Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Juneau-Douglas High School 2007 graduate Talisa Rhea was promoted within the WNBA Seattle Storm organization on April 13 to General Manager, roughly 24 hours before the league’s draft.
“Yeah, no pressure at all right?” Rhea, 31, said in a recent interview with KINY radio. “Just a big event coming up a day later.”
Rhea began her career with the Storm in 2015 as an intern with the basketball operations department as a video coordinator. In 2016, she was the Seattle Storm’s manager of basketball operations and was promoted to assistant general manager in 2019.
Now as general manager, Rhea is responsible for building a roster.
“Scouting talent, college prospects, free agency, trying to build pieces that fit together for the team,” Rhea said. “Managing our staff, our players throughout the season and making sure everyone is on the same page and everything is going well. Really just trying to be supportive of the entire basketball team and staff.”
Storm President and CEO of both the Storm and Force 10 Hoops Alisha Valvanis said Rhea has played a key role in their draft strategy the past six years and had already helped build a roster that brought two championships in the past three seasons.
“She has experience, basketball acumen and passion to thrive in this role,” Valvanis said in a team press release in which Storm coach Dan Huges added, “She is very well prepared for this opportunity.”
Rhea said the draft was a collaborative effort, being on a call with all team coaches, discussing scenarios beforehand and making team decisions - all within the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the first year we didn’t do any in-person scouting,” she said. “We didn’t go to the NCAA tournament. We didn’t watch any college games live. We did everything from game film so that was definitely different. But it is different times so we are just adjusting and nonetheless we are getting ready to start our season.”
Rhea said they had a successful draft. And they’ll have a returning roster from a 2020 championship year, including re-signing veteran All-Star guard Sue Bird for her 20th season with the Storm, 2020 finals MVP Breanna Stewart and two-time All-Star guard Jewell Loyd. They added via free agency and trades Katie Lou Samuelson, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Candice Dupree, entering her 16th season ranking third in career points, and 2021 NCAA Championship guard Kianna Williams from Stanford.
Preseason training camp began Sunday and the team’s first league game is May 15 hosting the Las Vegas Aces at Angel of the Winds Arena.
“We have a really great pool of players that are going to be heading into training camp and competing for the final roster,” Rhea said. “We are excited to see how it is going to come together.”
Rhea is younger than a couple Storm players.
“I am definitely on the young side but I feel like six years of experience and the work that I have done has helped with all those relationships and, obviously, the experience that’s needed to be successful in this role… We have a really good relationship, it is fun to be around them all the time.”
Rhea said when she was a kid, her parents brought her to some Storm games, as did her high school coach on a summer school trip.
“I have pictures of being in Key Arena,” she said. “Definitely grew up watching the Storm and Sue (Bird) and Lauren (Jackson), actually went to one of their championship parades… I have been a Storm fan for a long time. I feel really grateful to be a part of the organization and now have this role.”
Last season many professional teams and players spoke out on racial justice issues and Rhea believes in the importance of those actions.
“We are in a very unique position to have the platform that the Storm has,” she said. “So definitely taking advantage of that for making a positive impact. We try to do a lot of work in the community and we also try to amplify the work that our players are doing because we have so many players, not just on our team, but across the league that are really doing tremendous off the court. So as much as we can support that as an organization and also prioritize our own work we have been able to do some really incredible things over the past year. And beyond the past year, it has always been a huge priority for the Storm to make community impact.”
Rhea noted the team partners with black-owned businesses and support black women owned businesses, fundraising efforts for the NAACP legal defense fund and various Seattle community partners. The team also works with Storm sponsors to provide youth sports and academic opportunities for minorities, among other efforts.
She also said the WNBA is making progress toward equality with men’s teams.
“We are moving in the right direction,” she said “The new CBA that was agreed upon a couple years ago was a huge step and the players receiving higher salaries… I think collectively, as a league and individual teams, we are trying to promote our athletes and our league. There has been a lot more support with women’s sports recently. We saw that with the NCAA tournament and how much support they received and we are starting to see that viewership numbers are increasing and people want to invest and they want to learn more about our players and our league.”
Rhea said the Storm has a passionate and supportive fan base.
“Seattle in general is a tremendous sports city,” she said. “And we are excited to share another season with them.”
She said pandemic-limited crowds last season were an adjustment.
“Every game felt kind of the same, a little monotonous, but they did a really good job with the production of those games and making it feel like as much of normal game atmosphere as you can,” she said. “Overall it was still a pretty positive experience but I know the players really missed the fans and the energy of playing in front of a live crowd.”
Pandemic restrictions this year will be based on the city and the market, state and local guidelines as well as WNBA guidelines.
“Some teams will be starting at limited capacity and other teams will be hoping to get there at some point,” Rhea said. “We are just monitoring state guidelines as closely as we can and whenever it is safe to do so we hope to have fans in attendance. I think we are moving in the right direction.”
Rhea was asked if the GM gets to sit courtside when the season opens, or if she has a sky box, or will be nervously dribbling a basketball somewhere in the depths of the arena.
“That’s a good question,” she said with a laugh. “I think with how everything is shaking out I don’t know where exactly my seat will be this year but I am definitely looking forward to still being in person around the team as much as I can.”
