Talisa Rhea remembers going to Seattle Storm games as a wide-eyed teenager with big hoop dreams.
She didn’t know at the time that one day she would partake in a champagne celebration with WNBA all-stars like Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird thousands of miles away from her hometown of Juneau, having just witnessed her team upend the Washington Mystics 98-82 to sweep the WNBA Finals.
“To see how hard everyone works on a daily basis with a championship being the end goal and then to finally get there — I think that was really rewarding,” Rhea, director of basketball operations for the Seattle Storm, said by phone from Seattle Tuesday, six days removed from winning the 2018 WNBA championship.
Rhea, 29, started working in the WNBA four years ago after a lengthy prep, college and professional career. At Juneau-Douglas High School from 2004-2007, Rhea was a three-time all-state point guard and Gatorade Player of the Year. She went on to play three seasons at Oregon State University, leading the Beavers in scoring her final year while being named to the All-Pacific-10 Conference team. The point guard played professionally in Poland for the 2012-13 season before going back to school, this time to the University of Illinois, and getting a Masters in Sport Management.
As the director of basketball operations, Rhea’s handles the myriad of logistics involved in a 34-game regular season that traverses the country.
According to her former coaches in Juneau, anticipating the expectations of others is one of Rhea’s most outstanding qualities, which surely played a role as the Storm went for their third WNBA championship last Wednesday night inside EagleBank Arena on the campus of George Mason University.
“Like her mentor, Tanya Nizich, another player I had years before, she would create offensive and defensive plays and give them to me to try,” Alberta Jones, Rhea’s coach at Dzanitk’i Heeni Middle School for two seasons, said.
“Everybody loved Talisa,” Jones added. “Not only was she a leader — she was brilliant and hilarious.”
Lesslie Knight, Rhea’s coach for four seasons at JDHS, also recalls a player with a high basketball IQ.
“Her greatest skill was passing,” Knight told the Empire in a 2015 interview after Rhea was hired by the Storm. “She had an incredible ability to see the floor, anticipate openings and read people coming off screens. She had the ability to read situations and control the tempo of a game. Personally, I was disappointed that she was cast as a 3-point shooter in college — that was not half as fun to watch.”
The Storm had their two best players — Stewart and Bird — returning from last year. Stewart and Bird’s partnership did not instantly translate to success. The Storm did not have winning seasons in the all-stars’ first two seasons together.
But this year, the Storm rolled to a 26-8 record entering the playoffs, with Stewart winning the league MVP and scoring more points than all but one other player: Dallas Wings’ Liz Cambage.
Rhea said the sacrifices made by the players surrounding Stewart and Bird played a big role in the team’s championship season.
“We had a couple starters that didn’t get a ton of attention because we had the MVP of the league and we have Sue Bird,” Rhea said. “I think this team was so special because everyone bought into their role and they really invested a lot and understood that that would help us get to the championship level. A lot of times the big names get the credit but we had so many players that were doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work in helping us get here.”
The Storm were 13-4 at home in the regular season, and Rhea said the team’s home court advantage was only amplified in the playoffs. The Storm were 5-0 against WNBA semifinal opponent Phoenix Mercury and final opponent Washington Mystics during sold-out games at the KeyArena.
“We had I think around 12,000 people at those Finals games,” she said. “To see Seattle rally behind a team and show up was special and KeyArena’s definitely a special place to play.”
Rhea will continue to work for the Storm throughout the offseason, assisting the general manager. She hopes to stay in the same position for the foreseeable future and said it’s the next-best-thing to being a WNBA player.
“I’ve found a way to get my basketball fix, if you will, without being on the court,” she said.
• Checking In is a feature that follows athletes with Juneau roots. To submit a recommendation of someone to be highlighted, email email@example.com. Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.