The WNBA tips off its 27th season on May 19, with the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever helping to usher in the new year at 7 p.m. EST at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. There’s a stark difference between the two teams on the surface, as the Sun aim to make another deep postseason run in search of a championship while the Fever are building towards an ultra-bright future around Aliyah Boston, the franchise’s first ever top overall draftee.
There is, however, a bond that exists between the two sides that runs much deeper than basketball. First-year Fever head coach Christie Sides brought Karima Christmas-Kelly on board as she built out her staff. Christmas-Kelly played on the franchise’s 2012 title-winning team and, after spending some time as an assistant in the college ranks, is in her first year on a WNBA bench.
“It kind of feels weird being in this space now, being a coach,” Christmas-Kelly tells Dime with a laugh. “I have to try to figure out ways to get (players) prepared for certain things and help them understand things while the game is going on.”
Christmas-Kelly has thrived on preparation her whole life — it’s part of what made her a championship-winning athlete. But her first game brings a unique challenge, as it will mark the first time that she faces off against her husband, Austin Kelly.
Another ex-college assistant who is making the jump to the W as a coach, Kelly joined Stephanie White’s staff in Connecticut this offseason. The couple have been together for 15 years, married for the last five, and are expecting their first child soon. In fact, starting the season off against one another offered them a chance to hold their baby shower one day before the first game.
“We’ll be happy then, but next morning, I don’t know if we’re supposed to be enemies or what the postgame handshake will look like,” Karima says.
The two were freshmen student-athletes at Duke, and while Austin says Karima “wouldn’t give the time of day,” Karima notes that she was 18 in a new state while handling the school’s rigorous course load, trying to get acquainted with her teammates, learning a new system, and figuring out life without her family back in Houston.
“I didn’t really want to talk to anyone, but the more time we spent together, it just felt like he was the right person to give my time to,” she says. “Now, 16 years later, look at what happened after meeting in study hall.”
Austin lettered in football while at Duke, but took his graduate transfer year to play basketball at Division 2 Georgia Southwestern in 2012-13. He went to school on a football scholarship, but basketball is his DNA, as his father was a high school coach for 30 years. Karima says that they’ll be out at a restaurant, a game will be on TV, and Austin will grab a napkin to jot down plays he saw, make tweaks to them, and add them to his playbook — “I’m a geek when it comes to offense,” he says, proudly. “They call me Professor X’s and O’s.”
The pair graduated from Duke in 2011, starting a decade of trying to intertwine their schedules as much as possible. Austin started off as a high school coach and teacher, and would spend the summers as a practice player for whatever W team Karima was on. This brought him to Indiana in the middle of 2012 amid the team’s championship-winning season, and his desire to soak in as much of the game as possible caught his current boss’ attention, as White was in her second year as an assistant for the Fever.
“I stuck around as a practice player for a bit, and before too long, she (White) trusted me with the scout guys, and that’s where it started,” Austin says. “Rima spent the next couple of years there, I would come up in the summers and we just built that chemistry that way.”
“He comes in so much more detail oriented, I kind of focus more on personnel and knowing the players and taking what I see and bringing it to what I think would work best for us from a scouting standpoint,” Karima remarks. “I used to give him a hard time when he was scouting and doing film work — ‘Why is it taking you so long? When can we hang out?’ And now I’m just like, I understand why!”
Coming at the game from two different perspectives — Karima the professional player-turned-coach, Austin the lifelong coach who climbed his way up the ladder — provides them with different understandings of the game. In Austin’s eyes, this is a gigantic asset. He can’t help but bring up Karima’s ability to form a bond with players, a skill he witnessed firsthand when they were on staff together at the University of Texas at Arlington.
College coaching doesn’t lend itself to any sort of off time. As soon as the season ends, recruiting season starts. During her playing days, Karima would spend whatever time she had off working out where Austin was situated. Fast forward to 2023, and the amount of time they’d spend apart was a significant talking point between the two before either took their current roles. The proposition of having matching offseasons where they could stay together in the same place was hard to pass up, though, as was the opportunity to work in the W.
“I could see the excitement she had for Indiana, and she could see it in me as well,” Austin says. “We’re willing to walk this path together, and it’s going to be tough, especially with our boy due right around the All-Star break. But we’ll manage that together, we have a great support system.”
The two will always be there for one another, even though they’ll temporarily be adversaries on Friday night. They are incredibly competitive with one another — Karima refuses to play most board games, because she gets mad when she loses. They used to play one-on-one frequently, but it would invariably get too physical and heated, or someone started talking junk. “We’ve never finished a game,” Austin says while laughing.
They’re going to have a pregame call. They’ll exchange pleasantries and wish one another luck, but not too much — this is a moment almost 20 years in the making, after all, and neither one wants to be the person who loses.
“It’s gonna be funny to see if that translates on the sidelines,” Karima says. “Just coaching against each other in general, it’s never happened before. I’ve always been on his side, so now it’s weird like ‘Oh, I’m coaching against my husband.'”