Belle of the Ballgame: How URI Women’s Basketball Coach Tammi Reiss Courted Hollywood Before Ruling the NCAA Courts

Tammi Reiss was a Hollywood actor, model, entrepreneur, champion distance runner, professional basketball player and more before taking on the role of head coach for the University of Rhode Island's Women's basketball team three years ago.
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Photography by Alex Gagne

Tammi Reiss was eating chicken wings and sipping wine at an informal get-together with her colleagues, fellow cast members filming the movie Juwanna Mann. The cast had gathered in Vivica A. Fox’s hotel suite to watch the MTV Video Music Awards, “The year Britney [Spears] brought the snake,” is the way Reiss remembers it, 2001.

Reiss (pronounced “Reece”) confided that she “loved” Whitney Houston and wished aloud that Houston would make an appearance on the show.

“You love Whitney?” Fox said.

“Love her? I’m her number one fan. I’d die for Whitney,” Reiss recalled saying.

Minutes later, Fox handed Reiss her large cellphone. 

“Is this my number one fan?” said a voice on the other end.

“Who’s this?” said Reiss.

“It’s Nippy [Whitney Houston’s nickname]. I hear you’re filming a movie.”

This is one of many “pinch-me” moments in the life of Tammi Reiss, currently the University of Rhode Island women’s basketball coach who has also been a Hollywood actor, model, entrepreneur, champion distance runner, professional basketball player in the WNBA, and an All-American in basketball at the University of Virginia. She took over as URI’s head coach three years ago, inheriting a program that was historically the worst in its league, and quickly turned it into one of the best. Her team’s performance last year — twenty-two wins against seven losses — earned her a ten-year contract extension that pays a base salary of $425,000 a year.

“I enjoy gutting things that need to be taken from A to Z and watching them transform,” Reiss says in an interview inside her office at URI’s Ryan Center. “It could be a nightclub,” like the popular Manhattan Club she co-owned in Salt Lake City when her playing days ended. “It could be a role and transforming that character. It could be a basketball team, taking it from the bottom to the top.”

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Photography by Alex Gagne

Here’s another “pinch-me” moment in the life of Tammi Reiss: 1998, the NBA All-Star game at Madison Square Garden, an event where celebrities go to be seen. Before tipoff, in front of a full house, she played a game of “2Ball,” paired with the famous Karl Malone in a shooting contest against other two-person teams: Kobe Bryant and Lisa Leslie, and Clyde Drexler and Cynthia Cooper. Charles Barkley was on the sidelines calling the game; Magic Johnson was coaching one of the 2Ball teams.

“Every time I turn around, I’m running into Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal), celebrities,” Reiss says. “You walk out of the tunnel. It’s sold out … You’re thinking: ‘How the hell did I get here?’”

Paul Tylawsky, who mentored Reiss in basketball since she was ten, sat on the sidelines wondering the same thing. “How do you go from a little elementary school to Madison Square Garden with this whole crowd of people? This is something truly special.”

That little school was Eldred Central, in one of the smallest public school districts in New York state. Reiss moved into that district in third grade. She hated everything about the move from a suburb in Pennsylvania where she had multiple friends within walking distance, to Glen Spey, a hamlet in the town of Lumberland. She was an only child, eight years old, daughter of a car dealer and a waitress, living on 100 acres without even a neighbor’s porchlight to pierce the loneliness of a country road.

For her first day at Eldred, Reiss’ mother made her wear a dress. She hated it; she never wore dresses. “Everyone thought I was this girly-girl, non-athlete,” she recalls. The next day she dressed in her usual T-shirt and jeans, carrying her Kiss-themed lunch box with the graphics of the Destroyer album on its cover. In the lunchroom, a couple of the girls picked on her.

“One of the toughest girls in our grade, Sue Hof, decides she’s going to challenge me at lunch. Pushing me, and calling me names,” Reiss says. “As she comes to me a second time, I take my lunch pail and I nail her in the head with it.” 

Reiss weighed maybe fifty pounds, the lunchbox a couple of ounces, but the lunchbox rang with a hollow thud that caught everyone’s attention. From that moment, the other girls knew not to mess with Reiss.

Now, forty-four years later, she and Hof are good friends. “From that day on we were best friends,” Reiss says. “And I owned the school in terms of this is not a girl you’re going to pick on.”

Her father, Ed Reiss, remembers. “She was always beat up, knocked down, black eyes, had her front teeth knocked out. She was tough.” Around fifth grade, he built her a home basketball court to keep her home and out of trouble.

