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Changed the Game: Kelly Krauskopf's decorated WNBA career propelled her to an NBA first

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"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

The blank page, the empty infill, the terrifying beginning of things: this is what Indiana Pacers assistant general manager Kelly Krauskopf has faced her entire career. She is a Texas A&M women’s basketball team alum, a former WNBA executive, a WNBA champion with the Indiana Fever and the first female assistant GM in NBA history.

Above all, she is a builder. She did what people lacking the physical space to fulfill their dreams do: She recognized what wasn’t there and tried to help make it.

“I call it a blank canvas,” Krauskopf told Yahoo Sports. “You have the opportunity to paint the picture.”

Or the locker room. Before Krauskopf lettered for three years at Texas A&M, coach Cherri Rapp presented her and her teammates with a bucket of paint. They spent a weekend painting their locker room, which according to an IndyStar profile, was “disgusting.” Coach Rapp bought the paint, and the team bought their own gym bags.

On a driveway as an 8-year-old, Krauskopf first became enamored with basketball, trying to keep up with her older brother, David, and his friends, growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas.

"My brother really was my first sports hero," she told the IndyStar.

Her seventh-grade basketball coach wasn’t sure she’d make the team. She was awkward, gangly. By eighth grade, the high school coach at the school where her mom was a secretary was walking by the principal’s office constantly, making sure Krauskopf would try out.

“I’m that way today. All you have to do is tell me I can’t do something and I’m even more determined to prove you wrong,” she said.

Indiana Fever COO Kelly Krauskopf (second from left) with Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh, Fever player Stephanie McCarty and interim head coach Ann Donovan in 1999. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman, File)
Indiana Fever COO Kelly Krauskopf (second from left) with Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh, Fever player Stephanie McCarty and interim head coach Ann Donovan in 1999. (AP Photo/Tom Strattman, File)

The path toward the WNBA front office

When her college career ended, professional opportunities were few and far between. “The jobs overseas and in Europe weren’t as plentiful,” she said.

Lynn Hickey tapped Krauskopf to be her assistant athletic director at Texas A&M.

“She was the athletic director at the time and the women’s basketball coach, so think about that,” Krauskopf said.

Krauskopf put together the women’s basketball team’s first season ticket and corporate sponsorship packages.

“All these things that had never been done or paid attention to for women’s sports at A&M,” Krauskopf said, “she put that in my hands.”

The experience prepared Krauskopf to become the WNBA’s first director of operations in 1996, where she helped build a world that could hold the desires that were unrequited in her playing days.

In time, Krauskopf realized she wanted to be the architect of a team.

“The league is league work, it’s very different,” she told The Athletic. “It’s a very different feel, it’s a very different way to operate. It’s important, but you already know what gets you up in the morning and what I love is having our team, this is our city, this is our state. So when you’re in the league office, it’s a bigger scope, but this is my passion. You work long enough, you kind of know what drives you.”

“When you put people together, it’s no different than putting a sales team together,” Krauskopf told Yahoo Sports. “These are high-performance athletes. We’re in the human performance business. We’re trying to create the best human performance model we can. On the court, off the court, how do they mesh? How do they work well together? How do they complement each other?”

She packed her bags for Indianapolis and became the Indiana Fever’s first general manager in 2000.

“I approached every year like it might be my last,” she said. “We didn’t know if we were gonna make it or not. Every year was a must-win year for me. I approached every single year like I don’t know if there’s ever gonna be a year after this so we’re gonna be going for it.”

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In 2001, with the Fever’s first-ever first-round pick, Krauskopf had a decision to make. Jackie Stiles, then the nation’s leading scorer, was the popular choice at No. 3. But Krauskopf liked Tamika Catchings, a defensive-minded forward out of the University of Tennessee with a torn ACL.

"We get to the third pick and Jackie Stiles is still sitting there," Krauskopf said. "And we pass on her and take Tamika. I remember people coming up to me, saying, 'I can't believe you passed up Jackie Stiles. Really? This girl from Tennessee?'"

Catchings ended up leading the Fever to the playoffs in 13 of 15 seasons with the team, winning MVP in 2011, and a championship in 2012. She’s now the team’s general manager.

Indiana Fever president and general manager Kelly Krauskopf, left, with Tamika Catchings and head coach Stephanie White in 2016. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
Indiana Fever president and general manager Kelly Krauskopf, left, with Tamika Catchings and head coach Stephanie White in 2016. Krauskopf selected Catchings with the Fever's first-ever first-round draft pick. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

Pacers tab Krauskopf as first female NBA assistant GM

In 2017, the Indiana Pacers asked Krauskopf to head up their brand new NBA 2K League team. In 2018, they asked her to become the assistant general manager of the Pacers.

“I look at my career and I think about all the jobs or career steps that I’ve made, [they] were building steps,” Krauskopf reflected.

“I think one of the things that was attractive to [Pacers president of basketball operations] Kevin [Pritchard] in terms of what I brought to the table was I had been part of building a franchise, building team cultures, understanding what it takes to find players and people in your organization that put you on a path to winning and greatness.”

She’s spent the last two years adjusting to differences in scouting between the leagues, to contracts and CBA rules, finding herself catching up — for the first time — to the culture of an organization she didn’t build herself.

But in many ways, the job is the same.

“I’m always watching other games, analyzing: What does this team need? What would they be looking for? Maybe we have something they would need. I’m constantly watching other players, other teams. That’s how I learned how to do my job early on the Fever side. I know what we have, so I’m trying to figure out how to get better.”