May 26, 2023
Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun opening night battle is family business for Karima Christmas-Kelly and Austin Kelly
Fever's Christmas-Kelly dueled her husband, Connecticut's Austin Kelly
Karima Christmas-Kelly and Austin Kelly were both enrolled at Duke University in 2007. Austin, a Mableton, Georgia native, played football while Karima, from Long Beach, California, was on the women’s basketball team. They both were terrific athletes for the Blue Devils and ended up meeting on campus in the summer of their freshman year.
The rest is history. “We’ve been rocking ever since,” Austin said. In 2017, the two got married. Karima’s surname is now Christmas-Kelly.
Between Duke and the wedding, the two had winding journeys. Karima spent 10 seasons in the WNBA, including stints with Tusla, Indiana, Dallas and Minnesota. Meanwhile, Austin coached at the high school level and held various roles in the NCAA ranks at Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Texas. Their careers took them all over the place.
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One rare occasion where the two overlapped was in 2012. Karima was on the Indiana Fever roster, while Austin was a practice player for the squad. That’s also when Austin met Stephanie White, who then was a rising assistant coach. The Fever went on to win the franchise’s only championship that season, led by Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas.
That campaign ended up being significant. Lin Dunn, Indiana’s current general manager, was the team’s head coach at the time. So as the Fever built their coaching staff for the 2023 season under new head coach Christie Sides, Dunn called Christmas-Kelly, who she remembered from her coaching days. Dunn asked if Christmas-Kelly had interest in coaching. Sides called, too. The answer was yes. Now Christmas-Kelly is on the Fever’s coaching staff.
“I think it feels surreal at times,” Karima told The Next. “Just being able to give back to a program and a situation that really benefited my career early on and just trying to help these players in that same way.”
Christmas-Kelly works with guards most often, but she could be seen giving Aliyah Boston pointers on how to handle Teaira McCowan at halftime of the preseason duel between the Indiana Fever and Dallas Wings. “I think she does a good job instilling confidence in the post players,” center Queen Egbo said of Christmas-Kelly. “Having somebody that played with a lot of experience just helps a lot,” Boston added.
That’s where Christmas-Kelly views her role as being significant with the Fever. She used to play. She can relate to players in a way that some other coaches can’t. She can bridge a gap between coaching staff and players.
That 2012 season was also important for Austin. While a practice player, his relationship with White grew. He learned a ton from the then-assistant and they’ve remained close ever since. When White took the head coaching job with the Connecticut Sun this offseason, she told Austin that she would call about bringing him on staff.
“I was waiting by the phone for that call. It all worked out,” Kelly said. On March 24, he was brought in as an assistant.
Because Kelly was hired just before the start of training camp, the WNBA schedule was already set in place. So when he joined Connecticut, he and Karima could check the schedule. And there it was.
May 19. Opening night. Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Indiana Fever vs. Connecticut Sun.
For their first game nights with new coaching staffs, the married couple would be facing off against each other. “We knew right away. We’re super competitive,” Austin said.
They tried to avoid discussing the upcoming battle while at home, away from their teams, though. Despite their competitiveness, they toed the line between lovers and coaches.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit. But I think we’ve just kind of let it go until we get to this point because our families are coming in town,” Karima said. “We’re so competitive. We probably can’t do anything until the game is over. Then we can chat about it. He gives me a hard time on a daily basis; I give him a hard time. Because you of course want to win, but you want the other one to be successful.”
Austin’s sister attended the game, as did a ton of Karima’s family. The pair are expecting, so they threw a baby shower the day before the game — it’s hard to imagine more polar opposite consecutive days. They had many friends in attendance for the game as well.
“We’re expecting, so we’re both trying to stay calm,” Karima said.
Despite their calm approach, their competitiveness remained. “Lotta preparation going into this. Whoever comes out on top is going to let the other person know about it,” Austin joked.
Before the game, Austin was working with perimeter players; he was working hard and maybe the sweatiest person in the gym. Connecticut had a lengthy warmup, and he helped Natisha Hiedeman, DiJonai Carrington and DeWanna Bonner get loose on the south end of the court for several minutes before the game. Meanwhile, on the north end of the hardwood and behind the scenes, Karima was doing a bit more varied work with Indiana Fever players.
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The tip-off time was 7 p.m., and for the next two hours, the two were enemies. They were ready to battle with their teams and in front of their families. This day was nearly two months in the making.
Early on, Connecticut dominated and rushed out to a 25-10 lead. But Kelsey Mitchell steadied the ship for the Fever and during a timeout with 4:48 to go in the second quarter, both Karima and Austin shot a glance toward each other on the opposite team’s bench. They weren’t simultaneous looks, but the battle was on. The game was close at halftime, with the Sun leading 35-28.
The second half had a similar blueprint to the first one, with the Sun cruising in the third frame and Indiana battling back in the fourth. The deficit was just three points with 1:32 remaining in the game, but the Indiana Fever ultimately fell 70-61.
There were no stakes placed between the two assistants, so despite taking the loss, Karima doesn’t have any silly punishments. “I should probably come up with that for future matchups,” Austin joked. Instead, the two will enjoy a nice dinner with family.
It was an unforgettable day for Karima Christmas-Kelly and Austin Kelly. The married pair was on the sidelines for their first game as assistant coaches with their new teams, and they got to do it against each other in front of their closest companions. The journey started at Duke 16 years ago and continued on opening night.
The couple will face off again on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Christmas-Kelly and the Indiana Fever will look to get revenge.
Written by Tony East
Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.
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