Her first ball was a Michael Jordan model, black, with his name and image inscribed in silver. When it snowed, she shoveled her court, flicked the floodlights and shot baskets till her mother, Doretta, called her to bed. She wore the black hide of that basketball to an ashen gray.

Sometimes she burned energy by running with her mother; other times Doretta followed her in the family car, headlights illuminating the dark country roads while Tammi plunged ahead of the probing headlights, her mind inventing scary scenarios to make her run faster from whatever phantoms were chasing her.

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Photography by Alex Gagne

On a crisp, November day in 1983, Tammi Reiss played the part of a predator running down its prey. She focused on the heels of a teenage girl running in front of her, synced her breathing to the breathing of that runner as they sped down the grass of a fairway toward a grove of woods.  As soon as the two runners hit those woods, Reiss sprinted out in front.

“Now she’s chasing me,” Reiss recalls of the 1983 New York state high school cross-country championship. “I’m gonna pretend she’s gonna kill me. And suddenly poof! I’m off … and I’m gonna crush her, I’m gonna kill you, and you know you can’t stay with me.” Reiss did crush her opponent that day. She beat the entire field, winning a high school state championship as an eighth grader.

“Running, I would think of different things,” Reiss says. “If I’m going through the woods what would get me going a little bit faster is I’d picture Jason [from the Friday the 13th movies] is chasing me; here he comes. I’d play little mind games.”

Running held the promise of more glory, but she hated it. Some days she walked off the starting line, vomited in the woods, then returned just in time for the starting gun. “It was a lonely sport,” she says. As an only child living far from the nearest neighbor, she had her fill of loneliness. She did not want to run away from people; she wanted to gather them around. After freshman season, she quit running to focus on basketball.

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A young Reiss (center) with teammates.

Paul Tylawsky backed her choice. He coached the varsity boys basketball team at Eldred High School, and knew the game of basketball. He stood six-foot-six inches, made Pennsylvania’s All-State basketball team, and played at a Division II college. He knew that basketball could carry Tammi Reiss farther from Glen Spey than running ever could.

He spied Reiss while he was on playground duty and she was in fifth grade. “I saw this little girl with a chipped tooth,” he recalls. She dribbled a basketball with precocious authority. He showed her a jab step, a basic basketball move where a ball handler takes a quick step toward an opponent to read her intentions, then chooses the best way to attack that defender.

The next day, she said: “Coach, I got it.”

He put her through her paces: She stepped toward him, he stepped back, so she stopped and shot the ball over him. He thought it would take her a season to master everything she learned in one night beneath the floodlights of her backyard court. 

In the next basketball season, Reiss had made appearances with the girls’ varsity team as a middle-schooler. Mr. T called her parents, Ed and Doretta, for a conference. He told them: “She’s going to be the most recruited athlete in New York state.”

Tammi Reiss hung a poster of Magic Johnson on her bedroom wall. Johnson was becoming the best point guard of all time. Reiss, too, played point guard, but what she really liked about Johnson was the joy with which he played the game. In that poster, his smile spread through his cheeks to his eyes. Basketball brought her the same joy.

“Basketball, I could be outside, zero degrees, hands freezing, for ten hours. I didn’t care,” she says. “But I loved it. Running? Not the same feeling.” The difference was teammates. For this only child who longed for company, her teammates were her sisters. “The bus rides, the laughter, the jokes — everything you do, you do together.” 

In sixth grade, Coach Tylawsky asked her to make a list of goals. She wrote: Win a state championship in basketball; break the state’s career scoring record; be a valedictorian, a college All-American, win an NCAA championship; play in the NBA. The last one broke Tylawsky’s heart — there was no way a woman destined to become all of five-foot-six was playing in the NBA. 

As she progressed through high school, the goals fell like dominoes. Senior year, she broke the state’s career scoring record with 2,871 points, the Eldred Yellow Jackets went undefeated, won the state championship, and she was the class valedictorian.

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Reiss at the University of Virginia.

Tylawsky’s prediction that she would one day become the most heavily recruited athlete in the state proved prescient. Recruiters acknowledged Reiss as one of the top two point guards in the nation, the other being Dawn Staley. She and Staley knew each other from elite basketball camps; they agreed to go to the same school, the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers were good, but not great. That’s why they chose it — they wanted to be the first to take Virginia to the Final Four tournament.

