Blake Dietrick Willed Her Way to WNBA, From Princeton to Abroad
Photo: Brian Savage
State records, school records, Massachusetts Player of the Year award, All-American honors, an Ivy League education, a perfect season, a multi-sport NCAA career, international professional contracts. Atlanta Dream guard and bonafide multitasker Blake Dietrick has all of those things. Really, that’s just her on the surface.
How did she find the time?
Her life has always been like this: a juggling act of activities, while maintaining some level of greatness in all of it. In high school she was a three sport athlete. As a freshman she placed 11th in Massachusetts in cross country. Her sophomore through senior years, she earned the title of US Lacrosse All-American. She set Wellesley High School records as the all-time best scorer in lacrosse and basketball. Dietrick was also involved in just about every extra-curricular activity she could try out and her overload of talents and dedications led her to the Ivy League.
Princeton, in fact. The one institution that met Dietrick’s demands of excellence and also had a tournament-caliber basketball team. Throughout her solid first year with the Tigers in the gym, she was getting decent minutes for a freshman and growing as a player, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off the turf. It took some to thoroughly examine her work load, but by the end of the season Dietrick had a plan.
“I had come into college with a really good ability to balance multiple things because I had never just been a one-sport athlete or had one focus academically,” Dietrick reflected. “I think I was really prepared to balance that and I just missed lacrosse so much. I wanted to come back to the sport. Basketball was awesome and a great experience, but I saw the lacrosse team and how amazing they were and how successful they were. I had a meeting with the basketball staff after my freshman year and I said, ‘Coach Banghart, I miss lacrosse so much. Is there anyway we can try to let me do both?’ and she was supportive. I just got really lucky with coaches that were willing to sacrifice a little bit for me to be able to do both.”
While basketball is her current focus, lacrosse is at the core of her foundation. Steve Dietrick, her father, played lacrosse at Williams College and her brother, Tucker, just finished his lacrosse career at Colby College. There’s no hoop at the Dietrick family home, just lacrosse sticks and balls ready for a game of catch.
But to Blake, the only daughter, the games are nearly one in the same through their play and misconceptions.
“I think that people use a cop out when they say there’s no contact in either sport. They’re so similar,” she said. “People don’t see it because one has a stick and one has a hoop. Yes, they look on paper kind of different. But the way you cut, the way you defend, the way you attack and make moves offensively, even spin moves, and face dodging is the same as a crossover. It’s all so similar.”
Yet, she opted out of her senior season with the lacrosse team at Princeton for a turn she didn’t expect: a shot at professional basketball. At the time, professional women’s lacrosse had yet to get off the ground and the real opportunity to take her skills to the next level on the court was presenting itself.
Her final season of college basketball was one for the books. From the point, Dietrick led the Tigers through a flawless regular season and Ivy League tournament, tacking on Princeton’s first and only win in the NCAA Tournament for a final record of 31-1. She shot nearly 49 percent from the field, 63 made from behind the three-point line, with 157 assists and 37 steals in her last run.
Growing attention made a dream her reality and she walked away from the lacrosse program, with their blessing, for a chance at a pro contract. It all came quickly for Dietrick and constant reevaluation assures her that she’s still playing basketball for the right reasons, but her answers changes with the seasons about what she sees in her future.
“Until my senior season happened, I didn’t even realize I would have the chance to play pro,” Dietrick explained. “Then I had the opportunity and thought, ‘This is awesome. Maybe I’ll play for a season or two, see the world, and play basketball for a little while longer, then start the real world.”
Dietrick did so well in Italy that the next year she found herself invited to the Seattle Storm’s training camp.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I could really play in the WNBA,’” she said. “Then I got cut.”
Part of getting kickstarted in professional basketball wasn’t just about pursuing the WNBA. Dietrick also had the opportunity to take her talents overseas and she spent the season playing Down Under. But a lackluster year made her question her place in basketball. From there, it moved fast.
“I didn’t have a great season, so I started to question whether or not I should keep going to start my career,” Dietrick said. “I decided to play one more season, and Greece went really well, and all of a sudden, I was with Atlanta playing a full season and actually contributing. Where I am at this point is, if it keeps going well and I keep loving it, I’m going to keep playing. I don’t want to keep playing until my body breaks down, and at some point I will hang it up to start my career. It’s always been about the basketball, and when the time comes to reassess, we’ll do it.”
Comparatively, Dietrick got a bit of a late start to her WNBA career. When she was let go in 2016 from the Storm, she didn’t get her shot until last season with the Atlanta Dream. She knows every minute is earned and at some point, her spot will be taken. It’s not a depressing thought, because Dietrick’s life is a repeating pattern of setting new goals and reaching them.
“I’d like to go back to business school and from there figure out exactly what I want to do. I’d like to stay involved in athletics at some level. I don’t want to coach,” she laughed, “but it would be the [Athletic Director] type at the collegiate level or in the front office for pro, or something like that. I want to continue to help growing the game and helping athletes reach their full potential.
I just feel like there’s so many people I’ve encountered in my life at the pro level or in college that didn’t reach their full potential for one reason or another, and it’s so disappointing. If I can help people reach that potential, it helps grow the game, and that’s the most important thing.”
The traveling and world experience have made it all worth it to her. New cultures and new ideas have helped the 25-year-old grow as a person and ambassador of sport. While there’s always some hiccups to taking on life in different corners of the globe, Dietrick uses the good and bad to fuel her purpose.
“I’ve definitely had my highs and lows playing overseas. My first season in Europe was a shock being away from family and friends, feeling very isolated, not speaking Italian, being in a tiny Italian town. But there are funny moments too that make you think it’s pretty awesome.”
