Ivory Latta brings toughness, perspective to Tar Heels

There was surely some day like this all those years ago.

Some gray Tuesday just before 3 p.m., and Ivory Latta, the player, would be hopping around Carmichael Arena, laughing, her trademark “damn-did-you-just-see-that look” on her face: eyes wide open, jaw dropped, jokingly incredulous.

Some nondescript afternoon, and Ivory Latta, the player, would be yelling, “There you go! There you go! That’s it!” after the North Carolina women’s basketball team rotated well and forced a tough shot by its practice opponent.

Some routine weekday, and Ivory Latta, the player, wearing dark basketball shorts, blue-and-black Nikes and a ponytail a quarter of the way down her back, would be dapping up North Carolina players, smiling and animated, the master of the court.

The difference now, of course, is that Ivory Latta, the player, is now Ivory Latta, the coach.

Latta — the 2006 national player of the year and UNC’s all-time leading scorer — is no longer the fiery college point guard who led the Tar Heels to back-to-back Final Fours with a playing style that reflected her coach’s toughness.

She’s the fiery pro point guard hired as UNC’s assistant coach in July 2013 to help the team return to national prominence.

And so far UNC seems poised to do just that. The Tar Heels are 16-3 and ranked No. 7 in the country — all without the sideline presence of Hall-of-Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell.

“It feels good to be back,” Latta says.

Did she ever really leave?

Toughness, born

Latta was born in McConnells, S.C., pop. 266, in 1984.

Nineteen years later, the town would celebrate Ivory Latta Day. She was, and is, beloved there. It was her Chapel Hill before she got to Chapel Hill.

As a kid she would pick plums, climb trees, help her father garden.

And play basketball. She started at age 4.

She’s the youngest of seven, so she learned quickly that quick beats most other traits.

“Four brothers,” she says, “so they pretty much beat me up all the time.”

The pounding only continued. Her dad made her play with older girls.

“I was 11, but I had to play with the 13-and-under team,” Latta says. “My dad never allowed me to play with anybody my age.”

The older, bigger competition molded her into the best scorer in South Carolina history. She averaged 44.6 points per game as a senior at York Comprehensive High School, and once scored 70. (She also had 12 assists and 14 rebounds that game.) The accolades swelled, naturally, and she had to decide at which college she’d continue her auspicious career.

Her older brother loved to watch a player named Michael Jordan on TV, and Latta would join him.

“Every time he watched the game I had to sit down and watch it,” she says. “Then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Man, I wanna go to North Carolina.’ When I first got my letter, I thought, ‘I’m going there. I don’t want another letter, ever.’”

She received others, of course, but it didn’t matter: Latta was going to UNC.

Heart of a lion

You could say Latta learned to be tough out of necessity: her brothers, then her older opponents, never let her forget who was young and small, and who wasn’t.

Then she met Sylvia Hatchell.

Hatchell, who wasn’t available for an interview for this story, approaches basketball much in the same way she approaches life: there will be obstacles, and you’re defined by how you handle them.

Latta loved it. It was her childhood, relived.

“Her and coach Hatchell have always gotten along really well because they’re very similar,” says Bobby Hundley, the team’s former sports information director. “They have a similar outlook on the world.”

Latta possessed that outlook, in part, before she came to UNC, but it was cemented by Hatchell.

“Coach Hatchell always taught me never take anything for granted,” Latta says. “She always told me I had the heart of a lion, and I always took that with me. She’s like, ‘You a tough cookie.’ She always told me: ‘You a tough cookie.’”

The tough cookie flourished in Chapel Hill. By the end of her career — in addition to the all-time scoring mark — she would set UNC records for 3-pointers made, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage.

One of the principal reasons for Latta’s success was Hatchell’s loose leash for her point guard.

Hatchell didn’t constrict Latta, didn’t force her to be something she wasn’t or play within a system. She let Latta be Latta.

“She allowed me to really just go out there and be myself and play,” Latta says. “She made me and molded me into the person and player that I am today.”

Person and player. Hatchell ensured Latta wasn’t a basketball-over-everything, singularly focused athlete.

They both knew there was more to life than a game that once used peach baskets as hoops. That became even clearer last year.

Hatchell was diagnosed with cancer.

Toughness, gained

UNC hired Latta as an assistant coach in July 2013.

Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2013. She has since gone into remission and could return to the sideline as early as this season.

The news shook Latta. But she knew Hatchell too well to think that’d it make the coach give up basketball and adopt a woe-is-me attitude.

“She’s a soldier,” Latta says. “With all the stuff that she’s going through I realize she is who I got my toughness from.

“She will be back, trust me,” she continues. “There’s nothing that’s going to hold a lady like that down.”

Ivory Latta, the coach, had an even more important job in Hatchell’s absence.

“She told me, ‘Hey, you gotta step up. God brought you here for a reason. You are here for a reason, so I’m gonna need you to step up and be the leader that I know you can be,’” Latta says.

“That’s all she had to tell me.”

It was just like old times, all those years ago: Hatchell would instruct, and Latta would carry out. The roles haven’t changed, only the positions.

“On- and off-the-court, she’s been a very good presence since coach Hatchell left,” says junior guard Latifah Coleman . “It’s been good having her.”

Latta’s primary task is taking care of UNC’s guards. She knows what it’s like to be a Division I athlete with class and studying and sleep and basketball to worry about. She also knows what it’s like to be a professional player: in UNC’s offseason, she’ll return to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“She brings that perspective of being a player,” says junior guard Megan Buckland. “Knowing the work ethic that we have to have in order to make it to that next level … She knows what our bodies are going through.”

Ivory Latta, the coach

On this day — Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 — their bodies are going through a scrimmage against UNC’s men’s club basketball team. The girls wear blue; the guys, white. The next day the No. 18 Tar Heels will beat No. 15 Nebraska by 13 to improve to 7-2.

Sneakers squeak, players sweat and associate head coach Andrew Calder barks instructions and forcefully motions players into position.

“Guys, I need y’all to rebound!” he shouts. “Eighty-fifth in the country in rebounding!”

Latta stands near the sideline opposite the players. She’s unfailingly animated, yelling encouragement, looking amazed and biting the nail of her left ring finger, sometimes all at once.

“She has a fun, bubbly personality that makes you wanna hang out with her, makes you wanna have that conversation with her,” Buckland says after practice. “She’s that coach that makes working out outside of practice fun.”

At practice, it’s mostly business.

“Aye, good switch!” she bellows after UNC forces a club player to throw the ball out of bounds.

Mostly business.

UNC guard Brittany Rountree slaps the ball away from a club player. Latta runs up to him.

“Oh, oh, oh!” she playfully teases him.

Another club player is set to shoot.

“Aye. Aye. Miss it,” Latta says, a mock-serious look on her face.

When the practice ends, Calder calls his players to huddle at half court.

“Academics, academics, academics,” he stresses, before providing the schedule for the following day: a shootaround from 1:15-1:45 p.m., pregame meal at 2 p.m., game time at 6 p.m.

“Be ready to play, ladies,” he says. “Be ready to play.”

Latta stands outside the huddle. She’d be ready to play, but now she’s Ivory Latta, the coach.

“Sky’s the limit,” Calder says to his team.

Someone surely said that to Latta all those years ago.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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