“I want to be the first, not just another,” Reiss says. “That’s why I’m here. There’s something special about being the first.”    

In their three seasons with Reiss and Staley as starters, the Cavaliers won ninety-two games against eleven losses. Virginia advanced to the Final Four tournament for three consecutive years, but never won the national championship. “Three years in a row of losing, it was devastating,” Reiss recalls. “When you work your whole life, your whole life went away … I wanted a break from basketball.” She spurned offers to play professionally overseas, quit the game of basketball, and focused on a new career: acting.

Her father thought she was crazy.

Reiss’ resume was blank. Her experience consisted of Acting 101, a course she took at the University of Virginia for what she thought would be an easy three credits. Through the first week of class, she had to act like an animal (she chose a gorilla) and communicate only with the grunts and gestures of that animal.

“And I absolutely fell in love with it,” she says. “We learned to internalize emotion. I love Meryl Streep, and I used to wonder: How does she do it? How do you cry on command?” She learned to pull from memory a traumatic event from her life: the death of her childhood dog, a beagle named Poochie. Before she could walk, she crawled on the floor with Poochie; they grew up together, and in her adolescence, Poochie suffered a stroke. Her parents asked her opinion on whether to put him down. She knew the right answer, for him, was yes.

As she tells the story, she begins to cry. “You see what happens?” she says through tears. “You can train your mind to pull something up and you can make yourself cry … When I think of having to put him down, this is what happens.”

She snaps her fingers and turns off the tears. “You realize why people are as good as they are,” as actors, she says. “You actually train. You don’t just become an actor any more than you just become a basketball player.”

She went west, took some acting classes, hired an agent. She landed modeling gigs, worked as a physical fitness trainer and did some advertising work. “I went and did drama for a year-and-a-half,” she recalls. “Gave it up, went back to Virginia.”

Her alma mater hired her as an assistant basketball coach in 1994. She tried it for two seasons but didn’t like it. She was in her early twenties and found it awkward to coach peers, some of whom had recently been her teammates.

In April 1996, Reiss heard welcome news: the National Basketball Association was forming a professional women’s league: the WNBA. She called Tylawsky in Lumberland to ask if he would work with her that summer in preparation for league tryouts in Orlando.

“Tammi,” he said. “You haven’t played in four years.”

“Are you gonna train me, or no?” she said.

Of course he would. He flicked on the lights in the school gym and they went to work. “She would do two hours in the weight room, two hours with me, two hours in a men’s league,” Tylawsky says.

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Reiss playing for the WNBA team the Utah Starzz

The WNBA offered roster spots to thirty-two elite players, then held invitational tryouts in Orlando to fill the remaining slots. On draft day, the Utah Starzz chose Reiss with their first-round pick. “Remember that list you gave me in sixth grade?” Tylawsky said. “You’re about to make number one on that list.”

Reiss played just two seasons with the Starzz, but those years in Salt Lake City transformed her life. Salt Lake became the place where she rebuilt her acting career, built two businesses and fell in love.

The decor in Tammi Reiss’ office in the Ryan Center at URI reveals a little about her personal likes, a lot about her basketball career, and nothing about the successful acting and business careers she built when her playing days ended in Salt Lake. A long wooden sign propped on an end table reads: “I Love My Dog,” a reference to her dwindling pack of what was once three Shih Tzus, now down to one named Jersey. She also has a pit bull named Brooklyn.

Her Utah Starzz jersey hangs on a wall, framed behind glass, number thirty-two in homage to Magic Johnson. A signed ball from that 1998 All-Star Game holds a place of honor high above her desk. A folding floor chair stenciled with “2016 Women’s Final Four” attests to her most recent Final Four appearance as an assistant coach with the Syracuse Orange.

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Tammi Reiss with Vivica Fox on set for the movie Juwanna Mann.

Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to her acting career. Her high profile as a WNBA player jump-started that career in 1997. Within five years of signing with the Starzz, Reiss landed appearances on two popular TV series, “Touched by an Angel” and “Sister, Sister;” got speaking roles in two Hollywood movies, Double Teamed and
Juwanna Mann; served as the model for a warrior princess in a video game and modeled sportswear. “It was a lucrative hobby,” she says. 

The NCAA’s March Madness tournament came to Salt Lake City in 2011, a time when Reiss was running a beauty salon named Blush. The salon was strictly an investment, but it paid personal as well as financial dividends: A Blush hairstylist introduced a friend who worked for another salon, Kristal Rees, pronounced like Reiss. What started as friendship with Kristal blossomed into romance. 

