Iciss Rose Tillis is the daughter of a former heavyweight fighter and she recalls encountering numerous former athletes growing up who seemed stuck in the past.
“After the career is over, it’s like, what do you do next?” she said. “That’s the piece that I was looking at. I don’t want to be one of those athletes that cannot let go.”
And when it was time for Tillis to step away from a basketball career that included Final Four appearances and a solid pro run in the U.S. and internationally, she was ready.
There were doubts and new challenges to overcome, but she’d been preparing all along.
Tillis always knew she wanted to be a litigator and worked toward it during her playing days. And now she’s an associate with Jackson Lewis.
Court TV and WNBA
As a child growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tillis often found herself glued to Court TV, following the ups and downs of high-profile cases like the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the 90s.
“I followed several cases every single day, and I felt like I had an inherent understanding of justice somehow,” recalled Tillis. “I saw lawyers as people who could fix things that were fundamentally unfair. I realize that that’s not always the case nor that it’s that simple, but there are lawyers who really affect change.”
Her early road to the law went through a court and there certainly was some justice involved.
Boys who played basketball in the neighborhood wouldn’t let her join in. “Whenever they would leave, I would just take the ball and play by myself,” Tillis said. “One day, they finally let me play with them, and I won. From that day forward, I was in the gym 24/7. I couldn’t get enough.”
She played throughout high school, competing in the World Youth Games in Moscow and earning a basketball scholarship to Duke. She chose the North Carolina campus for athletics and academics, with an eye on law school.
She helped the Blue Devils win conference titles and appeared in two Final Fours before heading to the WNBA where she played for the Detroit Shock, the New York Liberty, and the Los Angeles Sparks.
Tillis also played internationally, in nearly a dozen countries, including France, Russia, South Korea and China.
But she became frustrated with pay issues, including the gap between what women and men make playing basketball.
“It gets kind of old,” she said. “On the women’s side it’s always going to be a battle with the money.”
Leaving sports wasn’t easy, even though she had a plan.
‘Athletes Die Twice’
Tillis, the daughter of former boxer James Tillis, was nervous making the decision to give up her career, and faced doubts about the future.
She retired from the WNBA in November 2011 and entered Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston the following fall.
“After the first day, I knew I was right where I was supposed to be,” she said although there still were some tough moments.
“I even tried to keep the basketball thing under wraps for a minute when I went to law school, but it was very obvious with my height,” she said. “There’s a saying, athletes die twice. There is a sadness and grief that accompanies it. I just didn’t show it. I kept it to myself.”
She also experienced what’s known as athlete burnout after retiring. It’s a result of years of training and the stress of pro competition.
“You basically have a full-time job at a very early age, and it’s not like you’re working at a movie theater,” she explained. “You’re disciplined at a very early age. You learn to wake up, work out, eat, study, come back, do it again.”
She still hasn’t played basketball again since retiring.
Tillis moved to New York after law school and earned a Master’s and LLM in sports management and global sports law from Columbia.
Discovery, Position Statements
She’s working on legal writing and research, learning how to conduct discovery and draft position statements. And those years of training are actually paying off in the legal world.
“Knowing how to prepare and knowing how to prepare, months and months in advance,” she said. “We started preparing for the national championship on the first day of preseason.”
“In basketball, working yourself to death physically pays off to a certain point, but then you have to be careful because you don’t want to get injured,” Tillis added. “It’s similar here. I have to put things down and go home.”
Tillis still misses the camaraderie of basketball, but is making the most of her new career.
“Now it’s time to be a champion in a different court,” she said. “And this time I get to win on behalf of someone else. That’s the piece I’m really looking forward to.”