By Rich Mhyre, Herald Writer
SEATTLE — As a girl growing up in Edmonds, Karen Bryant had several sports heroes. Her favorite sport was basketball and the players she admired most were NBA stars like Julius Erving and David Thompson.
Back then, her sporting idols were all men.
“At the time, I didn’t have any female role models,” said the 40-year-old Bryant, who graduated from Woodway High School in 1986 and went on to play at Green River Community College, Seattle University and the University of Washington.
In those years, professional team sports and sports telecasts were almost exclusively for men. But college sports programs for women were growing, and in time women’s pro team sports — particularly basketball — also started gaining a foothold in the American sporting marketplace.
And that trend continues today, not only because of an increasing number of exceptional female athletes, but also due to women like Bryant, the chief executive officer of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.
A lot of things make her job special, Bryant said, but a big one “is the chance to inspire those young girls who are just like me when I was 10 years old, and to showcase for them not only the world’s best athletes, but also the career opportunities. Whether it’s being Sheryl Swoopes and wearing a Storm uniform as a professional athlete, or being Karen Bryant and having the opportunity to lead a women’s professional sports organization.”
Bryant remains one of the best female basketball players ever to come out of Snohomish County. She helped Woodway to four straight state tournaments and one state title (a broken foot sidelined her at state as a senior), and after finishing her college career she had opportunities to play professionally overseas.
Instead, Bryant began a career in project management and eventually formed her own company, although a 1996 job offer with the Seattle Reign of the former American Basketball League, a forerunner of the WNBA, was to tempting to resist.
The ABL folded in 1998, but six months later she was hired by then-Seattle Sonics owner Barry Ackerley to be the senior director of WNBA operations for the franchise that would eventually become the Storm.
Bryant stayed with the team through three ownership changes and was promoted to CEO when the Storm was purchased on March 1 by an ownership group of four Seattle women. She confers with head coach Brian Agler on player personnel decisions, but is directly responsible for finances, marketing, community relations and pretty much everything else related to the team.
“Karen has been a terrific leader for the Storm throughout the entire time in Seattle,” said Anne Levinson, chairperson of the team’s new ownership group. “She’s built a wonderful relationship with the community, and that is not only from putting a winning team on the floor, but also from doing things that are consistent with the values of our community.
“The Storm is a beloved community asset, and that is in no small part due to Karen. She understands the game intuitively from having played it, but she’s also got a strong business sense. She’s a thoughtful and caring individual as well as being a top-notch executive, and that comes across to the people in our organization. the sponsors and businesses with whom we have relationships, and to the fans.”
Under Bryant’s guidance, Storm attendance has generally moved upward in recent years. Last season the team averaged almost 8,000 fans a game, and the goal in 2008, she said, is to see an increase of 10 percent, or almost 9,000 per game.
Bryant describes the WNBA as “a great product with great players,” and the Storm as “a source of pride for our community.” And the highlight for her, she said, “is connecting with our fans, no question. Because when you think about it, we’re in the business of putting on professional basketball games and we get to do that 18 times a year (at KeyArena). So the convergence of our players, our fans, our staff, that’s really the most fun time.”
The last few weeks have been particularly significant for Bryant, both professionally — the Storm is about to open its ninth season — and personally — her first child, daughter Lindsay Catherine, was born on April 5.
“I’m told by the staff that she’ll be the No. 1 draft pick in 2029,” said Bryant, who lives with her female partner, Merrily Wyman, in Seattle’s Leschi area.
More than two decades have passed since Bryant moved away for college, but her parents still live in the same Edmonds home where she grew up and the memories of her childhood are likewise entrenched.
“I will always consider myself an Edmonds kid,” she said. “That’s where I really honed my basketball skills and that’s where I met a lot of the people who had an impact on my life. I have a lot of really great memories growing up in Edmonds. It’s a town I will always call home.”
And if Bryant’s past is meaningful, her present is richly satisfying.
“I firmly believe I have the best job I could ever ask for, and I pinch myself a lot,” she said. “I get to work with world-class athletes, but then there’s also the combination of being able to work in women’s sports and being able to work in my hometown.
“So it’s exciting, and there’s never a day that I don’t smile and treasure the privilege that I have to work for the Storm.”