WALLA WALLA — Kati Isham has been in love with the game of basketball since she was a small child growing up on a family farm homestead near Howe, Idaho, in the southern part of the state.
“I played volleyball and softball, but basketball was always No. 1,” she said. “I started at a young age, and ever since it touched my hands, I fell in love with it.”
This love of the game, and the dedication required to play it well, has served her well: A pair of Class 2A state championships at Butte High School in Arco, Idaho, a 45-mile drive to and from Howe; an NWAACC championship during her sophomore year at Walla Walla Community College in 2010; and the culmination of her dream to play NCAA Division I basketball at Boise State University.
“I can remember that first game starting at Boise,” Isham said, bright-eyed at the memory. “They do that whole light show announcing the teams, and I remember sitting there with tears running down my face like a little girl. I was so excited that I finally made it.
“Truly, though, the only reason that a 5-foot-7 white girl from the country made it to Boise State was because of God. He took me on His own path. It may have taken awhile to get me there, but He did it.”
Through it all, however, all of the practices and all of the games, including one unfulfilled year at the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., the idea of coaching basketball seldom, if ever, crossed Isham’s mind.
“I had never really thought about coaching,” the 24-year-old said recently as she reflected on her first season as one of Bobbi Hazeltine’s assistant coaches at WWCC. “Maybe later in life, but not this early.”
A career in physical therapy was the path she was on after graduating from Boise State in 2012 with a degree in health science. But while she waited to get into a physical therapy program, she was offered the chance to return to Walla Walla and help Hazeltine, who was beginning her 13th season as the Warriors head basketball coach.
“It took me a couple of months to say yes,” Isham remembered. “But I am so glad I did.”
One season on the bench, she said, convinced her that coaching is where she belongs.
“I think, gosh, it wasn’t long,” she said of the revelation. “Probably after we had a game right before the Thanksgiving break. I went home for Thanksgiving and I was talking to my parents and verbally I said, ‘I love coaching, our team, our girls, the whole setup.’
“It was kind of that easy. I don’t know the future, but coaching is in there somewhere and I can contribute that to coach Hazeltine.”
“It’s like having a great math teacher,” she continued. “You might hate math, but because you have a great teacher you end up loving it. I had a great teacher for (coaching) basketball, and I just love it.”
For her part, Hazeltine is not surprised in the least.
“She has a gift,” Hazeltine said of her former star player. “The more she worked with kids, the more I could see that it was her calling. And I think she realized it, too.
“She has so much knowledge from all of the places she has been. She just clicks with every kid.”
Isham’s coaching revelation might never have happened, however, had it not been for an earlier one she experienced in the shadow of Pikes Peak on the eastern edge of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Range.
Isham enrolled at the Air Force Academy shortly after graduating from high school in 2007. But a year later she transferred to WWCC.
“I really didn’t enjoy being in a military school,” she said. “I didn’t enjoy being yelled at.
“My dream was to play Division I, and I was there to play basketball. Most of the others were there to become officers, and that wasn’t my dream.
“I have so much respect for my friends who made it through the academy. For them to do it is incredible, but it just wasn’t a fit for me.”
So Isham considered her basketball options.
Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs was a possibility, she said. So was Metro State in Denver. But since her younger sister Shelby had just graduated from high school and was headed to Walla Walla as one of Hazeltine’s Idaho pipeline recruits, Kati decided to take a second look at WWCC.
“Bobbi had done camps at our high school the summers before my junior and senior years,” Isham remembered. “And she had recruited me out of high school. The only reason I didn’t choose her the first time was because I had a better offer from the academy.”
It didn’t take long for Isham and Hazeltine to click.
“As a player, when you first meet her, she can be intimidating because she demands respect,” Isham said. “But at the same time, as you leave your home and family, she becomes a motherly figure. Someone who will invite you home for dinner, or if you are home sick will come by to check on you.
“I have bounced around a few programs and that is rare to find in a college coach.”
In return, Isham was the centerpiece of two highly successful Warrior basketball teams.
Isham was the Eastern Region Player of the Year in both of those campaigns. As the point/shooting guard, she led the Warriors to a 21-7 record and a fourth-place finish at the NWAACC Championships in 2009 and then to a school-record 28-1 record and the NWAACC title in 2010.
“Those two years at Walla Walla went by so fast,” Isham said. “I don’t remember my freshman year too well, except that we were real young and that we finished fourth at the tournament.
“But looking back, with coach Hazeltine’s system, the intricate flex, the 30-some offensive sets, that year benefited all of us as sophomores when we went 28-1 and won it all.”
The University of Oregon wanted her to play Pac-12 basketball in Eugene. But Isham decided instead to accept a scholarship offer from Boise State where she lived out her Division I dream.
“The Ducks recruited me, but Boise State won out because it was closer to home,” she said.
Isham will be back on the Warriors bench this coming season. And she and Hazeltine share a common goal: When Hazeltine decides to step aside as head coach, Isham will be there to take the reins.
“We always have lunch together upstairs in the Warrior Room, and one day she said to me, ‘Hey, this is going to be your team in a couple of years,’” Isham recollected. “I looked at her with big, old eyes and said, ‘You are crazy, I am not ready for this.’
“But I can tell that she is slowly easing me into things. Things that she does that I didn’t know about, like organizing trips and recruiting and the budget, all the side stuff.”
Hazeltine isn’t sure how much longer she will want to stay on the job. She re-evaluates every year.
“I always get rejuvenated in the summer, so I have no idea,” she said of her long range plans. “But I know that if Kati is with me and she is coming through this process, when I do decide to leave I would like to turn it over to her. And it would be an easy transition.
“I have discussed it with Jeff Reinland, our athletic director, and he likes her, too. He’s the guy who would make the call, and he seems to think it is a good idea.”
There are, however, a couple of sticking points.
First and foremost, Isham needs a full-time job. During her first year at WWCC, she taught a couple of classes and also worked in the weight room. She also held down a summer job at the YMCA.
“There’s been a little talk about a full-time job but nothing is set,” Isham said. “I know that for this coming year I will teach a few classes like I did last year. And the school has come up with some other things for me to do as well.
Nevertheless, she said, the future remains unknown.
“But for me to be able to coach here and get a job at the community college, that would be a dream job.”
And then there’s the baseball player Isham met a few months back. His name is Blake Treinen, he’s a graduate of South Dakota State and he’s pitching for the Class AA Harrisburg, Penn., Senators in the Washington Nationals farm system.
There are no wedding plans, she said, but it’s obvious that it’s a serious relationship.
“We shoot to see each other at least once every two months,” Isham said. “A lot depends on my schedule and his. Right now it’s a waiting game.”
Waiting to see if he makes it to the big leagues. Waiting to see if she lands the needed full-time job at WWCC.
Hazeltine isn’t worried.
“That’s not going to deter her from anything here,” the coach said of Isham’s personal relationship. “She really likes it here, and hopefully, eventually there will be things open up for her. That’s what we are all hoping.
“Kati is starting to go to work on her masters, and that is always ideal in this situation. But something has to open up, and it’s a credit to our people here that they have done a nice job of finding work to keep her here.”
All Isham can do in the meantime is keep her fingers crossed.
“If I don’t see a full-time position, I can’t stay for very long,” she said. “I’ll have to go on with my life, go back to school and move closer to that guy.
“I could go back to physical therapy, but I realize now that it is not my passion. I love this town, these people, the college. This is what I want to do.”