July 9, 2022 

‘The ultimate pro’: Inside Kia Vaughn’s prolific, beloved 14-year career

'It’s a big, big possibility that this is my last go-around'

Kia Vaughn has spent 14 years in the WNBA, being the core of just about every team she’s played on. That puts her among the 40 most experienced players in league history. Still, her career is unknown to many.

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“I’m like a secret agent,” Vaughn told The Next.

Never a stat sheet stuffer or WNBA champion, Vaughn has had success in ways that are potentially even more prolific. Beloved by her teammates, coaches and everyone she’s interacted with, Vaughn’s under-the-radar role may be just what makes her great.

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It all began in 1987 when Vaughn was born in the Bronx, New York. She was the oldest of eight and the only girl.

According to Vaughn, at 12 or 13, she hit a growth spurt, and her mother forced her to take up basketball. Although her mother raised her, her father was a well-known NYC streetball player.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t teach me basketball, but I get it from him,” Vaughn said.

And you can tell. Vaughn is built to ball. Standing at 6’4, Vaughn has been a force in the paint in every team she’s ever been on.

The first was her AAU team coached by Robert “Apache” Paschall, who Vaughn credits as the person who taught her the game and the most influential coach in her long career. Paschall, who coached both Vaughn and Seattle Storm guard Epiphanny Prince on that AAU team, tailored his coaching to fit Vaughn’s interests and style.

“The loudness you hear of me when I’m yelling on the court is because his way of teaching was to help me because I liked singing at the time,” Vaughn said. “It helped me be more vocal. So that carried over and yelling at my brothers carried over.”

These lessons of communication and vocality on the court have become staples in her career, according to various teammates and coaches.

“She’s one of the best of the best. She’s just so talkative … whether it’s on or off the court, making sure that I’m okay,” Atlanta Dream teammate Naz Hillmon told The Next.

They even call her mom.

“Kia was my vet when I was a rookie overseas and she just took care of me,” Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum told reporters. “She was like my mom.”

Beyond her coaches, Vaughn chalks these attributes up to her mother and being the oldest of eight. Her mother, who she calls her best friend, instilled in her leadership and being a role model at a young age.

“It’s what my mom used to tell me about my brothers: ‘Your brothers watch you.’ And I could never understand why I got whoopings but my brothers didn’t,” Vaughn said. “So I think consistency was drilled in me and it helped me within the next level. I can’t leave out … Coach Stringer[, who] had parts in that, too.”

Vaughn would go on to play her college ball at Rutgers under the legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer. She was a team leader and helped bring Rutgers to its very first championship game in 2007.

Vaughn didn’t always appreciate Stringer’s teachings, but she knew that they taught her to be a better human, to stay grounded and to be a leader. “I had a love-hate relationship with her,” Vaughn said. “I wanted more leeway. She wanted me at those moments to be a bigger sister to the rookies.”

Vaughn consistently told me she didn’t know why she has had such a prolific, long professional career. She is an outlier in a league where three and a half years is the average career length. She has always maintained a roster spot in an ever-competitive W, whether it be because of her natural stature or early-taught leadership skills.

In 2009, Vaughn’s home team, the New York Liberty, drafted her eighth overall. She spent four years there in her first New York stint, starting as a bench player and graduating to a starting spot. She brought home the Most Improved Player award in 2011, averaging a career-high 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

In 2013, the Liberty traded her to the Washington Mystics, where she spent four years; started most games; and continued to be a role player, a force in the paint and a leader.

“When I took the job in Washington, my first few moves were to get her and Ivory Latta,” Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. “[I wanted Kia] for her day-to-day work ethic and professionalism.”

According to Thibault, the Mystics reluctantly traded Vaughn in 2016, and she spent another two-year stint in the Big Apple. She took off the 2019 WNBA season for an Achilles issue, the only significant injury she’s sustained since college. She spent the time off healing and taking well-deserved vacations with her mother.

In 2020, Vaughn joined the Phoenix Mercury after turning down earlier interest from Minnesota and Connecticut. She played with the Mercury during the Wubble season and their 2021 WNBA Finals run, and WNBA great Diana Taurasi bestowed the nickname “Positive Nancy” on Vaughn.

“I was always positive, positive, positive, and [Taurasi] was like, ‘No one wants to talk to you right now. We need some gunner stuff,’” Vaughn said. “And I was like, ‘Come on, Dee, everybody’s mindset is in the mud. I’m trying to get them out. You know, it’s basketball, we got to see the light of it all.”

What’s unique about Vaughn’s career is that she statistically regressed after 2011, with career averages of 6.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game, and never got back to her MIP numbers. However, her skill set and role on a team became so much rarer.

“One of my favorite players, Kia Vaughn, because she’s the ultimate professional,” said Sandy Brondello, Vaughn’s coach in Phoenix and current New York Liberty head coach. “She really stepped up and was a great leader and just a really good person and very selfless. She fits into any kind of system and does what she needs to do.”

“Just to learn from her and see what she sees on the court, off the court, it’s big to have a vet like that,” Dream rookie Rhyne Howard told The Next.

“That’s someone you want to go to war with, tough as nails, plays the right way. One of the best teammates I’ve ever played with. If I ever get married, she’ll be there,” Plum said.

“She’s just a true pro. She’s a really competent defensive player as far as understanding schemes and following scouting reports,” Thibault said. “And I think she’s always been a plus to any team she’s going to play with because of how she carries herself.”

“I’m really thankful to have a leader like that because I have moments where I need it,” Dream teammate Cheyenne Parker told The Next. “I love playing with Kia.”

In early 2022, Vaughn was traded to the Atlanta Dream. She’s known Dream general manager Dan Padover since college, and according to Vaughn, the fit has been kismet.

She is a key part of this young Atlanta team, with very few players who have previously played in the A. Coming off of an 11th-place finish in 2021, the Dream are a surprising seventh in the league with a 10-12 record this season. According to head coach Tanisha Wright and Vaughn’s teammates, she is the veteran core of the locker room and continues to be a defensive force and leader.

“She’s the be-all, do-all player of this team. She’s the glue, to be honest, the voice, the leader,” Wright told The Next. “When she speaks, people listen, and thank God, because what she’s saying is the right stuff.”

Wright has been on both ends of Vaughn’s leadership, as they were teammates and housemates at Elitzur Ramla in Israel during the 2011 overseas season. However, according to Wright, they didn’t see much of each other off the court.

“Overseas, especially when you’re young, you’re out; you’re having a good time; you’re partying,” she joked.

Like most W players, Vaughn has sustained a fruitful international career. From 2009 to 2020, she spent her WNBA offseasons playing in Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Turkey. Although she never brought home the chip in the U.S., she was named a EuroLeague Final Four MVP and was a EuroLeague champion, three-time Czech National League champion, three-time Turkish Super League champion and much more.

According to everyone, Vaughn is the ultimate professional and makes teams better wherever she goes. But, after 14 years of playing professionally, Vaughn told The Next that this year might be it.

“It’s a big, big possibility that this is my last go-around,” Vaughn said.

If it is the last year, Vaughn will leave behind a tremendous legacy across the league. She holds a beloved place in the hearts of just about everyone she’s interacted with, and she remains extremely grateful for what the game has given her.

“Overall, I just love the game of basketball. It helped me get my mom out of the hood,” she said.

Although she has no concrete post-basketball plans, she said she would like to have children with her husband of two years. But for now, she’s got two dogs, a house in Maryland and a big family waiting for her.

The Next’s Jackie Powell and Matthew Walter contributed reporting to this piece.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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