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“I Never Thought It Was Possible.” Tammy Sutton-Brown Broke Records, and Barriers

Kelsea O'Brien /March 13, 2023

A montage of her career plays over the jumbotron during a timeout of Raptors 905’s game against the G League Ignite. There are enough accolades that a one minute collection of career highlights could stretch the entirety of a 48 minute game with ease.

But Tammy Sutton-Brown stays tucked in a corner in the 905’s tunnel. She glances, of course, at the screens displaying her talents, but the accomplishments that she is most proud of can be seen and felt throughout the arena. In the broadcast booth, her former Indiana Fever teammate and longtime friend, Ebony Hoffman, prepares to make her play-by-play debut. Miah-Marie Langlois, a fellow member of Canada’s women’s national team will fill the role of colour commentator. As Associate Basketball & Franchise Operations and Director of Player Development for Raptors 905, Sutton-Brown has been instrumental in the team’s recent four-game win streak that puts them in a potential playoff position.

“It has been so awesome (having Tammy), she really helps with the perspective of it all,” says Raptors 905 head coach, Eric Khoury. “Knowing where guys need a little bit more love, knowing where the development off the court can grow even better, knowing when to schedule practices versus when to schedule off-days and how (the) guys are most likely feeling, and then tying that physical part into the mental and emotional part. She is so amazing at using that experience to guide our system and decide what days we should push harder and what days we should focus more on recovery and relaxation.”

A career as a professional basketball player never entered the mind of Sutton-Brown. The WNBA was only a single year removed from its inaugural season when she graduated from Markham District High School. “It wasn’t even on my horizon. I think I wanted to be a teacher!” she admits. “And I said ‘okay, well maybe I can get a scholarship, and get an education without my parents having to pay for it.’ But coming out of high school? I had no idea I would be playing professional basketball.”

In some ways, Sutton-Brown did become the teacher. She had originally attended Rutgers University before being drafted by the Charlotte Sting. Her day-to-day activities as Associate of Basketball & Franchise Operations include mentoring and spotlighting young girls in the community and beyond. Her 12 year professional career lends her, and the team, a unique perspective; the ability to lead by example, and the luxury for players of having someone who can relate..

“Tammy has been amazing for us throughout the year,” affirms Jeff Dowtin Jr. “We wore our favourite WNBA jerseys today and she organized that for us and that was huge. She’s just always been around with great energy that I love, and I love her enthusiasm. She keeps us up-to-date and to be honest, without her we wouldn’t be on time for most things.”

The jerseys worn by the players and acquired by Sutton-Brown included Seimone Augustus, whom Sutton-Brown had defeated in the 2012 WNBA Finals, Sue Bird, whose first All Star appearance coincided with Sutton-Brown’s own first All Star appearance, where she was the first ever Canadian to be voted to the WNBA All Star game. They included her fellow Rutgers alumni, Cappie Pondexter.

They also included the next generation of WNBA players, Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart, Dijonai Carrington and Ivory Latta, whose play styles no doubt hold remnants of Sutton-Brown’s ferocious defensive prowess, whose dreams to play on the biggest were made possible by the likes of Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman.

Born in 1997, Sabrina Ionescu has never lived in a world without the WNBA, a world that wasn’t possible without players like Sutton-Brown, and a world that Sutton-Brown herself never thought possible.

“I think it was my junior year,” Sutton-Brown says of the moment she realized that playing professionally could very well become a career option. “I played for Team Canada at the Sydney Olympic Games, and then I had a good season (with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights). I started to hear rumblings of ‘oh you should go to the draft’ and things started to pick up. I think that was really when it clicked.”

Despite her standout college career at Rutgers, where she holds the third best record for field goal percentage (.576), Sutton-Brown was still sceptical of basketball as a long term career. “I literally hired an agent and told him I’d play for maybe three years.”

Ten years removed from her twelve year professional career, Sutton-Brown now has the time to reflect on everything she has accomplished. “It’s been an awesome ride. I am definitely fortunate to take the journey that I have.”

The journey, she says, is the most enjoyable part of her career as a player and beyond. “I think beauty is in the process, and that process looks different for everybody. But just being able to enjoy the journey along the way, because in life, there really never is a finish line.”

The importance of being present is one of the pillars of Sutton-Brown’s philosophy. It is what she reminds her players daily to be cognizant of, despite the outcome of the game or nights when shots aren’t falling.

“Tammy is just a great person!” exclaims Jeremiah Tilmon Jr., who joined Raptors 905 in late January 25. “Just off of my initial meeting with her, she was a wonderful person with great vibes. She kind of takes on that maternal role immediately because she knows what we’re going through and that’s the energy she always gives off.”

Tilmon and Dowtin Jr. share similar sentiments about Sutton-Brown, but they are far from the only players, or people, who feel that way.

“Tammy was one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” says Ebony Hoffman without hesitation, who now serves as an assistant coach for the Seattle Storm. “Her unselfishness and willingness to lead by example were paramount in our success. Tammy would come to work everyday ready to work and improve, holding all of her teammates to the same standard as she did herself.”

The sisterhood of the WNBA that welcomed Tammy with open arms is what she expects from her players. Organizing community visits and team outings to allow bonds to form organically between players comes as easily to her as shot blocking. “That’s what it’s all about,” she reiterates. “And basketball is just the tool or the vessel. But the real beauty in this game is being able to impact lives and establishing and making new friendships. Some of my very best friends are my former teammates.”

Though ten years detached from her professional playing career, the echo of a bouncing ball in an empty arena after a game still brings her back.

“The development, the growth, the beauty, the friendships, it’s all built around the struggle on the court. It’s built around the drills, it’s built around all of those struggles, in the game, in practice, those things translate off the court and those relationships form over time, but some of my favourite people? My favourite memories? Those are definitely my teammates.”