Where Are They Now: Ukari Figgs
When the name Ukari Figgs is mentioned, that’s naturally one of the first adjectives that springs to mind.
Miss Kentucky Basketball, NCAA champion, WNBA titlist, mechanical engineer and assistant athletic director are all among the lofty titles Figgs has held.
The Sparks knew the caliber of player they were getting when they selected Figgs in the third round, 28th overall in the 1999 WNBA Draft, fresh off leading Purdue to an NCAA crown. Los Angeles was ready for the 5’9” point guard from Georgetown, Ky., but this small-town country girl may not have been ready for Southern California, especially in the pre-GPS days.
“I definitely had my eyes wide open the first couple weeks I was there. I don’t think I drove for about the first month; Tamecka Dixon and Penny Toler drove me around because I didn’t know where I was going!”
Figgs got her feet wet that rookie season, averaging 15 minutes of action per game while playing alongside the likes of Dixon, Toler, Lisa Leslie and fellow first-year Spark DeLisha Milton-Jones.
“Coming in as a rookie, I was maybe a little bit intimidated by some of those names, people you look up to and watch as you’re growing up. I had always looked up to Lisa, and what she’s been able to accomplish with her career. She really helped me out.”
In 2000 and 2001 she took a giant leap forward, starting at the point in 61 of 64 regular season games combined and firmly supplanting herself as the Sparks’ floor general. In her third WNBA campaign, Figgs ranked second in the league in three-point field goal percentage (.462) and sixth in “treys” made (54).
While the 2001 Sparks had an inconsistent regular season, they turned it on in the Playoffs and Figgs was one of those peak performers. She averaged 8.3 points and 5.9 assists – including 10 dimes in game three of the Western Conference Finals – as LA went 6-1 in the postseason and capped its impressive run with the franchise’s first ever WNBA Championship.
“The teams in LA I played on were so talented and had some exceptional players, but we were never able to get real far until we all came together and had that same mentality of winning no matter what.”
She reflected especially fondly upon the resounding, title-clinching 82-54 victory over the Charlotte Sting in front of a raucous crowd at STAPLES Center on Sept. 1, 2001.
“I just got cold chills thinking about it; it was an awesome environment. We had to go play on the road that first game, and we had to work really hard to pull it out in Charlotte, but once we got home we knew that with our fans behind us and the energy we played with we’d be able to get a win. From the start of the game, we were clicking on all cylinders.”
That amazing memory of holding the trophy as the streamers rained down at STAPLES Center would be Figgs’ last in a Sparks’ uniform. She was to Portland in April of 2002 for Sophia Witherspoon and Nikki Teasley, a rookie guard who would go on to hit the game-winning shot to clinch Los Angeles’ second-straight title.
Figgs remained a steady performer for the Fire in 2002 and then with the Houston Comets in 2003, but all the while had one eye trained on her post-basketball career. During the WNBA off-seasons, instead of playing abroad she interned in the engineering division of Caterpillar in West Lafayette, Ind., building upon the mechanical engineering degree she earned at Purdue. That led to a full-time position with Toyota following her WNBA retirement in 2003.
“For me, it was time to do something different, and I had worked on hard on my engineering degree. I really enjoy engineering, and the problem-solving, and the things that go into that career.”
However, basketball was never far removed from Figgs’ life. She moonlighted as a high school assistant coach during her five years with Toyota, and was then presented the opportunity to return to her alma mater as an assistant coach for the 2008-09 season. She spent three seasons on Sharon Vyrsp’s staff with the Boilermakers before the University of Kentucky called this native of the Bluegrass State home.
In May, Figgs was introduced as the Assistant Athletic Director for Women’s Basketball at Kentucky, where she supports the Lady Wildcat program in an administrative capacity.
“I feel really fortunate to work for Coach [Matthew] Mitchell and to be a part of the UK athletic world because I grew up 15 minutes from here. It’s a great time for women’s basketball at Kentucky, and I’m just looking forward to the season.”
2011 is also an exciting year for Figgs personally, as she and her husband Dale – a Lexington, Ky., native – are expecting their first child in late December.
Life has truly come full-circle for this incredibly successful basketball player, engineer, coach and now athletic administrator. Figgs says she’ll always have a deep appreciation for the three years she spent in Los Angeles as a member of the Sparks.
“Winning the title was an awesome experience, especially working with the players we had and knowing how much we went through to get there. Also the atmosphere – the fans, the SparKids – it was just really fun and it was great to reward them with that Championship!”