WNBA Cult Classics: The Legend of Ivory Latta

The menisci of the knee - according to an anatomy book by Beuafils and Verdonk, are "two crescent shaped fibrocartilagenous structures that are found within each knee." The left lateral meniscus is around 40 centimeters long, or about 1.5 inches.

In Ivory Latta's case, it might be smaller than that.

Latta, who is listed at 5-6, suffered a left knee injury at the end of the 2006 season at North Carolina in the Final Four against Maryland. According to Latta, the loss hurt worse than the knee injury. The Tar Heels would go back to the national semifinals the next year, but for Ivory Latta's three final years at UNC, the Heels would be knocked out of the tournament by losses to the eventual champion every single time. (Baylor 2005, Maryland 2006, Tennessee 2007)

Even with those losses, one had to admit that Latta's time at UNC was very fruitful. You can look at her Wikipedia page for that. She picked up a Nancy Lieberman Award as Point Guard of the Year in 2006 and was Consensus All American the same year. She had scored more points per game in her senior year than in her junior. The Lieberman Award alone should be enough to get her in the WNBA and the only question was where was she going to go.

Latta ended up as a #11 draft pick in 2007, picked by the Detroit Shock. Maybe the other teams were still worried about that knee. Latta going to Detroit seems odd, it is very hard to think of Ivory Latta as a Bad Girl in any way, shape, or form.

This has nothing to do with Latta's desire to win, which in my experience has always been outstanding. Rather, it's in Latta's personality. Effervescent. Never a bad word for any person or any situation. It's very hard to imagine Latta spitting out a line of swears or trash talk, at least not based on talking to her face to face. I'm not claiming that Latta is a saint, but she seems so joyous that it's hard to imagine her lowering herself into someone else's dirt.

Latta didn't succeed in Bill Laimbeer's system. She didn't shoot well there, at 39.1 percent. She only had 221 minutes total, 10th on the entire team. (Katie Mattera, then Feenstra, played twice as many minutes, a Liberty graduate among the Bad Girls). Detroit was a multiple-threat team, with Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith, Plenette Pierson, Swin Cash, Cheryl Ford, a virtual All-Star squad that struck terror in just about any team that it played. It would have been very difficult for anyone to earn starting minutes on that squad, much more so a rookie.

So when 2008 rolled around and the WNBA granted a franchise to Atlanta, the Dream picked up both Mattera and Latta in the expansion draft. With a team of castoff players, Latta got to start in 31 out of the 34 games, and was second in minutes overall in the 2008 season. She took 160 3-point shots that year, primarily because Atlanta was not good enough to break free from defensive pressure and Latta was often forced to shoot or Atlanta would pick up a 24-second violation. (Her second most 3-point attempts for her career were 97 from the 2011 Tulsa season.) Betty Lennox took even more that year at 176 attempts, good for the #39 spot in WNBA season history.

If the three pointer isn't the most exciting shot in basketball, it belongs on a very short list. When Latta shot the three, no one went to sleep. She went 5-for-6 against Detroit on June 22, 2008, scoring 26 points in a 97-76 loss to her former team, the Detroit Shock. (The outcome of that game, unfortunately, was never in doubt.) It was the 13th straight loss to open the season for the Dream - and four more were to come.

With wins hard to come by, Atlanta fans were looking for someone to cheer for. Most of the Atlanta players at the time were quiet personalities. Two of them were Brazilians - Erika de Souza might have been a breakout with the fans, but a leg injury sidelined her for part of the year and she needed Iziane Castro Marques to translate for her. As a result, the gregarious Ivory Latta became the face of the franchise and the clear fan favorite in Atlanta.

Everybody loved Ivory Latta. All around spark plug. 3-point shooter. Full of hustle.

This was not to last. When the next year rolled around, there would be a lot of changes. The Dream would have the #1 pick in the draft and picked up Angel McCoughtry. Nikki Teasley was ready to play at point guard. Sancho Lyttle was picked up when Houston disbanded.

One would think that the biggest news was that Chamique Holdsclaw came out of retirement to play for the Dream. But believe it or not, that wasn't the biggest news among fans.

With their second round pick, the Dream picked up Shalee Lehning out of Kansas State. Lehning had a lot of positive qualities of her own. Furthermore, she was moving up the table as head coach Marynell Meadors saw her as the best fit for her system. Before the first regular season game was played, Latta was handed her walking papers. Lehning stayed. Meadors said that if the Dream had a 12-player roster Latta would have been on the team.

Naturally, this caused a fan firestorm. Some fans swore to the high heavens that they would never watch an Atlanta Dream game again (this was also the start of the 'stick pins in a voodoo doll of Marynell Meadors' era among the more unforgiving fans). Nikki Teasley would be the starting point guard, the Dream had both Lehning and Coco Miller, and Latta would be...looking for work.

Then, in July of 2009, Teasley was cut. Meadors re-signed Latta - never say never again - and Latta would come back. She would stay the entire season, but Shalee Lehning would start for the Dream at point guard - Latta would strictly come off the bench. Iziane Castro Marques would become the 3-point threat for the Dream in 2009. Even though an injury to Shalee Lehning on the last game of the season gave Latta the starting role in both losses by Atlanta against the Detroit Shock in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, it was the swan song for Latta.

The Dream had moved on. There was more drama to come in Atlanta when Chamique Holdsclaw did not return, drama that moved the old Latta/Lehning "rivalry" (a fan rivalry, but not one between players) off the Dream's hypothetical front page. Meanwhile, Ivory Latta landed on her feet again with her old team in a new city - the Detroit Shock became the Tulsa Shock, and when many Shock players declined to return for various reasons, Ivory Latta suddenly had a starting job again. She has started all but 11 of the 62 games she has played in in a Tulsa uniform, and has played more games in a Tulsa uniform than in an Atlanta uniform.

Latta would be part of the two longest losing streaks in WNBA history - the 17-game streak of the Dream in 2008, and the 20-game losing streak by the Shock in 2011. She was also there when both streaks ended.

Of the 2008 Atlanta Dream players, only one player remains from that roster - Erika de Souza. Players come and go on rosters all the time. But they do not go from our hearts so easily. That 2008 season will always have a special place in my heart, with B-Money making the goal go cha-CHING and with Ivory Latta raising an index finger in triumph when the Atlanta Dream won their very first game.

A knee injury to that same left knee - another torn meniscus - ended her season in September of 2011. But she came right back in 2012 and is still with the Shock.

In the anatomy of the knee, there's another invisible part hidden to physicians but well known to basketball fans. Speculation. If Latta had never hurt her knee in North Carolina, would she have been a much better player? We'll never know. Her basketball career has been marked with so much misfortune. But for one season that was not so great, Atlanta fans thought that Ivory Latta was the greatest thing around, and we were very fortunate to have her.

With SBN-NBA's rundown of the greatest cult heroes for each team around the NBA, this is the second of our contributions for a team in the WNBA. You can look around the NBA network for other fans' takes on "cult classics", but for our purposes here, who are some of your WNBA (or your favorite WNBA team's) cult classics?

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