When Ruth Riley was 10 or 11 years old and living on a farm in Macy, Ind. (pop. 209), she asked her mother, Sharon, for permission to play basketball. Ruth thought the game might provide an opportunity to secure a college scholarship.
Sharon listened and nodded and considered the request. Ruth also mentioned she aspired to play on The Dream Team.
“There wasn’t a women’s dream team back then,” Sharon said. “I never told her that. But I told her that if she worked hard and gave it her all, when the time was right, it would be there for her. For Ruth that dream came true in 2004 at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. A gold medal for her 25th birthday.”
Twelve years later, Ruth is the golden find of the San Antonio Stars, the team’s new general manager with small-town roots and a world-class résumé. In an organization that values humility, class, and international vision, Ruth looks like a perfect fit in the franchise portfolio.
She did not seek the job. She was completing an Executive MBA at Notre Dame, where she graduated summa cum laude as an undergraduate psychology major, when Spurs general manager R.C. Buford offered her the position. Ruth did not have any GM experience in the WNBA. But she knew a bit about volunteering overseas.
On visits to Nigeria, Angola and Mali, Ruth distributed bed nets to protect children and families from malaria, which claims one million lives a year in Africa. On a tour of South Africa, she helped educate coaches and athletes on the transmission and prevention of HIV.
In graduate school at Notre Dame, Ruth wasn’t thinking about returning to the WNBA, where she had won two championships, was named Finals MVP, earned an All-Star berth, and served as vice president of the league player’s union. No, Ruth was thinking of how she could change the world.
“I was looking,” she said, “at global humanitarian work.”
It doesn’t take long to recognize Ruth’s unique skill set. Buford saw it when Ruth shadowed him while working on her MBA last spring. Her MBA professors marveled at it. One of them, Chris Stevens, co-founder of the Keurig coffee brewing system, wrote the following for a Notre Dame MBA website:
“If there is a more generous, kind and determined advocate for making the world a better place, I personally have not met that person. Having taught more than 1,700 students, including more than 500 EMBA students, I have been blessed to work with some extraordinary people, none more so than Ruth.”
When named GM in April, Riley faced three significant tasks: hiring the next Stars coach, selecting a franchise player with the No. 1 pick in the draft, and building a winning culture. She spent the season learning from retired Stars general manager and coach Dan Hughes.
On Thursday, she made her first move, hiring former teammate Vickie Johnson as the new Stars coach. Having spent the past 10 years in San Antonio as a player and assistant Stars coach, Johnson looks like a great fit. Ruth’s focus now turns to the No. 1 pick and building a winner.
The Stars failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons, in part due to injuries and retirements. They went 7-27 this past season, the worst record in the league, but Ruth oozes with optimism.
The Stars return with dynamic point guard Moriah Jefferson, named to the 2016 WNBA All-Rookie team, and All-Star shooting guard Kayla McBride, who missed half the season with a fractured her right foot. Then there’s the prospect of the No. 1 pick in April and a slice of personal history.
Thirteen years ago, Ruth starred on a Detroit Shock team that went from last to first. In 2002, Detroit finished with the league’s worst record, 9-23. The next season, the Shock won the WNBA championship. How did they do it? Shrewd drafting and a brilliant hire – moves Ruth hopes to replicate in San Antonio.
In 2002 and 2003, the Shock drafted future All-Star forwards Swin Cash and Cheryl Ford. In 2003, Detroit picked Ruth in the dispersal draft when Miami folded and hired new coach Bill Laimbeer. The pieces fit so well together Laimbeer predicted a championship – even though Detroit had never won a playoff series in franchise history. In the finals, the Shock upset the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, and Ruth was named Most Valuable Player.
“The key to that was coach Laimbeer, who communicated a vision to the team,” Ruth said. “Everyone bought in, took pride in their work and worked hard everyday. He put systems and processes into place and put us in a position to reach our potential.”
Sharon wanted to put Ruth in good position. But it wasn’t easy. Sharon raised Ruth, younger son Jacob, and older daughter Rachel as a single mother, holding down two jobs. Money was tight. Sharon sewed clothes for her children. At times, the family lived on food stamps. Sometimes they received food from church. Fun? Ruth and her siblings learned to entertain themselves at home.
“Some might say we were dirt poor,” Sharon said. “But I say we were blessed. My kids knew they were loved and wanted.”
The grind of single motherhood took a tool.
“As I got older, I saw my mom struggle,” Ruth said. “I saw the emotional side. At night, crying and not knowing we could hear her. That made the struggle more real. Looking back, I am incredibly grateful for the sacrifices she made for my brother, sister, and me.”
Ruth doesn’t remember going hungry. She does remember taking advantage of the free lunch program at school. And she remembers an unexpected perk after enrolling at Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship.
“For the first time,” she said, “I was eating healthy.”
The poverty of youth made Ruth sensitive to food insecurity as an adult. In 2012, she joined the “No Kid Hungry” campaign. Last year, she testified before Congress about the importance of the federal food stamp program.
“People are surprised to learn that one in four children are food insecure,” Ruth said. “These issues are not only happening in the developing world, but they are happening in our neighborhood.”
To replace Dan Hughes, the Stars chose as their GM a woman with an Executive MBA who advocates for hungry children. An ambassador who distributes bed nets to malaria-stricken families in Nigeria. A humanitarian who raises HIV awareness in South Africa.
“She’s an example of where this league is going in the future,” Hughes said. “Her background is amazingly suited not only to perform the position of general manager but to expand it and take it into the community. We may look back in a decade and try to hire for that position someone with a similar background to Ruth.
“The problem is – they’ll be hard to find.”