By: Andrew Mason
Kathryn Suzanne “Katy” Steding is painting the scene of one of her earliest basketball memories.
“I came home from school one day in first grade and begged [my parents] to put a hoop up in the driveway,” Steding says.
Luckily, her begging payed off. Steding’s parents attached a basketball hoop to the top of their house’s garage, giving Steding the ability to start practicing basketball right in the convenience of her own front yard.
“This was before the 3-point line,” she says with a laugh, “And the corners were a little iffy.”
Four decades later, in her fourth year as the head coach of Boston University’s Women’s Basketball program, Steding has used her extensive collegiate, Olympic and professional basketball experience to instill a “hard work comes first” work ethic, and spin the program’s culture in a complete ‘180’.
Sitting in her office Steding – who recently celebrated a birthday – is sipping on a coffee in her second-floor office in the BU Department of Athletics building. Decorating the room are relics and memorabilia that trace the success of her basketball life: a photo of her 1990 National Champion Stanford squad posing with their trophy after the championship game, her pressed and professionally framed USA Olympic #11 jersey and numerous other trophies.
But perhaps the most eye-catching component of Steding’s office is the entire wall that has been transformed into a giant whiteboard, packed full with hand-scribbled statistics, “X’s and O’s”, and comments about her team – a constant reminder of the grueling work that comes with being a Division I collegiate basketball coach.
Steding’s relaxed posture and cheerful smile fills the room with a sense of comfort that one would not necessarily expect from a woman of her magnitude and intimidating resume. Her dirty-blonde hair falls just below her shoulders as she sits down on the suede couch in her office. She is dressed in casual attire, with a Boston University long sleeve windbreaker and a lime green t-shirt. Both hands remain gripped to her coffee at all times.
Steding describes her family as first and foremost a group of competitors. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Steding and her older sister had constant hunger for being the best.
“Julie was a natural athlete. She could pick up any sport and instantly be good at it, which was very frustrating for me because I had to work harder at everything,” Steding says. Working harder to beat the competition has always been instinctual to Steding.
“In everything I did…I was devastated when I wasn’t first. Second sucks to me.” She confesses her addiction of always needing to compete, an obsession that motivates her everyday while coaching the Terriers.
“[My competitive drive] was always in there. I think you either have a competitive drive or you don’t…you either like the feeling of competing for something or you don’t.”
Two years after she convinced her parents to invest in a hoop for their driveway, Steding decided she wanted to put her skills to the test and play organized basketball for an actual team. But due to the fact that there were no all-girls teams organized at the time, she had to sign up to play in the local boys’ league.
Steding sees herself as lucky to grow up in Oregon, which she regards as “a fairly progressive part of the country.” To Steding, she could not have cared less who her opponents were.
“I just wanted to play, and I didn’t think about necessarily whether it was boys or girls,” she says.
Steding finishes her coffee and places the empty cup on the table in between us as we turn the discussion over to her college years. As a result of her success on the court in high school, Steding found herself in the position to choose between multiple scholarship offers to play basketball for a university. But due to the lack of women’s professional leagues at the time, Steding’s focus wasn’t entirely on basketball.
“I’m gonna get the best degree I possibly can so that when I go into an interview my resumé jumps to the top of the pile, Steding says. “And Stanford was the pinnacle of education.”
Steding and her Cardinal teammates went on to win the ultimate athletic collegiate prize in her senior year: the NCAA National Championship. In addition, Steding graduated Stanford in 1990 with a degree in psychology, a skill she says she naturally loves and still uses every day.
Seeing a future in basketball for Steding beyond the NCAA, Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer brought Steding to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to practice alongside the country’s best players, such as two-time national champion Cheryl Miller.
“VanDerveer wanted her athletes to see themselves in that elite level of competition,” Steding says.
After her short training period was over, Steding received a shocking one-page evaluation from the Olympic scouts.
“It only said two things: weak and slow.” Steding used that blunt criticism to fuel her work ethic for the rest of her career. “It galvanized me. Nobody ever called me weak and slow again.”
After graduation, Steding continued to make progression as a national star, making several USA select teams, including the 1993 World Championship Qualifier team that featured basketball legends such as Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley. Despite being fresh off of knee injuries on both legs, Steding was invited back to Colorado Springs for the tryouts for the 1996 Olympic Games.
After a “crazy week” of intense three-a-day workouts, it was time to find out who would be the lucky ones to make the final roster and head off to Atlanta. For Steding, her hard work and resiliency had paid off.
“It was the most exciting day of my life, to hear that [I] was going to be one of the 12 best players in the country and ultimately the world.”
One year later, Steding and her Olympic teammates stepped onto the podium to hear the beautiful sound of the U.S. National Anthem and to receive their new shiny gold medals.
“[The medal] is the culmination of everything I’ve ever worked hard for. It says I was good enough to be in the elite…a literal world champion,” Steding remembers. As a person of faith, she relates her success in Atlanta to the biblical story of the “Well Done Good and Faithful Servant.”
“It was like somebody patting you on the back and saying ‘you did it, good job.’” As amazing as the experience was, Steding admits winning gold was also intimidating in itself.
“I remember standing [on the podium]…and thinking ‘What’s next?’” Steding says with a laugh. “Not just ‘How do I top this,’ but ‘Where do you go from here?’”
Little did Steding and her teammates know at the time, the 1996 Summer Olympics had an effect on American culture greater than just the usual pride that comes with winning gold medals. The women’s basketball team’s dominant performance helped spawn a unique nationwide hype around women’s basketball. Investors began putting together the early stages of two major American women’s professional leagues: the American Basketball League (ABL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Aside from the fact that the ABL approached Steding and most of her Olympic teammates first, the ABL attracted Steding more than the WNBA for a multitude of reasons. In the ABL, the regular season would be held in the winter, not in the summer as the WNBA chose to do, and Steding would get to play for her hometown as part of the Power franchise.
