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Katy Steding helped light the fire for women’s basketball, and it’s still burning

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Katy Steding has been trailblazing a path for women in sports for decades.  

Long before she was helping Stanford win its first NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship or winning Olympic gold in 1996, Steding was just a young girl growing up in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

It was there Steding spurted skywards in height, towering over many of her classmates in the third grade. At a young age, she grew an affinity to another tall and tenacious figure in 6-foot-11 Trail Blazers icon, Bill Walton.

“I thought he was the bomb dot com, or whatever we said back then,” Steding recalled. “And just thought like, you know, I want to do that one day. I loved basketball. I asked my parents to put a hoop up in the driveway so I could shoot all the time, and used to go out there in rain, snow, sleet, hail, sunshine, whatever, shoot a lot of hoops in the driveway.”

Basketball is a game of giants, and Steding was ready to reach new heights. Years after Walton & Co. hoisted the Walter A. Brown Trophy for the first time in Portland franchise history, she told her classmates she would become a Trail Blazer one day.

 

I definitely dreamed of being a Portland Trail Blazer at one point and I remember saying that in 5th grade and thinking, as the class giggled, that, not necessarily that I’ll show you it’s just like why is, you know, I get that it’s unusual, but we can do this like, I could do this, you know like, someday something’s gonna happen like that so,” Steding said.

Steding would become a Trail Blazer in her own right. She perfected her craft, became a promoter of the game, and set off to become a groundbreaker in guiding the sport of women’s basketball to where it is today. In honor of Women’s History Month, NBC Sports Northwest is proud to celebrate Steding, a pioneer for women’s sports and basketball. 

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The Oregon trail to California

Steding began her playing career at Lake Oswego High School, where she played under longtime coach Gary Lavender, who went 514-180 in 27 seasons (1977-2004) with the Lakers. The 6-foot forward began catching the attention of several colleges, including Stanford, in a time when out-of-state recruiting was an unusual circumstance.

“I got a letter probably my freshman or sophomore year from Stanford and thinking wow, I’ve heard of Stanford I know it’s a really great school, I didn’t know much more than that,” Steding said. “As things kind of developed and Tara [VanDerveer] came into the program, I think one of the things that really excited me about Stanford was being able to combine, I was a good student, I wouldn’t always say I was a great student, but academics came somewhat naturally to me, so I was able to achieve there as well...

I just think being able to combine that drive for excellence on and off the floor really appealed to me.

- Katy Steding

After recording a .500 record her rookie season, Steding and the Cardinal reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in program history during her sophomore campaign. The following year, Stanford went 28-3 and celebrated its first Pac-10 Conference title before reaching the Elite Eight that same year.

Finally, during her senior at Stanford, Steding became an NCAA National Champion as Stanford topped Auburn for its first basketball title in program history. But it’s not the 18 points, six three pointers or five assists that Steding remembers from that day.

 

“Looking back at the national championship moment, you know, just a great sense of accomplishment I mean we went from virtually .500 our freshman year to selling out Maples Pavilion and really drawing in a huge group of fans from around the Bay Area that are still with us,” Steding said. “And being able to be a part of that ground swell and the kind of the beginnings of Stanford women’s basketball, really was, I don’t know, just a great sense of accomplishment and obviously pride in our achievement.”

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An even playing field

Steding graduated from Stanford in 1990 a three-time Pac-10 Conference selection, an NCAA champion, and with her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Next, she embarked on a career overseas in Japan and Spain before returning home in 1996 to earn a spot on the Team USA’s “Dream Team.”

Alongside women’s basketball legends like Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes, Team USA went 60-0 and captured Olympic Gold.

“Being on the podium and hearing the national anthem play for you after, you know, it’s not going to real battle but it’s pride in representing your country and knowing that you’ve achieved at the highest possible level,” Steding said. “That’s something that, you know nobody can ever take away from you. Sometimes it’s like, wow, we really did that.”

Steding returned to Portland after the Olympics where she became a founding member of the American Basketball League’s Portland Power. The league folded in 1998 but became a grassroots push for the WNBA’s formation.    

“That springboard really pushed, eventually when that league came to its end, that push of us saying we want to do this, we want to do this for the players, we want to be able to play in our country, we don’t want to disappear overseas and play out our careers,” Steding said.

 

We want to be able to play at home and extend our careers like the same way that the men do. We felt like we were on a mission.

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From pioneer pro to coaching great

Steding was selected by the Sacramento Monarchs with the 14th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. She played one season in Sacramento and one with the Seattle Storm before announcing her retirement from professional basketball.

But Steding wasn’t completely ready to walk away from the greatest passion she’s ever known. In 2001, Steding became women’s head basketball coach at Warner Pacific College and just three years later, she led the program to the NAIA Tournament for the first time. In 2006, Warner Pacific won its first Cascade Conference Championship.

“It’s a special place—I have a lot of great memories from being there,” Steding said. “I think being able to take a team from almost club sport level when I first got there to winning the conference it was a similar path to being at Stanford and being able to share my love for the game with the girls that played for me.”

Her 20-plus years of coaching includes head coaching stints with Warner Pacific and Boston University from 2014-2018. Steding also served as an assistant with the Atlanta Dream, Columbia, California and San Francisco.

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Best in the room

Now, she’s back on the Farm where the 1990 NCAA Tournament Champion banner still hangs from the rafters inside Maples Pavilion. Four decades after Tara VanDerveer signed Steding as her first recruit, Steding reunited with her former head coach as an assistant on her staff.

Steding says the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history has taught her a few things along the way. 

“Something that I get from Tara that’s always resonated with me is if you’re going to do something, do it the best that you can,” Steding said. “Absolutely put your whole heart and soul into something that you’re doing, always work hard, always do your best.”  

 

This season, Steding looks to guide Stanford as it heads to the Pac-12 Tournament with the No. 1 seed after securing its 24th Pac-12 regular-season title.

While Steding’s storied career has spanned multiple continents and timezones, the Oregon Sports Hall of Famer is still on a mission.

“I’ve always had a drive to try to be the best in the room, I just always wanted to be first, no matter what I was doing,” Steding said. “I think that has carried over into everything else that I’ve ever tried to do—just always want to be the best at what you are doing.”  

Her drive to improve the game for future generations of women’s athletes remains unwavering too.

“Women that we talk to now, especially during recruiting and on our own teams now, they have dreams of playing in the WNBA,” Steding said. “Those aren’t dreams that I had growing up necessarily.

Being able to say that we really did kind of light the fire for women’s professional basketball, even though it’s not still burning in the same place exactly, it’s still burning.

- Katy Steding