Coaching is an Unexpected Second Career for DeLisha Milton-Jones
DeLisha Milton-Jones played nearly two decades of professional and international basketball, mostly on the highest stage. And for almost all of that time, she never considered coaching.
In fact, the two-time Olympic gold medalist — 2000 and 2008 — said the thought of continuing her life in basketball when her playing days came to an end didn’t occur to her until she had an epiphany while traveling to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Only then did she see a future pacing the sidelines as a possibility.
It finally occurred to her that one of the assistant coaches who had been barking at her during training camp in the weeks leading up to the games was her old teammate, Dawn Staley. Of course, she knew who Staley was during all those workouts and practices, but only on that trip to the Olympics did she see Staley as a coach for the first time.
It didn’t merely blow Milton-Jones’ mind to see her friend turning a chapter from player to coach, it allowed Milton-Jones for the first time, at age 34, to see a non-playing future for herself in the game she loved.
“In all those years being involved as a player, it never really dawned on me that there were former players who actually coached,” Milton-Jones, now 45, said. “I just saw them as coaches, because that’s all I knew them as; I never really saw them as Olympians.”
Now another decade down the line, Staley is head coach of the USA Women’s National Team, and Milton-Jones spent two years into as head coach of the Pepperdine University women’s basketball team before being hired as an assistant coach for Syracuse University prior to the 2019-20 season. She led the Waves to their best season in more than a decade in 2018-19.
Milton-Jones also is continuing her far-reaching relationship with USA Basketball, having served as a court coach and mentor this past summer to some of the best young players in the nation with the USA U19 World Cup Team. She also serves as a member of the 2017-2020 USA Basketball Women’s Development National Team Committee, helping to select members of the U16 team that won gold at the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Puerto Aysen, Chile.
Milton-Jones said she enters each of those opportunities with the same mindset. “It’s an opportunity where I can definitely impact and be impacted.”
In May, as she watched over trials for different age-group teams, Milton-Jones spent nights sleeping in the same dorm rooms in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center that she first slept in more than two decades ago as a lanky teenager from Georgia who questioned what she had gotten herself into.
Milton-Jones thought of her younger self and recalled some of the mind games she played with herself while trying to prove she belonged among the very best players in the nation trying out for USA Basketball teams in the 1990s and 2000s. She knows she has knowledge and experience that this generation of players can benefit from when she is with them on the court or off it.
She has been in their shoes.
“It helps tremendously, because there is nothing that they go through that I can’t talk them through or walk them through,” Milton-Jones said. “I think what they experience is probably more mental anguish than anything. When you’re second-guessing yourself, there is anxiety involved, and you’re just questioning a lot of things about yourself. I think it’s just a matter of someone like myself coming in and just reassuring them that, ‘You’re here for a reason. You’re here because you have the skill set that has allowed them to take notice of you.’”
Milton-Jones said she relishes every chance she gets to spend time in the USA Basketball environment, because it provides opportunities to work alongside smart, accomplished coaches and she gets to see amazing talent hard at work.
One might think after all these years, she might grow less fond of trips to Colorado Springs. She was a member of 18 USA Basketball teams and compiled a 125-10 all-time record while representing her country. In addition to her two Olympic gold medals, she won FIBA World Cup gold medals in 1998 and 2002.
In some ways, she can relate to the players she sees on the court, whether they’re competing for roster spots with USA Basketball or fighting for playing time at Pepperdine or Syracuse. The journey for those players is just beginning and Milton-Jones believes her journey as a coach is still in the developmental stages.
She says it would be a dream come true to work her way back to another Olympics, this time as a member of the USA coaching staff.
“This thing has come full circle for Dawn, and if it has done it for her, that’s a dream I can accomplish, too,” Milton-Jones said. “I just have to make sure I put myself in the right position and people see my hard work. Lo and behold, I became a college coach, and now this opportunity has come. So, maybe I’m at the grassroots level as a coach that I was as a player, and there is a maturation process that I need to go through as a coach in order to be considered for positions like that.”