchor for the family in Inglewood and is still Noelle’s “superwoman.” The longtime teacher often brought Noelle to summer school, where she saw her mother’s powers in action and inspired Noelle to tap into her own potential. If she hadn’t turned basketball into a career, Noelle likely would have become a teacher.

Advertisement

“I just saw the importance of having a strong Black woman leading these future leaders of our community, of our world,” Quinn said.

Quinn is the 19th Black female head coach in WNBA history, an elite club she reveres. She named each of her predecessors during her introductory news conference.

Pokey Chatman, Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Gillom, Carolyn Jenkins, Vickie Johnson, Trudi Lacey, Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Miller, Carolyn Peck, Julie Rousseau, Amber Stocks, Karleen Thompson, Shell Dailey, Jessie Kenlaw, Cathy Parson, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Denise Taylor and Penny Toler crawled so Quinn could walk, she said.

Noell Quinn drives for a layup while playing for UCLA in 2004.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Now she’s hoping to rise to a new level as the first Black woman to win a WNBA championship as a head coach. The responsibility of being a trailblazer is huge, Quinn said, but it’s a double-edged sword.

“Why am I the first?” she asked. “I would love there to continue to be more opportunities for people who look like me and I think this is an amazing way to continue to push the envelope and understand that I am Black and I am a woman but I am equipped more than anything.”

As an assistant, Quinn handled the high-powered offense that showcases Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, three members of Team USA’s Olympic roster. The shift to the head coach’s chair on the bench has come with a heavy workload that makes days much longer and games more pressure-packed.

The media responsibilities are new. Game preparation is more intense. Players look to her first in meetings.

But the strong support from the Storm makes the weight easier to bear.

“We already know who Noey is as a coach,” said Storm guard Jordin Canada, a former UCLA star whose relationship with Quinn found roots in Westwood. “She doesn’t go outside of herself. She remains the same and that’s what I love about her.”

Advertisement

The midseason coaching change was a whirlwind. About a month after taking the job, Quinn said it still felt surreal. She will likely have to wait until the offseason for it to settle in.

By then, Quinn will be back in L.A., where she lives during the offseason. Others might escape for vacations, but for Quinn, there’s nothing like home, where the sun shines bright, the traffic inches slowly and the beach beckons.