Kate Starbird, a former pro basketball player and college player of the year at Stanford, is an assistant professor at the University of Washington.
Kate Starbird does what she can to brighten her dreary fourth-floor office at Sieg Hall. A picture of her newborn nephew is above her desk. A cluster of succulent plants sits below a window looking out onto the University of Washington campus.
Starbird, 37, is a first-year assistant professor in UW’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering and director of the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation laboratory. In English, that means she teaches how social media is used in crisis situations and how to design better applications for digital volunteers.
The only basketball souvenirs in her office are dreamy Mediterranean photos from her time playing pro ball in Ibiza, at the end of her career.
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The graduate students she teaches barely know she played at Stanford, let alone that she was the national player of the year in 1997, leaving as the leading scorer in Cardinal history (she is second now).
She played for the Seattle Reign of the ABL, then for five seasons in the WNBA, including nine games with the Storm in 2002. She had been an All-American at Lakes High School in suburban Tacoma.
But there’s none of that history in her office, or, really, in her day-to-day life.
“I had to frame and hand her diploma to her,” said Melissa Marsh, Starbird’s wife of nearly five years.
Friends and family say Starbird isn’t interested in memorabilia from her glittery past because of her humble nature. Starbird says it’s too showy and that she needs to separate her former identity with the one she wants to create.
It’s the first clue she’s never followed the norm. She doesn’t even like to set firm goals, a philosophy Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma couldn’t comprehend. He coached Starbird’s West team during a USA Basketball Olympic Festival in 1994.
“He was appalled,” Starbird recalled of her go-with-the-flow, Zen beliefs. “It’s the story that goes for all the things in my life. I never imagined playing professional basketball, because there was no professional basketball. I didn’t know I would become a computer scientist. I didn’t know that would become a thing. Then it happens, again. The field I’m in is not very old. We’re still becoming what we are. I can’t even tell you what this field will be in a few years.
“When I think about what made me successful, especially recently, it’s a combination of curiosity and flexibility. I never set this goal and kept striving at it. I really let myself make decisions in the moment of life. I’ve actually been able to cut my losses and say, ‘That path is not going to work. I’m going to try this other path that’s interesting.’ That flexibility allowed me to end up in places I wanted to be. But I didn’t know I wanted to be there.”
Her career path is vastly different from former Stanford teammates, who continued playing past their primes overseas or got into coaching. Both can be far more lucrative professions than being a professor.
But Starbird has never been about money or what others thought. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer remembers watching in confusion as Starbird shifted away from the coach and laid down for a nap on the bleachers during a volleyball match.
“It was cute,” VanDerveer said. “Recruiting is such an artificial thing; you try not to read too much into it. Kate was one that, when she got here, she motored.”
More memories, such as newspaper clippings and trophies, are boxed away at her father’s storage in Steilacoom. He’s tried to send them to his daughter. However, Starbird and Marsh’s Belltown apartment can’t fit the boxes and the latter wouldn’t allow it.
“We have Naismith,” Marsh said of Starbird’s player of the year trophy. “I just call it the ugly, huge and gold thing. It’s hideous.”
Even Starbird’s path to Marsh is a wandering tale.
Starbird was either busy playing basketball or inventing things, like the 3HC animation company she founded in high school, to develop a personal life. Even while playing for the Reign until the ABL folded in December 1998.
Starbird played for the Sacramento Monarchs in 1999, then was selected by Miami in the league’s expansion draft after the season. Before the 2000 season, she was traded to Utah. That’s where she made an important discovery, during a drive in Salt Lake City.
Starbird spotted 7-foot-2 Utah center Margo Dydek standing above the crowd at a Pride celebration. Dydek, a popular player who died in 2011, wasn’t a lesbian but was there to show her support.
“Oh, my gosh, it was all the gay people!” Starbird said. “They were in one downtown city block. And still I was like, ‘I can’t go over there, that’s crazy. I don’t want to be associated with it.’
“I wasn’t in the closet, just so busy playing basketball; I didn’t know what was going on. (Then) until I told my parents, I couldn’t tell the world. And even still, they were very concerned. If you come out when all of the cameras are on you, it’s something everyone will remember forever. If you come out later, no one is really going to care. There’s a lot of weight to it. I would never push it on a person to come out, but for me, I know it’s the morally responsible thing to do. ‘Hey, I’m gay, too, and we’re good people with strong values.’ “
Starbird met Marsh through friends in Seattle in 2005 while Marsh was working on her master’s degree at Washington.
She took a quarter off from school that year and joined Starbird in Ibiza for the final stint of Starbird’s basketball career. While Starbird played, Marsh read books in the stands. The budding love affair occurred outside the gym on the gorgeous island.
Marsh, 40, is an avid skier whose traditional sports background consisted only of one season of kid soccer. Marsh, a native of Los Altos Hills, Calif., is a program manager for The If Project in Seattle, an organization that assists female prison inmates.
“I’m at this party (in Palo Alto, Calif.) and I’m talking to my cousin and this couple came over and cornered me and gave me a 25-minute dissertation on why Kate’s shot was so incredible,” said Marsh of an event full of Stanford alums. “We’d only been dating a few months. They left, and my cousin was like, ‘I don’t think you should date her. That’s a little creepy.’
“It was those kinds of moments that were always kind of surprising to me. And the thing about Kate is she’s incredibly humble and really doesn’t get into the idea of who she used to be. But I don’t think she’d like me if I knew.”
They married Aug. 8, 2008 on the MV Skansonia, a refurbished state ferry docked in Lake Union. Two months later, Marsh’s father, an ordained minister, legalized the wedding on the beaches of Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. The union made Starbird’s transition away from basketball easier.
Starbird ducked out of the spotlight, going to the University of Colorado in 2006 to begin her educational track to becoming a professor. She eventually earned a doctorate in technology.
“I remember she came home, it was her first year of grad school, and she was so happy,” said Marsh, who relocated to Boulder with Starbird. “She’d say, ‘This is so much fun, because instead of getting worse with age, this time I get better.’
“Finding that passion was really important for her psychological well-being and just feeling she was doing something important that she felt good about. I’ve seen some of her friends, when they leave the sport, struggle. Where is their place? What are they going to do next? You see it all the time.”
Starbird said she loves the challenge and the hard work of being a professor, that she thrives on it.
Two weeks ago, Starbird and Leysia Palen, a Colorado professor and Starbird’s adviser at CU, won a Best Paper award at a social computing conference for their work, “Working and Sustaining the Virtual ‘Disaster Desk.’ “
Starbird might have successfully found a new identity but she hasn’t completely forgotten her past. She’s fully aware and honored that former Stanford All-American Nneka Ogwumike wore her No. 30 jersey. Starbird and Marsh have attended Cardinal Final Four appearances.
Last Thursday, the couple watched No. 4 Stanford defeat Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena, an unassuming pair behind the Cardinal’s bench, sitting with Starbird’s parents. Marsh has come to enjoy the sport through watching Storm games. They’ll take in some Pac-12 tournament games this week at KeyArena.
“The most difficult part for me was when the career was winding down and I was trying to figure out who I was going to be and what I was going to do next,” she said. “That separation, I did purposefully. It works for me. At the end of an athletic career, it never ends. It starts, right?”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JaydaEvans