It is almost unfathomable to think of the WNBA without Kia Vaughn playing in it. The league finished its 26th season in 2022, and Vaughn played in 13 of those campaigns, a 6-4, high-IQ center with the ability to bring locker rooms together. Long after the league moved away from the classic five, it still had room for Vaughn’s old-school game, not just on rosters, but in rotations, with a career that eventually spanned 386 games.    

As someone who has covered Vaughn for a long time, I told her the thought of not seeing her postgame to get her insight into whichever team she was playing for — New York, Washington, Phoenix, and Atlanta — had me feeling melancholy. As usual, Vaughn’s ability to find the bright spot won the day. 

“Thank you, Howard. Don't be sad,” Vaughn said with a chuckled in an interview last month. “As long as I'm still a part of the basketball community, I think it's going to be perfect. I'm always around."

She will, indeed, be around, with the Atlanta Dream hiring Vaughn as their first hire in a newly-created Retired Player Transition Program. Her first role with the organization is Basketball Operations Associate. 

“Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair and Renee Montgomery made it clear to me and Tanisha from the beginning that they wanted to help players prepare for life after basketball,” Atlanta Dream General Manager Dan Padover said. “This gives former players a chance to spend a year developing skills that will help them transition into the next phases of their career in an effort to create the new wave of leaders in the WNBA.” 

But that doesn’t fully capture the ways she can impact the Dream’s day-to-day life. Her former teammate with the Liberty, now-Dream coach Tanisha Wright, absolutely gushed when asked about what it means to have Vaughn contributing.    

“I mean, we say it all the time in our organization, we want the right people around,” Wright beamed in an interview earlier this month. “And Kia epitomizes that… She talks to [the players] a lot about communication and about positioning.

“So she just is somebody who is the right person to have in an organization. And when you have good people, and you have the right people around, it's contagious, it's infectious. And it really helps elevate your organization. Kia has definitely been that for us. And it's why we like to have her around.”    

The way Vaughn sees it, she never received the opportunity to show she could be a primary scorer in the WNBA. She wasn’t a star. But the way in which she impacted her teammates is how she left her mark on the game.

“I wasn't one of those players who got the accolades night in and night out,” Vaughn said. “The consistent number that I would have loved and show up every day. But the impact that I had on the players around me and the staff around me and you know, being a part of some of the great teams that I was on. Liberty, Mystics, Phoenix, Atlanta and they all feel the same way about me. It really makes me proud."

Vaughn credits her mentor and college coach at Rutgers, C. Vivian Stringer, with showing her the way to both lead and live in the world. Not that playing for the demanding Stringer was easy, of course.

“But at this age, I looked back and actually appreciate it,” Vaughn said. “Because she taught me how to be a woman. I can see where her thought process was, and what she was expecting to get out of us. 

“And it was just the simple things, how you eat, how you carry yourself, how you walk, when you enter a room, just taking up space, allowing people to see you for who you are. Always demanding what you deserve, and wanting more and never taking less than you deserve. And just moving gracefully. That's just how she moves, she moves real gracefully. And I think that that part of her is what I possess.”

The decision to retire, ultimately, came despite continued interest in Vaughn around the league. But in her mind, it was many years in the making.    

“Honestly, I thought I was going to retire five years sooner,” Vaughn said. “I thought, I think I’ve had enough like, what more do I get from this besides the WNBA championship, right? Do I want to chase this? Like what do I need to feel to be fulfilled?” 

For Vaughn, it was being around the game, around the people she played with that gave her that fulfillment. But the body does not always cooperate. Vaughn had to undergo a difficult surgery during her time in Phoenix — it is still hard for her to talk about the details of it publicly — and noticed, during her final season in Atlanta, how much more easily the young players could recover.

Even more: she wanted “these younger girls to come take what’s theirs”, to allow the next generation to experience what she had for over a decade.

There are some ancillary benefits to retirement, of course.

“If I'm there for them vocally, emotionally and supportively, why do I have to run these drills and get up and down with Tanisha’s program of sprints and stuff,” Vaughn said, laughing. “I don't have young legs anymore!”

One of those young players, Naz Hillmon, said she’s been a sponge for every bit of wisdom Vaughn can provide.

“Kia is awesome,” Hillmon exclaimed. “She does a little bit of everything for us. On the court, definitely that communication piece. I mean, even if you're not in the action, and being able to talk, especially as a player, being in that backline, and being able to direct your teammates. I remember when she was on the court with me, I always knew what was going on. And I really want to be that person for my team.”

But just as Stringer did for Vaughn, the same lessons have been imparted from Vaughn to Hillmon.

“And then off the court, Kia helped me learn how to be a pro. Each and every day last year, me and [fellow 2022 Atlanta Dream rookie] Rhyne [Howard] got to where we needed to be, got ourselves into a routine, got ourselves into a schedule. And that was really important. Sometimes we're just going into a new environment, and it's hard to kind of figure it out, but she definitely guided us in the right direction.”

It’s fulfilling her in a different way — one that allows her to give her body a break, she says, for the first time since she was 13. An opportunity to “end it around some great people”, and she said, after talking it through with her husband.

Does she have things she wishes she’d done differently? She says yes, that she does wish she’d been less deferential at times and looked for her own shot more. Ultimately, though? That wouldn’t have been Kia Vaughn.

“I just felt, I found it easier to always want my team to do it and be victorious,” Vaughn said.

“And I always found it easier to want to naturally pass the ball so my team can do it together.”

Sounds like the kind of person you want around your team, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who thinks so.