With the tournament in town, Reiss felt an irresistible pull back to the arena. She scored floor seats through her former college teammate, Tonya Cardozo, who was coaching the Temple Owls in the opening round. After that game, Reiss did some online research and found that San Diego State was looking for an assistant coach. Reiss knew the coach, Beth Burns; Burns had recruited her in high school. She called her the next day.

“Tammi, you don’t want the long bus rides,” Burns said.

Yes, she did. That’s exactly what she wanted: the bus rides, the laughter, the jokes. She signed with San Diego, then worked up the coaching ladder with two-year stops there and at California State University, Fullerton, and four years as an assistant coach at Syracuse. That’s when URI came calling looking for someone to fix a broken program.

“When I took over this program, they were god-awful,” she says of the team she inherited in 2018, and it’s hard to dispute it. The previous season they won three of thirty games. Recruiting talent to boost her program presented a challenge: “Nobody wants to come to a loser,” she says.

When URI asked her to turn around its program, she reached out to one of her fellow assistant coaches at Syracuse, Adeniyi Amadou. She and Amadou developed a plan to recruit talent to Rhode Island.

Amadou grew up in suburban Paris, a son of parents who immigrated from the African nation of Benin. A wave of African immigration to France in the 1980s created largely African-French neighborhoods where people tended to be poor, Black and disenfranchised. Basketball became their game of choice.

For Amadou, basketball was a ticket out. He played for the U.S. Army’s Black Knights at West Point, then transferred to play for a small college. He didn’t mind that neither school was a basketball powerhouse — he just wanted an opportunity. 

Reiss brought Amadou to URI from Syracuse as an associate head coach in charge of international recruiting. If American players did not want to come to a “loser,” Amadou was tapped into a culture producing plenty of good people who would: overseas players who did not know about Rhode Island and did not care about its past. They would jump at offers of college scholarships to play basketball in the United States.

Nine of fourteen players on this year’s roster are from outside of the United States: six from France, an Israeli, one from Canada, and one, Anete Adler, a freshman recruit from Estonia. Adler stands six-foot-five inches tall. She had never heard of Rhode Island when URI recruited her, but she likes what she’s seen of it.

“It’s a small place,” Adler says. “It’s similar to Estonia.”

Of the five players from the United States, just two are from New England. “I love the fact that we are not this white bread, all kind of the same little robots here,” Reiss says. “We are all diverse. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

The four transfer students are all proven talents who have excelled elsewhere; Dolly Cairns, a junior guard from Saratoga Springs, New York, is the team’s most established star. 

The team shows promise, but the job of yoking this diverse talent together falls on Reiss. Though she’s an intense competitor, she’s a laid-back coach. 

“I like positivity,” she says. “I like to kill ’em with kindness.”

Reiss turns the details of practices over to her associate head coaches, Amadou and Megan Shoniker, who excelled in her playing days at URI. Reiss then prowls the sidelines, quietly but intensely observing, occasionally shouting support, rarely stopping a drill to point out small problems to prevent them from becoming habitually sloppy play. 

“In situations, she’s kind of a cool, laid-back, easygoing personality,” says Shoniker. “She’s extremely kind and big-hearted. But you put her in a situation where it’s you against her, or your team against her team, she’s extremely competitive. It clicks on.”

Tenin Magassa observes practices from the sidelines, healing a damaged Achilles tendon. URI lists her at six-foot-five, but at floor level, she looks taller. Magassa is a junior who just transferred to URI from arch-rival Dayton.

Pondering the upcoming season, Magassa says, “As a team, I hope we are able to play together, have this cohesion on and off the court. Winning is not the main thing, that’s what Coach Reiss said. Becoming better is the main thing.” 

Reiss later confirms she said that. “The most important thing is each day; are we getting better as a team? We don’t have to talk about winning. We’re focusing on right now, in the moment, getting better today.” 

Reiss approaches each season and her ten-year contract the way she used to conquer hills as a cross-country runner: “Running hills was: ‘I’m gonna pick a point and I’m gonna chop my steps and I’m gonna count to the point. Like, I’m gonna attack it to here and I’m never gonna look all the way up the hill, but I’m gonna get it to here.’” 

If she spies someone ahead of her on that hill, that person becomes her next benchmark. She’ll do it with a smile, but eventually, she will run down her prey.