For much of her life, Iciss Tillis has been defined by basketball.
The sport has cast a large shadow over her existence, the game never straying too far from her identity.
And for good reason.
Tillis, the daughter of former heavyweight boxer James Tillis, was the 1999 Tulsa World Player of the Year while at Cascia Hall. Tillis led the Commandos to the Class 3A state championship as a junior.
She parlayed that into a basketball scholarship to Duke University, where she was part of a Blue Devils team that won four ACC championships and played in the Final Four in 2002 and 2003.
Tillis reached the milestone of becoming a professional athlete by playing in the WNBA and later overseas.
That’s the Iciss Tillis everyone has come to know.
But she wants the public to be aware of a different Iciss Tillis.
That is, the woman who wants to make a profound difference in the world in the court of law.
Tillis, 35, is in hot pursuit of her place — her true identity — in the legal field.
“I knew a lot of people who transition out of sports usually stay in their sport, whether it be coaching or something of that nature,” Tillis said. “I knew I never had an interest in coaching.”
Instead, she has spent the past five years going through law school, studying everything from civil ligation, international sports law and sports management at schools like Columbia and later the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston.
“I have been in school for five straight years,” she said. “It has been one hell of a ride.”
Tillis, who has been part of an apprenticeship with the NBA, said she knew this place in her life was destined long before basketball stardom found her.
“Since I was 6 years old, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” Tillis said. “This lady told me that ‘You are going to be a lawyer one day.’
“I was like, ‘What’s that?’ ”
Basketball was always Tillis’ passion, she said. But law always seemed to be gnawing at her soul.
Her interest in law piqued while watching the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial while in grade school.
“I was just fascinated with it,” Tillis said. “I had an innate sense of justice even though I didn’t understand how the court system worked. I could see what pieces were playing together in this case. It was a divisive case in society that pitted white people against black people, and I saw the fundamental unfairness.”
From there, she spent more time keeping up with the latest trials on Court TV than the highlights of basketball games on ESPN.
When basketball ended for her at 30, after what she described as a frustrating time overseas, Tillis understood it was the right time to make the jump. She was ready to stop trying to navigate the often-cruel world of the business of basketball that often left her in limbo.
The commitment, however, didn’t come without some trepidation at first.
“I was a little worried when I retired at 30,” she said. “(I thought,) ‘What if I get here and absolutely hate it? What if it’s too hard?’ From the start, I knew that I was where I was supposed to be.
“I’m all about advocacy, however that might come about. It might be in sports or civil rights. This will be the next part of my journey — seeing what my passion in law is.”
Tillis said she hopes to be able to tackle one of the more sensitive but pressing social issues facing the country as it relates to inequities in the officer-involved shooting conviction rate.
“I hope that there is a chance to address Congress on the issue,” Tillis said. “Our laws are designed to where these police officers get off on killing people (or) get voluntary manslaughter. It’s gotten to the point where you look at what’s going on and it makes you think that police officers’ lives are more valuable than others. They (police) have this unfettered discretion to kill people unnecessarily, and it’s a problem that has to be addressed.”
She sees herself as one of many former and current black athletes who can use their platforms to influence progress.
“Particularly in the African-American community, athletes stand in a position of influence that can be used in a very positive way,” Tillis said. “I would love to address this issue. I am all for it.”
How far this journey in law takes Tillis — whatever battles she ends up throwing herself into — she understands at this point how much she’s willing to work to reach her potential.
“Nobody knows what I’ve been through these last five years,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to give basketball my full attention. I could be a student and really be able to tap into my intelligence and push myself like I never had before.”
While matriculating through school, Tillis — a former basketball star — worked hard to keep that part of her life a secret to strangers because of the sour taste the game had left in her mouth at the end of her professional career.
She had enough of the contract negotiations, dealings with agents and franchises that did not have her best interest at heart.
“I went through this bitterness period. I wanted to walk away from the game and never look back,” Tillis said. “I hoped nobody ever remembered who Iciss Tillis was. I didn’t tell anyone in law school that I was a basketball player until people figured it out eventually.”
Tillis, though, doesn’t want to give off the perception that she harbors any regrets or has come to loathe basketball. She realizes the sport has afforded her opportunities and experiences that helped shape her today.
For now, Tillis wants to focus on the newfound purpose of making a difference in people’s lives.
“I never cared about the fame because I know who I am,” Tillis said. “I walked away from the game with a bitter taste in my mouth, but I hope to make a difference in women’s basketball. I want this new generation to not have to feel that way.”