Dietrick reflected on her first real culture shock of playing basketball outside of the United States,
“My first workout in Italy, we drove in a bus an hour and a half to a beach because we were in the middle of the country and nowhere near water,” she said. “We did a beach workout and it was like pushups and running in and out of the water, stuff like that. Halfway through the workout our coach and athletic trainer just disappeared, and we’re like, ‘where’d they go?’ We don’t know what’s going on and they come back with two trays of portable espresso cups and we have an espresso break in the middle of our beach workout. You can’t help but laugh and think, ‘this is what overseas is like?’ And while it’s not like that everywhere, it’s something that I’ll look back at fondly.”
Every experience has been unique for her and she doesn’t let the bad outweigh the good. When everything is unfamiliar, sometimes the best option is to let go of control and see where the game takes you. No one expects the lifestyle of an international women’s basketball player to be overly luxurious, but not all situations are handled equally either. Yet, the whole process is ultimately what the individual makes it out to be.
“Overseas, in general, is very team specific and every organization is different in nearly every situation,” she explained. “I’ve had difficult situations because of the team and organization, but I’ve had fantastic situations because of team and organization. There’s always a lot of downtime, and there’s a lot of time by yourself. You can use that time to watch Netflix or stay up Facetiming your family at four in the morning, or you can go out and explore and experience the culture, and that’s a player to player choice. I think I’ve tried my best to immerse myself in the culture in each situation I’ve been in, and I think that’s helped make my experiences better.”
Up to this point, Dietrick’s fondest out of country stint was with Lointek Gernika Bizkaia of Guernica, Spain. Fairly isolated in Basque Country, the mass of less than 17,000 inhabitants are enthralled by the game and have a rare allegiance to the talk of the town.
“It was a small town, and I was a little wary, but they love basketball. They eat, sleep and breathe basketball. There’s no men’s team in the town so the women’s team is everything. It’s an awesome experience walking through the town and little kids are yelling your name and waving to you,” Dietrick laughed. “They pack the stadium every night. Is a small stadium, but every home game is sold out. The team is in the newspaper everyday. They care so much and you can feel it. It makes me want to play for them.”
The feelings haven’t been the same for Dietrick everywhere she’s ended up across the pond, but it’s the little commitments from an entire community that made her embrace the opportunity. It can be hard for any athlete to have loyalty to an organization when only coming to the team for one season. In Guernica, Dietrick wanted to give it her all for them because they cared about her and the game. Anyway she could be a part of what the community was doing, she took the chance.
“Luckily, I studied Spanish for quite a long time, so I was able to go with the team to practices with younger teams. I even did a couple interviews in Spanish,” she paused, “which is so nerve-racking [laughs]. There’s a bit of immersion everywhere you go. But it’s team by team and Gernika was very good about it. We did a lot with our sponsors learning about what they do and going to their facilities.”
Going to play basketball away from home isn’t just about the memories and it usually isn’t about the paycheck either. It’s about using the offseason to give yourself the best possible shot at excelling on the hardwood the next time the chance comes at the highest stage. The practice paid off for Dietrick last season, coming off the bench in Atlanta to contribute in 26 games for 37 points and 11 assists.
“Overseas is the place to build your confidence,” Dietrick explained. “The level, for the most part, isn’t as high as the WNBA, although it is really high in places like Spain. It’s an opportunity where usually the team relies on the foreign players to step up. For me, it’s time to try new things and get creative with my game so I can turnaround and apply that to my game in the WNBA in the summer.”
The routine is working and she plans to stick with it for now. Dietrick has to if she wants to stay in the picture for the Dream. That’s the lifestyle of a lot of WNBA bench players: find an agent, opt for a half or full season with a team that will help you grow, leave everything behind at mom and dad’s house and keep pursuing the dream. It can be somewhat embarrassing to think that you’re a professional athlete and still “living with your parents” but Dietrick laughs at the idea acknowledging that she’s “home” less than a handful of days in a year.
The self-pressure to succeed hasn’t gone anywhere and now that she’s contributing in the league, staying in a routine and putting in the extra hours is her way of going nowhere but up.
“I’m a creature of habit, but I’ve learned to be flexible,” she said. “In the offseason, I like to get up and workout to get it out of the way. That’s kind of my thing. Then the rest of the day I can be more flexible because I’ve done the work early.”
She applied her habits to how it affects her WNBA time commitments.
“We have very few off days because of our travel and our playing schedule,” Dietrick said. “For the most part everything will be planned out for us. I still find time to workout on my own because when you’re not getting as many minutes you need to keep your cardio up. We have film, practice, rehab and recovery, all the extra stuff. It gets crazy.”
For a kid who never stopped taking on new endeavors, it really isn’t a surprise she made it this far. What we can learn from a person like Dietrick is goals are meant to be set often, and staying accountable to yourself is the only way to reach them. For those that want to follow in her footsteps, you have to take a risk and trust the process.
“Be prepared for a different style of game and a different culture that is overseas,” she said. “If you love basketball enough and are willing to put in the work it’s worth it, definitely worth it. To experience other cultures and that stuff is fantastic, but be prepared for it to be difficult.”
It comes back to reaching full potential. Dietrick wants to be a guide for those who are looking for the next move after graduation, but she also wants it to be clear that no one can hold your hand through the process.
“It is different from college. It’s not the same people you’ve grown to know and be loyal to over four years,” she explained. “[Professional basketball] is a business. It’s hard to find that balance of being a good teammate and the best version of yourself as a player. But as long as you’re willing to work hard and find that best version of yourself, it is all worth it.”
Photography provided by the Atlanta Dream.