By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
As frustrating as Sunday’s 68-55 loss to then-No. 25 University of Texas was for head coach Nicki Collen, it didn’t help that former Lady Bear DiDi Richards was sitting courtside, teasing her with the presence of a talented hoops star. Collen said she’s always happy to see former players come back, but she surely could have used the 2020 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year against the Longhorns.
“We could have used DiDi,” Collen said. “She’s a really good rebounding guard. I could have used her rebounding today.”
Richards strutted into the Ferrell Center for the first time since Dec. 4, 2021, when she came back to watch NaLyssa Smith and some of her other former teammates play. Regardless of the fact that Richards returned to Waco for the second time since she was drafted 21 months ago, only three members of the current squad were on that 2020-21 roster.
She made sure to catch the team’s morning shootaround to give those three former teammates a hug, which included fifth-year senior Caitlin Bickle, senior guard Jaden Owens and junior guard Sarah Andrews.
Although having been back once before, Richards said she couldn’t hold the tears back when she arrived at the place she called home for her four-year collegiate career.
“There was a whole bunch of nostalgia going on when I walked in,” Richards said. “So many memories flashing back, I shedded a couple of tears in the car when I first pulled up. It’s just beautiful and I’m excited to be back.”
Richards said she feels it’s important for her to return to Waco on occasion to give back all the love she received as a Lady Bear. She said she embraces her alma mater and she’s always excited to return.
Before being drafted into the WNBA, the 23-year-old was part of some dominant Baylor squads in her time on campus. Richards helped the team win a national championship in 2019 and experienced four-straight Big 12 championships in the green and gold.
When she walked by the Ferrell Center’s weight room, the memories continued to flood in for Richards.
“We used to play so many pranks in here,” Richards said. “Coach [Kim] Mulkey loved country music, so we’d be up at 6 a.m. lifting and then we’d hear country music come on. [I was] like, ‘Nobody wants to hear country music at 6 a.m.’”
In addition to being a former Baylor star and professional athlete on the hardwood, Richards has taken up modeling as an offseason gig. Being in New York with the Liberty, Richards said the opportunities are endless and that it’s “a dream come true” to be able to walk down the runway.
“I feel like it’s been on my bucket list since I was like four years old,” Richards said. “I’ve always wanted to walk in a fashion show [and] be a model my entire life. To be able to do that because of basketball is just a beautiful story and it was something that was written that I couldn’t have told any better.”
At Baylor, Richards styled her hair in two ponytails that became an iconic look for her. She said she doesn’t often style it like that in the WNBA, but she knew she had to replicate the hairdo before entering the Ferrell Center.
She added that the hairstyle may become a more consistent look on the professional stage.
“I had to wear it when I came here,” Richards said. “I was like ‘I can’t go into Baylor without my two ponytails.’ I haven’t worn it as much as people expected me to in the W[NBA], but I think it’s going to be different this year. I feel like it’s going to come back. I miss it. It’s something that was put with me and associated with me so why leave it in the past when it had such good things to it?”
Collen replaced Mulkey before the 2021-22 season and never coached Richards, but the second-year head coach was glad to have the former Lady Bear’s presence on the sideline.
“It’s good to have players back,” Collen said. “It’s good to create an environment where they want to come back. It’s amazing, when you think about … there are only three people on this team that played with her. We have a lot of girls who know who she is, but certainly don’t know her.”
Collen believes “DiDi has been an unbelievable ambassador for Baylor” because she has “such great energy.” The 2018 WNBA Coach of the Year said Richards’ efforts to come back can go a long way. To Collen, it’s important for Baylor fans to support its athletes even after they move on to the WNBA.
“We have to continue to grow the game in so many ways,” Collen said. “It will be easier for our players to get NIL deals if women’s basketball is consistently being talked about at every level, [so] that it doesn’t disappear in the summer. What the league’s doing and them bringing DiDi back and doing kind of a takeover of sorts is really good for the women’s game, big-picture wise.”