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Ruth Riley’s Second Act

Ruth Riley has two important events on her schedule for May 14th.

The first happens at 10:00 a.m. in South Bend, Indiana — the Mendoza College of Business Graduate Ceremony at Notre Dame. Riley graduated from Notre Dame in 2001 with a degree in psychology before her career as a WNBA player began. After 13 seasons as a professional basketball player, Riley returned to her alma mater in pursuit of her Master of Business Administration. The culmination of those efforts comes on Saturday, May 14th, but Riley has a bit of a conflict that day.

At 7:00 p.m. in San Antonio, the Stars open their 2016 season with a home game against the Atlanta Dream. And considering Riley was just hired as the new general manager of the Stars, it’s pretty important that she be in attendance at the AT&T Center that night.

Considering the length of the graduation ceremony and the travel between South Bend and San Antonio with only a few hours to spare, Riley will not be able to be in both places. She will be in San Antonio as the newest chapter of her basketball career gets underway.

On April 20, the Stars announced that longtime head coach and general manager Dan Hughes would be leaving the organization, at his request, at the end of the 2016 season. As part of the succession plan, Riley was hired as the new general manager, effective immediately, while Hughes was still with the team in order to serve as a mentor during her first season at the helm.

“It’s been an ongoing conversation between Dan and the organization trying to figure out best succession plan for him as he looks to move on after this season,” Riley told WNBA.com about the transition. “They reached out to me not too long ago to see if I was interested and, of course, I couldn’t think of any better organization or way to stay connected to the WNBA, a league that I love, than this opportunity to be the GM. And to have Dan stay on and help me with the transition process for the first year. It’s invaluable.”

When the announcement was made, a flood of congratulatory messages from former teammates and adversaries began pouring through social media, including this note from former teammate and current Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon.

The first time Riley left Notre Dame for the WNBA, she had a pretty good run. After winning a national championship with the Irish, she was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2001 Draft and would go on to win two WNBA titles with the Detroit Shock, be named Finals MVP in 2003 and win an Olympic gold medal at the Athens Games in 2004. She was named a WNBA All-Star in 2005 and joined the San Antonio Silver Stars (as they were known then) in 2007, where she played for five seasons.

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After her time in San Antonio came to an end, Riley played her final two seasons in Chicago and Atlanta, respectively, before announcing her retirement from the WNBA in 2014. Upon making that decision, she made a return trip to Notre Dame in pursuit of her MBA, while continuing to do her work with charitable organizations such as Basketball Without Borders, Nothing But Nets and No Kid Hungry that helped earn her the WNBA’s Community Assist Award in 2008 and 2012.

“I knew when I retired I wanted to go back to grad school,” she said. “It’s been incredible to be back at Notre Dame and really just gain that knowledge with the MBA. All the case studies and everything that we did in class I’m looking at through the lens of the WNBA and NBA and an industry that I know.”

When it came time to decide which avenue she wanted to take with her career, Riley had to choose between her two passions – basketball and working with non-profit organizations. She said she’s been weighing the decision for the past year and then got to the call from the Stars about her interest in the general manager position.

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“I love the WNBA and it’s been a huge part of my life as a player for 13 years and working with the player’s union,” she said. “I’ve always been incredibly passionate about making the league sustainable and growing in a way that not only our talent grows on the court, but we get the respect that we deserve in the sports world. It’s exciting this year, the 20th anniversary, and for me to come back and stay a part of this league, but from a different perspective or vantage point as a GM is something that I’m very thrilled to do.”

She makes her return to the WNBA in a familiar city after spending five seasons of her WNBA career in San Antonio – the longest tenure of her run as a player. But it’s not only the city that lured her back, it was the culture surrounding the organization that convinced her that this was the right place to embark on this new career path.

“I’m familiar with the organization, I know it well and respect the culture that they’ve developed there,” she said. “Starting obviously with Pop [Gregg Popovich] and R.C. [Buford] on the Spurs side and just the culture of the entire Spurs Sports and Entertainment organization. It is truly reflective of the community and city of San Antonio; it’s very values-based, it’s very hard working and ingrained in service. There is also a commitment to a winning mentality, bringing championships to the city and making the entire city feel like they are a part of that.”

But before you can win championships, first you must make to the playoffs, something San Antonio did in each of Riley’s five seasons with the team, but have missed in two of the last three seasons. Being in the lottery recently has allowed the Stars to add some top young talent to its roster – notably sharpshooter Kayla McBride from the 2014 draft, Dearica Hamby from 2015 and Moriah Jefferson just a few weeks ago.

“I’m incredibly excited about the youth that we have and the opportunity to grow and develop that,” Riley said. “With Moriah Jefferson coming in as the second pick, she’s a proven winner at the collegiate level to compliment the great scorer that Kayla McBride is on that wing position. I think we have a lot of different pieces that we’re trying to fit together here.”

When Riley entered the WNBA as a player, the league was only in its fifth season, with rosters mixed between veterans that had been playing professionally overseas for years and new players coming out of college. She is excited to re-enter the WNBA as the league is set to tip off its 20th season.

“As the league has gone on, now you see all these young talented players who grew up watching the WNBA knowing that opportunity exists for them,” she said. “So I think as a GM, your perspective is now not only getting the best talent available, but its also looking toward the future and how do you grow and develop your players, it’s more of a long-term mindset.”

This season the Stars will feature a young roster, a rookie GM and a veteran coach to help ease the transition to a new era for the team.

“We are fortunate to add Ruth Riley,” said Hughes. “She is very bright, knows the women’s game well and has a drive and passion to succeed. The future of the Stars is in good hands and I look forward to assisting her as she learns her new role.”

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“Clearly as a rookie GM there’s a lot that I don’t know, whether it’s processes and procedures in play,” Riley said. “Fortunately I was part of negotiating the [collective bargaining agreement between ownership and players], so I have a little history in knowing what is in that.

“But I’m looking at it now from a different perspective,” she added. “Really understanding the rules as to my role as a GM now and just understanding the timeline of the season and having a great sounding board to bounce ideas off of as I’m planning for this season and for the future, in both regards, it’s a tremendous asset to have him around.”

With training camps now open, Riley, Hughes and his coaching staff, veteran players, and camp invitees looking to make the roster are ready to get to work on bringing the Stars back toward to top of the WNBA landscape.

So on May 14th, Ruth Riley won’t be in South Bend to celebrate attaining her MBA; instead she’ll be in San Antonio putting it to work.