Rhea said these moments seem like a dream.
“Honestly, going through high school, and probably part of college, I thought I would kind of end up more on the coaching track,” she said. “I knew I wanted to stay in basketball. But once I kind of got my foot in the door with operations side and a little bit more of the non-coaching side I have really enjoyed it. I love being around basketball still. I love being around the team, but also still enjoy the other aspects of what it takes to run a professional sports organization and learning some of that business side and having exposure to that. I really enjoy my role and what it brings and all the experiences that have led to this.”
Asked when she would own a team she laughed.
“A long, long time from now,” she said.
And as a GM, there is probably always a court she can go and hit some free throws on.
“I don’t play too much anymore,” she said. “Not too much time for me to play right now.”
Talisa Rhea, A Look Back
Rhea started as point guard for four seasons at JDHS (2004-07), helping the Crimson Bears to three state title game appearances and winning a state championship as a sophomore. Along with numerous all-state, all-tourney and all-academic honors, she is a two-time Alaska State Player of the Year and a Gatorade Player of the Year. She was also a four-year soccer player and all-state selection.
Q - What are the biggest obstacles for athletes today compared to when you were an athlete at JDHS?
A - The specialization and prioritization of one sport early on. We didn’t see it in Juneau as much because the club sports weren’t as much year around. There was more opportunity to participate in other sports. It feels like now kids that are middle school age are being forced to pick a sport that they want to play and are quitting the others. That is a bummer, as playing multiple sports is beneficial and you get to experience more. And how much time kids are committing to sports at an early age has changed as well.
Q - Is there disparity among inclusion and opportunities for those less fortunate?
A - There is always a challenge to make everything equally accessible and affordable depending on location of things and cost to participate in the sport itself. There can be a lot of barriers. That is one thing we try to do with the Storm is reduce some of those barriers so more can participate.
Rhea accepted a Division I scholarship at Oregon State and as a freshman played in all 31 games, starting 13, and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team. As a sophomore, she started all 32 games, set the Pac-10 record for 3-pointers in a game, was Pac 10 Player of the week, and earned All Pac-10 team and all-academic honors and ESPN All District honors. As a junior she started all 31 games, led the Beavers in scoring and earned All Pac 10 team and all-academic honors. In 2010-11 she transferred to Seattle University and led the Redhawks to the semifinals of the Women’s Nations Invitational Tournament. She was College Sports Madness Independent Player of the week three times, second in scoring and leader in assists, 26th in the nation in assist average and graduated with a degree in sport and exercise science in 2012.
Q - What advice would you give to athletes and students when selecting colleges? What should they look for?
A - I think the fit for everyone is different. Think about your own priorities and what you hope to gain from that experience. A bigger school with bigger exposure isn’t always the best fit. It is always important to factor in academic opportunities that are there, where the school is. Is that somewhere you see yourself living after college, is it somewhere your coaches and your network will be able to help you find post collegiate opportunities? And for sports, what is the team like, what atmosphere do the coaches offer, and what is that culture like? Be less focused on the name of the school and what you think that might mean, and more focused on finding a really good fit for you and what you are looking for.
Rhea played in China on a 14-day tour with the United States Basketball Academy team in 2012. Also in 2012, while attending the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association clinic at the 2012 NCAA Women’s Final Four, Rhea was contacted by the Polish team Lotos Gdynia of the PLKK League and the European League. She signed a one-year contract and began playing with Centrum Wzgorze Poland and was the team’s second-leading scorer, third in assists and its top free throw shooter.
Q - What was it like experiencing new cultures while doing something you had a passion for?
A - That was awesome. To get paid to play basketball was definitely the dream growing up. It was also a great learning and life experience to live somewhere new with people you don’t know and different languages are being spoken. Just throwing yourself into that environment. I think about those experiences all the time.
Rhea enrolled at the University of Illinois in 2014. While there she coached the University Laboratory High School Illineks from Urbana, Illinois, and brought them to the JDHS Capital City Classic. She received her Masters of Sport Management in 2016.
Q - What was it like to coach against your friends and peers and introduce a team to Alaska?
A - A lot of fun. For some of my players it was the first time out of the state of Illinois and first time getting on a plane. It was cool to bring them to my hometown in a place I love so much in one of the tournaments I grew up loving so much. The students on that team still talk about it all the time.
Q - Do you still get those crazy Alaska questions, even from the Storm?
A - There is always the Alaska questions. They never seem to stop. Questions about igloos and polar bears and daylight and darkness.
Q - Any chance you get the Seattle Storm up here for a camp?
A - That would be awesome. We will have to work on that. I would love to bring some of these players up for sure.
Q - Who are some that have influenced you on this path you are on?
A - (abbreviated) JDHS coach Leslie Knight, East High and AAU coach Dorena Bingham. My current boss has been huge in my growth within the Storm organization. The incredible people in the Storm front office I learn from all the time. I definitely feel lucky to have the network of people that have really helped me grow as a person and now as a young professional working in professional sports.
Q - Is there a Talisa Rhea bobblehead out yet?
A - (Laughing) There is not. No, there is not.
Above - Juneau-Douglas High School 2007 graduate Talisa Rhea was promoted to General Manager of the Seattle Storm. (Photo Courtesy Seattle Storm)