Generally, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes is opposed to hiring her former players as graduate assistants. It makes for a weird dynamic.
“It’s a bad idea because they’re friends with the players,” she said.
However, Barnes would be willing to make an exception for Tee Tee Starks if she wants that job next season.
“She’s more mature, she’s more removed,” Barnes said. “I think that she can handle it.”
The senior guard is already showing she can. Sidelined with a torn left labrum, Starks has taken on a pseudo-coaching role in her fifth year, serving as a key mentor for Arizona’s younger players.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Starks rehabbed her shoulder for months and months, hoping it would recover just enough for her to play. The pain was just too much. Even something as simple as sliding her shower curtain would reduce her to tears. So in early January she made the gut-wrenching decision to undergo season-ending—and, thus, career-ending—surgery.
“Trust me, I tried to do everything to not have surgery,” Starks said. “But it was what it was.”
At first, Starks had trouble accepting her fate. Then she saw the bright side: she still gets to be part of an Arizona team that is enjoying a historic season, as it enters Friday’s home game vs. No. 8 UCLA as the No. 16 team in the country, its highest ranking since 2000.
“I wouldn’t be able to get up every day and put a smile on my face if I was dwelling on all the bad things that happened in my life,” said Starks, who missed most of her freshman season with a knee injury. “It’s a speed bump in the road, and you just gotta get through it.”
Besides, Starks' new role is helping her shape her future. She hopes to be a coach one day, just like her mother.
“Tee has always been like the mother of our team,” said junior guard Aari McDonald. “She makes sure everyone is OK, they’re doing well, does weekly checkups on people and she’s very mature of all the bunch and she’s very intelligent. She knows our X’s and O’s. She’s a really good person. And it sucks not having her on the floor, but she’s definitely been helpful off the court, just helping the team, telling people what they can do better.”
Starks has a knack for connecting with people and getting the best out of them. Usually that means being honest, sometimes brutally so.
“If you want the truth don’t ask Tee Tee,” Barnes laughed. “And sometimes that’s not always easy. ... She’s gonna tell you the truth whether it’s good or bad, but that’s what I love about her.”
Starks said she is even more critical of her teammates now that she is no longer playing. They know she means well—and that she’s a valuable resource.
McDonald, an All-American, often seeks her advice.
“She’ll come at halftime and ask me, ‘do you think I’m rushing or what do you see?’ Just picking my brain about stuff and I think that makes her better,” Starks said.
During games, Starks makes sure the Wildcats are engaged and aware of important details like how many timeouts they have, who has the possession arrow, or how much time is left on the shot clock.
“I kind of quizzed [Tara Manumaleuga] the last game and she’s like, (I don’t know),” Starks said. “I was like ‘c’mon Tara we talked about this.”’
Starks knows how to motivate, too. She can usually tell by the first drill if the Wildcats are practicing with the right energy. If they aren’t, she’ll do what she can to fix it.
“I’ll usually get up, say something, call timeout, do something because I don’t like running,” she said. “Sometimes when practices aren’t going good we gotta run.”
It makes Barnes’ job easier.
“It’s hard for me to coach you, discipline and wear all those hats....so it helps when you have a player like that that can keep things in perspective for players and be honest,” she said. “Because I think when you hear from me, it’s like, ‘oh, she doesn’t like me, she doesn’t want to play me.’’’
Starks was recently accepted into the So You Want To Be A Coach? program, which helps former players break into the profession through education, skills enhancement, networking and exposure opportunities.
Barnes still wishes Starks could play this year—her 3-point shooting, trademark defense and grittiness would have made the Wildcats “so much better,” she said—but she expects Starks to be a great coach one day and is glad she can get a head start on her future.
“I think she’s just learning and she’s accepting the reality of this year,” Barnes said. “It was hard to swallow in the beginning for sure because I could see the difference in her demeanor. ... But she has a role and she’s important and she’s valued.”