Ivory Latta has been through her share of ups and downs the last few years.
The Washington Mystics’ 11-year veteran guard has come off the bench for her team since last season after years as a starter. She missed significant playing time in 2016 after tearing her meniscus, and rehabilitation was slow at times. Off the court, Latta’s father is battling Parkinson’s Disease, which is never far from her mind.
But two Latta traits remain as they always have been: her positive spirit and her fiery competitiveness. And as usual, this year she is uniting the Mystics, now in rebuilt form.
“It’s all about just coming together as one, as a team,” Latta said of her stewardship of the squad she’s been with since 2013. “My goal is to just be happy this whole summer no matter what happens. Just stay positive and make sure everybody’s good.”
Washington has been more than good so far this season. Currently they’re in the midst of a renaissance, running their winning streak to five two nights ago in topping Dallas. They are 6-2, which is the second-best record in the WNBA behind the three-time champion Minnesota Lynx. And while Elena Delle Donne is the Mystics’ stats leader on court, Latta is the squad’s heart, both on and off of the hardwood.
The 5-foot-6 former Tar Heel dynamo is featured in most of the team’s promotional videos; she “took over” the Mystics’ Snapchat account for the Wings game and provided some humor. The social media stint was an extension of media day last month, where Latta’s megawatt smile commandeered the press room before she started joking with reporters.
Washington coach Mike Thibault signed Latta soon after he got the Mystics job, and he said it was by design.
“When I came to D.C., one of the reasons I went after Ivory is I felt that team we inherited was kind of blah personality-wise,” Thibault said. “We needed some voices in the locker room.”
“She’s brought a different presence to the team. She’s brought energy, toughness. Ivory can get a crowd going, and she can get the team going.”
Thibault said Latta’s outgoing nature helps balance the team.
“She’s a real positive person, and she brings energy,” he said. “She brings different leadership than some; hers is an upbeat energy whereas Kristi’s (Toliver) is quieter. You need both kinds in the locker room.”
Latta is a fan favorite because she goes out of her way to interact with fans. She also takes her teammates under her wing.
Washington guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who graduated from North Carolina in 2013, sees Latta as a big sister who has had a profound impact on her growth.
“We talked all through my senior season at Carolina,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “She was always giving me pointers about what to do in certain situations. When I got to D.C. she was a great leader and a great role model for me. She stayed on me telling me to do the little things, to do what I’m good at and not fall into the trap of trying to do too much.”
The two Tar Heels came to Washington in the same year, from very different stages in their respective careers, and it appears Latta’s advice has worked to the benefit of Ruffin-Pratt. After going undrafted in 2013, she worked her way into the Mystics system, becoming a consistent starter during the 2015 season.
Latta is impossible to ignore, as she has a way of dialing up the energy in any group, on or off the court. That was part of what compelled North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell to offer her a scholarship as a young player.
“Ivory has this special gift for making everyone she meets smile,” Hatchell said. “She has this personality where she makes everybody feel good. Even if fans don’t like her because she’s playing for the opponent, they love her enthusiasm, her spirit.”
Former Tar Heel teammate and Phoenix Mercury forward Camille Little agreed.
“Her energy, it never changes. Day in and day out, it’s always the same,” Little said of her close friend. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in her life, whether she’s shooting great or shooting bad, her energy is the same. A lot of players can’t do that, can’t keep that energy when things aren’t going well. People don’t really understand it and see it until you’re on her team. Those days when you’re down, you get the energy from her and she helps you in that way.”
Latta’s infectious enthusiasm goes hand in hand with her fierce competitive spirit, for which she became infamous at North Carolina. She carried those facial expressions and fist pumps into her pro career.
“She doesn’t care what size you are, or how skilled you are, or anything,” Hatchell said. “She’s ready. She’s confident, and she loves to compete. A lot of kids now like to play, but they don’t like to compete. There’s a difference – a huge difference.”
A tough competitor with a relentless no-holds-barred attitude, Latta is electrifying to watch. In her first three seasons in Washington, she averaged 13.7 points and 3.4 assists, playing upwards of 25 minutes per game and coming up huge in clutch situations.
Last year, however, Latta saw her time limited while recovering from her injury, as she started only two games and her scoring dipped to just over eight points per contest.
This season she is back to her old form as the fourth-leading scorer on the team while playing just 16.5 minutes per game. Against the Sky May 24, Latta drained her 500th career three-pointer, making her the tenth player in the WNBA to reach that mark.
Latta was excited entering the year.
“My body is feeling amazing, I’m happy that I’m finally healthy,” she said. “With the new additions that we got and the players that we already have, it’s going to be huge.”
One of those additions was sharp-shooting veteran Toliver, who signed with the Mystics over the winter. She and returning starter Tayler Hill have logged most of the starting minutes at point guard so far this season, but Latta is taking her new reserve role in stride.
Those who know her well aren’t surprised that Latta’s return has been successful.
Hatchell remembers a game situation that solidified Latta as a player with unmatched determination.
“When she was a freshman, we played for the ACC Championship, and we lost,” Hatchell said. “When the game was over, I made them sit down in their seats on the bench and watch the other team celebrate. A lot of people criticized me because they thought I was being cruel and mean, but that had nothing to do with it. When you see what the winner gets, it means more.”
“I was sitting there watching, and Ivory sat down beside me and told me that as long as she was on the team, we wouldn’t lose like that again. And we didn’t; we won the next three ACC Championships. That’s the kind of person she was. She kept her promise, and it never happened again.”
Little said Latta’s perseverance is inspirational.
“I’m very proud of her resilience,” she said. “She’s had a couple injuries, and sometimes as a player that can hold you back and that can hinder you but she’s done a really good job of taking care of her body.”
While important, success is not the most significant motivating factor for Latta. She identifies her parents as the driving force behind her all-or-none approach.
“I just always have in the back of my mind all the stuff they sacrificed for me to be here,” Latta said. “My dad is battling Parkinson’s Disease right now so he’s definitely been my inspiration, and I know just me going out there and playing hard puts a smile on my mom and dad’s faces.”
The game is simple for the fiery point guard. She plays for something fundamental: joy.
“As long as they’re smiling and they’re happy and my family’s good, I’m going to go out there and give it all I have at all times,” she said.
Latta has another reason to be happy this summer, as her first book “Despite the Height,” for children, was released last week. Latta is known by those closest to her as a player who uses her platform expertly to reach and empower young people.
“She always wants to give back to the game,” Hatchell said. “She loves kids, she always takes time to sign autographs or take pictures, so it’s not really about her, it’s about the young people. All the other itty bitty kids, little guards who realize ‘Hey I can do it, she’s done it so I can do it too.’”
Latta said she wrote the book to inspire children to persevere through tough times.
“The idea of the book is to never give up, no matter what your circumstances are,” Latta said. “For me it’s ‘despite the height,’ but when I go talk to these kids in these schools, it’s despite anything that you have going on. Despite color, despite weight, despite whatever that you have going on you can accomplish anything. You never let anybody tell you that you can’t.”
With all the excitement surrounding her on and off the court, Latta prioritizes staying grounded, and makes sure those around her do the same.
“The most valuable piece (of advice) she’s given me is just to stay humble,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “Stay focused, and whatever is going on outside of basketball, let it stay outside of basketball, because you never know when your time is going to be done in this league.”
Latta and the Mystics meet Minnesota tomorrow for the first time this season.