The way Natalie Williams tells it, the idea came from Holly Rowe. The former BYU student and University of Utah alum had already been working with the Utah Jazz as a broadcast analyst — in addition to her sideline reporter duties for ESPN’s marquee college football crew — when she reached out to Williams with an opportunity. She was recruiting a team of women to become the first all-female broadcast unit in Jazz history. She’d also reached out to Krista Blunk, a Pac-12 Network and ESPN sports analyst who, like Rowe and Williams, is from Utah. But Williams differed from both Rowe and Blunk in a very important way: She’d never done any broadcast work before. 

That made little difference to Rowe, who figured Williams’ basketball bona fides made her a no-brainer regardless. She was, after all, a four-time WNBA All-Star and three-time all-WNBA first-team selection; an Olympic gold medalist and a Hall of Famer. Not to mention her deep Utah roots. She grew up in Taylorsville and graduated from Taylorsville High School, and she played for the WNBA franchise formerly known as the Utah Starzz. She lived in Utah until earlier this year, managing a program called the Natalie Williams Basketball Academy that, by Williams’ estimates, has helped nudge about 65 young women into college basketball. She once owned a sports bar in town, too, and was one of the torchbearers ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games. Still, broadcasting? Williams knew plenty about basketball and about Utah, but she didn’t know a thing about television production. 

WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces General Manager Natalie Williams on the team’s court at the Michelob Ultra Arena on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022 in Las Vegas. | David Jay Becker for the Deseret News

Nevertheless, she said yes. She always says yes. She’s learned to say yes and embrace the unfamiliar time and time again during her long and varied career in the orbit of basketball. For this particular opportunity, that meant studying players from the Jazz and the visiting Los Angeles Clippers, learning fun facts or special skills that might provide viewers with unknown insights. It meant studying when she, as a color commentator, was supposed to talk vs. the play-by-play person. She credits Rowe and the rest of the team for helping bring her up to speed, but don’t you dare suggest she was nervous. Natalie Williams doesn’t get nervous. She’s learned to channel nervousness into preparation, and preparation into the hope and belief that whatever new opportunity she takes on will work out. “Luckily, I handle challenges well,” she explains. “I kind of like the excitement of being under pressure.”

On March 18, that attitude served her well during the all-women Jazz broadcast. But ahead of the new NBA season beginning on October 19, Williams doesn’t — for the moment, at least — have plans to reprise that role. Her focus is needed elsewhere, with the chance to take on another new, far more complex opportunity.

Williams’ dedication to seizing opportunity is perhaps best understood through the lens of failure. To be clear, Williams hasn’t failed much; even back in her college days, she was a standout two-sport athlete at UCLA — the first woman to ever earn All-America honors in both basketball and volleyball in the same season. She led the Bruins to NCAA volleyball titles in 1990 and 1991, and she was recognized as the best collegiate volleyball player in the country. Which is why after graduating from UCLA in 1994, she set a goal of making the 1996 Olympic women’s volleyball team. 

She trained for years, enduring morning practices at San Diego’s Balboa Park until the games were just three months away. That’s when she got a call telling her that coach Terry Liskevych wanted to speak with her before practice. She walked into his office around 7 a.m., knowing that the news likely wasn’t good. “Unfortunately,” he told her, “we’re going to be cutting you.” Even now, Williams calls that moment “heartbreaking.” Rather than look for a new opportunity, though, she dove into one that was old and new at once: basketball. That same year, she made the Team USA roster for the Taiwan-hosted Jones Cup, which put her on the Olympic radar once more. That wasn’t in the front of her mind at the time, but after she led Team USA in rebounds and ranked fourth in scoring, the dream of an Olympic berth started to take shape once more. “I might have a shot at this,” she told herself. 

Over the next few years, she embraced an outlook of positivity — especially in regard to getting along with her teammates. “When you travel with the team, and you’re going all over the world, there’s always crazy things that happen where things don’t always go your way,” she says. “And to always be the person that makes the best of situations, that’s what I’ve always learned. … Try to think of a solution instead of adding to a conflict. There’s no use in complaining about something that’s out of your control. Just make the best of it, and figure out a way to make things better.” That particular lesson is one she’s tried to impart to her four children, and one that served her well when she eventually did make Team USA and headed to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympics. With 7.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, Williams ranked fourth and third on the team, respectively, while coming off the bench for a squad that included other established greats like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. 

