The NBA is on the verge of becoming the first US professional sports league to hire a woman as head coach.
The bond is there, reinforced by the league’s growing group of female assistants and their sibling connection with the WNBA
The NBA players have shown a clear willingness to be led by women. Just ask Michele Roberts, the boss of your powerful union.
There are plenty of job vacancies. Head coach positions are available in Orlando, Indiana, Portland, and Boston.
This time around, there are women among the contestants, and this is a major upheaval not just for the NBA, but for the sport as a whole.
It will definitely happen. If not this year, then hopefully in the next few years.
Will a woman running an NBA team from the bench smash the glass ceiling? Not quite. Only when women are regularly recruited for such positions.
Furthermore, real progress only becomes possible when the men’s football trailblazer is just one of many ways for women to train at any level – including college basketball and the WNBA
Still, think of the powerful message this first NBA employee would send: running a billion dollar franchise and some of the world’s most famous male athletes entrusted to a woman.
“It would be huge,” said Dawn Staley. “We just need the right situation.”
She has the bona fides to express herself.
Inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame after a stellar career, 51-year-old Staley is now the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team and the University of South Carolina Women’s Basketball Team, an eternal power. She is also one of the most prominent black women in coaching.
“There are many women who are good enough” to run an NBA team, Staley said.
Becky Hammon is one. She got inside information after spending several years in San Antonio as an assistant to Gregg Popovich. In the NBA, it’s like being at God’s right hand.
Dukes Kara Lawson is another. She was a favorite of Brad Stevens, former coach of the Celtics and their current president of basketball operations, during her time as an assistant in Boston, and is reportedly on the team’s radar.
What about Staley himself? As a courageous tactician and motivator, she is more than capable of taking the plunge. That’s why I looked for their wisdom.
When we spoke, she made it clear that she was not applying for an NBA job. She values her team in South Carolina, which has led her to three final fours since 2015 and a national title in 2017.
“I come with a lot of references,” she said. “I am sure I have the confidence. I can safely stand in front of men and lead them. First team all stars. MVPs, I agree. “
More than okay, given the firm tone in her voice when she said that.
What about the lack of NBA experience?
“I haven’t trained in the league,” Staley said directly. “But you know what? I’m a fast learner. I learn fast.”
It’s a common pang when talk of great female coaches running men’s teams gets too serious – as if there weren’t many men running NBA teams without spending time in the league. (Case in point: Stevens, who took over the Celtics after spending a full coaching career in college.)
This general criticism made me wonder what other diversions could be thrown in the way of female employment. What will it be like, I asked Staley, when the first woman breaks through in the NBA?
The first woman will no doubt have many supporters, she said. But there will also be ankle draggers who still believe that no matter what sport, a woman cannot lead male celebrities effectively.
“A lot of people would be out there waiting for you to make a mistake, waiting for you to be wrong,” she said. “There’s a whole dynamic that men, white or black, just don’t have to think about. It’s a feminine thing. The expectation will be so much greater than with the male trainer. So much bigger. “
Trainers at all levels and in every sport are used to unfairly questioning everything from looks to the way they address their strategies. The pioneering coach is faced with obstacles reminiscent of other “premieres” that have broken down barriers in sport.
The city and fan base also need to be prepared for change – especially given the clutter of racism and sexism in America when the coach is a black woman.
Being the first has a deep resonance that can spread far and wide, but the struggle for equality women are waging on all fronts has nuances.
We can orientate ourselves on Staley, who kept remarking in our conversation how happy she is in South Carolina. She sees herself in the long run in women’s college basketball, where she teaches, flatters and “prepares young women for the WNBA so our WNBA can last another 25 years”.
And a cue from the recently retired Muffet McGraw, the other Hall of Famer I spoke to last week.
Women who lead NBA teams, she said, is “nothing that interests me”.
“I want women to coach women,” she added. When it comes to professional men’s basketball, “I want these women to go into the NBA and be great assistants and then come back and do women’s jobs in college and with the pros.”
Their openness came as no surprise.
In her 33 years coaching women’s basketball at Notre Dame, McGraw won two national championships and made her team a venerable force. She has also earned a reputation for advocating for and supporting the need for women in leadership positions: over the course of her career, she decided to only hire female assistants.
McGraw pointed out how much work there was to be done. In 1972, at the beginning of Title IX, the pioneering law that paved the way for gender equality on college campuses, 90 percent of head coaches in women’s college sports were women. Then, slowly but surely, as the fame in women’s sports grew along with the pay, men began to take power.
By 2019, the numbers in the highest division of college sports had dropped to around 40 percent overall – and to around 60 percent in division I women’s basketball.
Things are hardly better in the WNBA Despite its reputation as a bastion of self-determination, the league of 12 teams has only five female head coaches.
There are too few female trainers at all levels and in all sports, from elementary school to high school and beyond. “Why,” asked McGraw, “when your child is playing soccer and they’re 5 and 6 years old, is it so rare to see someone’s mother coaching the team? And then you get older, it’s almost always a guy. So it’s no wonder that there is a stereotype. They believe that when you think of a leader, you are thinking of a man.
“That needs to change.”
Glass ceilings are everywhere for women. Crashing them in professional men’s basketball would be an important start to crushing them all.