“I was really proud to be from Portland. I could fulfill my childhood dream of being a professional basketball player in Portland,” Steding says.
Being the premier founding players of a major American women’s basketball league was a special achievement.
“It felt so important to us. It felt like we were playing for a cause still,” Steding says. “College [women’s basketball] was coming along and is still today a big fish, but we wanted the game to take another leap.”
However, after just two full seasons, management issues caused the ABL to go under. But Steding, who swapped over to the more successful WNBA, always remained optimistic about where basketball guided her life.
“It worked out, I got to play in both leagues,” she says with a smile.
After being drafted fourteenth overall by the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs, Steding went on to play two full seasons. It was during her one-year venture in Sacramento when Steding met teammate Cindy Blodgett.
“Steding is a positive and unselfish person…she was a great teammate for so many reasons,” says Blodgett. “She was hard working, tough and supportive. Steding was – and is – a terrific competitor and was adored by her teammates.”
Steding has equal respect of Blodgett’s work ethic and knowledge of the game of basketball. Over a decade after the two passed “the rock” to one another out on the court, Steding asked Blodgett to come join the coaching staff at BU as an assistant coach.
After retiring from playing professionally in 2001, Steding knew her relationship with basketball wasn’t over. Following the path that many former players go down, Steding decided to try her luck at coaching. Seventeen years later, she hasn’t looked back.
“Steding has always loved playing the game and competing, so I was not surprised in the least when she found her ‘calling’ in coaching,” comments Blodgett. “She has an uncanny ability to not only recognize peoples’ strengths, but she also tries to exploit them!”
For Steding, the biggest difference between playing and coaching is the illusion of control. She sees herself as a control freak at times in the sense that she always likes to see that things get done.
“There’s not as much control on the sideline,” Steding says. “[As a coach] you have to have a really great rapport with your players to make sure they trust you, and they’ll do what you say at the right time because you can’t just do it yourself. You have to show them how to get where they need to go. It can be a little bit daunting at times but it’s fun.”
In 2014, Steding was brought on as head coach at Boston University. After two abysmal seasons leading the Terriers (a combined record of 8-52), Steding and her squad were finally able to click during the 2016-17 campaign, finishing with an improved 13-17 record, 11-7 in conference play.
“Just changing what we were doing was a big difference,” says Steding. “Changing personnel, and what we were doing offensively and defensively to a little bit more regimented system…it was comforting for the players.”
Steding is recognized by her players and coaching staff as doing more for BU Women’s Basketball, particularly in the past season, than just help the team boost its record. She’s changed the culture of the program, aiming to create an environment in which hard work and developing on and off the court, as both individuals and as a team, is the expected standard.
“I believe she has helped instill a love for working hard and being proud of what you do on a daily basis,” says Blodgett. “Coach Steding tries very hard to make our players and coaches’ BU experience a positive and memorable one. [She] truly loves what she does and I think we can all feed off that energy and authenticity.”
Steding credits some of the recent success to senior transfer Sophie Beaudry. The 6-foot-5 Canadian center from Monmouth University proved very useful to the Terriers in their 2016-17 season, taking home the team’s Most Valuable Player award at the end of the year. Beaudry finds it a unique opportunity to play under a coach with so much basketball experience and knowledge.
“All the techniques [Steding] learned are extremely useful. She changed my shot, and I’m very grateful for all the tips she gave me,” says Beaudry.
Aside from personal help, Beaudry also believes Steding has strategically structured the Terriers’ roster in recent years to be more successful.
“She knows what kind of player she wants on her team, personality and skills wise, Beaudry says. “I believe that’s why we all get along very well.”
Coming off an impressive season, Steding knows she and her players have much more to improve on.
“My philosophy is I want to teach them to be better basketball players, not just run a system better,” Steding says. She doesn’t look at a team like a robotic machine as some coaches do.
“Teams scout you and adjust, so I want our kids to be able to recognize the situation and eventually be able to handle it on their own,”says Steding. “I want to teach them the game rather than just teach them shooting and screening and whatever.”
Outside of basketball, Steding and her husband, John, are getting ready to celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary this May. They have no children.
“I like to think that every year I have 13 to 15, 18-to-22-year-olds,” Steding jokes. The couple lives in the city very close to campus. Both she and her husband’s families all still live in Oregon, making her feel homesick at times.
“A little far away from Boston, but I’ve always loved Boston, so I’m here on purpose.”
Steding wants to own a dog someday. In fact, she claims that if she were to have a perfect stress-free day, the majority of it would be spent playing with a dog. But for now, Steding typically relaxes by watching golf.
“I can’t really explain it, but I love the strategy.”
She also enjoys juggling three or four books at time. As a lover of American Colonial history, Steding also enjoys sightseeing and traveling to historic places. Besides Boston, her favorite spot to satisfy this interest is Washington D.C.
“I love our country. I love what we’re about, and I love where we’ve been: scars, warts, and all.” says Steding. “D.C. is one of those places where I get to charge that.”
When asked whether or not the thought of retirement was in the near future, Steding only laughs and responds, “Oh lord no!” The retired lifestyle of “puttering in the yard” is completely unappealing to her.
“I can’t imagine not coaching, not working, not doing something,” Steding says. “I don’t know if I’ll coach forever, but I also know I probably won’t ever completely retire, period.”
Looking back at her life so far, Steding holds that she has no major regrets.
“I think there are things that happen in your life that you’d like to have been different but that you can’t really control, so you either roll with the punches or the punches roll you.”
Steding embraces the mistakes she has made. In both basketball and in life, messing up allows for learning and growing.
“That’s what makes the journey so fun.”