“You never know the struggles and the battles that everybody goes through every day. So I’m just trying to keep an eye on everyone and make sure they feel supported

Unfortunately, Williams’ WNBA career was relatively short given her late start. The pounding from playing two sports for a large portion of her life caught up with her. “My body let me know,” she explains of deciding to retire from the WNBA after the 2005 season. She needed ice baths after every game, after every practice. Once she realized that — and decided she wanted to be able to walk when she reached her 50s — she stepped away and thus encountered the most challenging question of her professional life: What’s next?

“When you leave an organization like the WNBA and USA Basketball, and you’re no longer around amazing peers and people,” she says, “and you just don’t know what you’re going to do in life next as a profession — I mean, I think that’s the biggest and most challenging thing.” It’s a reality for almost all athletes, but it’s especially acute for veterans of the WNBA; unlike former NFL or NBA players, there are no pensions and relatively few retirement benefits. Williams chose to try coaching other young women, which she did for over a decade, culminating in the Society of Health and Physical Educators naming her its 2020 recipient of the Guiding Woman in Sports Award. 

A year later, in the summer of 2021, she headed to Las Vegas, where the Aces planned to honor the franchise’s alumni (the Las Vegas Aces franchise used to be the San Antonio Stars, which used to be the Starzz, which is why Williams was included despite never having played for the Aces). “At that time,” she admits, “I didn’t realize that I was in an interview process.”

This time, rather than Rowe, the impetus was Nikki Fargas. The former head coach of Louisiana State’s women’s basketball program had recently been hired by Aces owner Mark Davis as team president. She happened to start a conversation during the alumni celebration with Williams, who happened to mention how she hoped to get back into the WNBA some day. Their chat ended there, and over the next few months, Fargas managed to make a big splash with her new team: She lured Becky Hammon, a former WNBA All-Star who in 2014 became the first woman to take on a full-time assistant coach position in the NBA, away from Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, naming her head coach of the Aces in December. She wasn’t done. 

Around the same time Williams was preparing to make her broadcasting debut, she got a call from Fargas. “We would love to ask,” Williams remembers Fargas telling her, “if you would be interested in being our general manager.” Williams couldn’t believe her luck. She’d been hoping for a change — “You know when you have that feeling in life where you feel like you’re ready for something new?” she explains — but this one wouldn’t come easily. Taking on the role of general manager — which in this particular case encompasses running the day-to-day operations of the team, from coordinating media appearances to negotiating contracts to resolving coaching needs and player disputes — would mean once again embracing something completely new; Williams had never worked in a front office before. It would also mean moving her immediate family from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, while leaving much of her extended family behind. “It was just overwhelming for me at first,” she admits. 

WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces General Manager Natalie Williams had never worked in a front office before joining the Las Vegas Aces earlier this year. | David Jay Becker for the Deseret News
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She took a weekend to think about the offer, then called Fargas back on Monday with her decision. On April 8, the Aces announced her as their new GM. When we spoke in late July, she’d been on the job for just over three months and had just recently started to feel comfortable. At first, it was an “information overload,” she says. But the more she’s listened to and observed Fargas and others, the more she’s caught on, and the more confident she’s grown. She knows she’ll still have plenty to learn about the offseason, but for now, she’s feeling optimistic. The Aces finished the 2022 regular season tied with the defending champion Chicago Sky for the best record in the WNBA and advanced to the WNBA Finals, where they defeated the Connecticut Sun in four games. Williams has re-signed standout guards Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum. And, as with every other new challenge, she’s trying to stay positive and pass that attitude on. “I try to see how people are feeling, see how they’re doing,” she says. “You never know the struggles and the battles that everybody goes through every day. So I’m just trying to keep an eye on everyone and make sure they feel supported and always know that I’m there for them if they need me.”

Back when she was trying to make Team USA, Williams focused more than anything on becoming an elite rebounder. “That’s kind of my claim to fame,” she says with a tinge of pride, all these years later. “People would say Natalie Williams was an amazing rebounder — probably one of the best ever in the history of women’s basketball.” She knew that’s how she could most add value to her team, so she cultivated that skill. Worked on it daily. Nowadays, that lesson still serves her well, but rebounding has been replaced with networking. With her players. With her coaches. With others in the industry. That person-first attitude, she believes, is how she got this job. “So many opportunities in life come from who you know,” she explains. “And just making sure that you are treating people the right way and are a great person.” 

She tries to keep that relentless attitude in mind as a general manager — as well as in embracing whatever opportunities could come her way next.  

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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