Practice is over and Boston Celtics assistant coach Kara Lawson is still working.
She stands under the basket rebounding, giving feedback to rookie guard Carsen Edwards as he shoots from different spots on the court. After swishing his final three attempts, he jogs over to her.
“Thanks coach,” Edwards says before exchanging a high-five with Lawson.
Welcome to the new-look NBA, in which women are impacting every aspect of the game — from broadcasting booths, officiating, coaching on the sidelines, front-office executives to ownership.
Lawson is one of a record 11 women serving as assistant coaches in the NBA this season. Former WNBA star Swin Cash, along with Seattle Storm star Sue Bird, are working in NBA front offices.
“It’s not a fad,” said Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. “It’s opportunities going to very accomplished women who have given their life to the game.”
While it may not be a fad, it is a recent trend.
Lieberman remembers a time when the presence of women was hard to spot or at best found only behind the scenes.
The 61-year-old — who has broken barriers as a player, a coach in the WNBA, head coach in NBA G League and assistant in the NBA — learned quickly that building relationships was key to erasing gender hurdles and opening opportunities in the league. That, along with an occasional assist from forward thinking men like former coach Don Nelson, who in 2009 hired her as the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ G League affiliate.
Several have continued Nelson’s vision, including San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich, who made Becky Hammon the NBA’s first full-time assistant in 2014; current Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle hired Jenny Boucek as an assistant in 2017; and the Sacramento Kings hired three women as assistants (Lieberman, Boucek and Lindsay Harding).
The BIG3, spearheaded by founder and entertainer Ice Cube, is helping to normalize the idea of women leading men, Lieberman said.
“I remember Donnie did an interview and he said, ‘Maybe the best man for the job isn’t a man at all.’ He had a list of criteria he wanted to hit for his head coach. And I hit those,” Lieberman said.
The women garner respect from players for their experience and basketball knowledge.
Celtics guard Gordon Hayward said Lawson, a former star at Tennessee and in the WNBA, has already made her presence felt.
“She’s been good as far as just the experience she has as a basketball player,” Hayward said. “Reading the game and kind of little things she sees coaching on the sideline. Having somebody that well-versed in basketball, that experience is good.”
Wizards assistant Kristi Toliver helped the Washington Mystics win their first WNBA championship this month. On the sideline, Washington NBA All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal were wearing the Wizard assistant’s WNBA jersey and dancing from the stands .
“The biggest thing I learned is to share your voice and what you’ve learned,” Toliver said. “Doing that has helped me communicate with my guys.”
Toliver is in a unique salary situation since she coaches for the Wizards and plays for the Mystics — both owned by same franchise. She was only paid about $10,000 with the Wizards last year because of WNBA salary cap rules. WNBA teams can only pay all their players a combined $50,000 in the offseason to supplement pay and Washington only had $10,000 left to pay Toliver.
There are no such hiccups in New Orleans, where Pelicans guard Frank Jackson said he always expected to benefit from Cash, a senior executive, and Naismith Hall of Famer Teresa Weatherspoon, who was recently hired as an assistant this season.
Cash won two NCAA titles at Connecticut in 2000 and 2002 and finished her 15-year WNBA career at the New York Liberty, where she became an executive. Weatherspoon won an NCAA title at Louisiana Tech in 1988 and was the demanding star point guard in the first seven seasons for Liberty from 1997-2003. She spent the last five years as the Liberty director of player development.
“They were ballers,” Jackson said. “They were good at their craft and I’ve taken a lot from both of them. ... I’ve always had open eyes and open ears to anyone who plays this game.”
The 21-year-old Jackson knows of the women’s talents because he has witnessed them firsthand. And he is not alone. The WNBA has been around since most players were teenagers or younger, starting its first season in 1997.
“As the years go on, they’re going to get more and more recognition,” said Jackson, in his third year out of Duke. “Girls can hoop, too. ... I just think as times change, you’ll see more and more.”
Bird joined the front office of the Denver Nuggets as an operations associate last year. Cash believes the NBA is realizing more women on staff is important to growing the league’s overall brand, business and bottom line.
“The reality is and the statistics prove it, is that having women included in your business helps you get more inclusion, helps you get the diversity you need,” she said. “Diversity of thought, not just black, white, Asian, Latino, whatever.”
Stephanie Ready, a former assistant in the then D-League, said a big factor in the opportunities for women comes from the younger generation of NBA executives, such as 76ers general manager Elton Brand. She said the new crop of hiring managers do a better job of recognizing what women bring to the table.
“Some people will age out,” said Ready, who was among the first women hired as an assistant coach for a men’s team at Coppin State, a former broadcaster with the Charlotte Hornets and now covers the NBA for TNT and Yahoo. “By that I mean the old regime of men who thought that only men could do these jobs.”
Richard Lapchick, who tracks racial and gender hiring numbers for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, has long lauded the NBA as a leader in gender hiring practices. He credits the leadership of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who said the league needed to increase the number female coaches and referees in the NBA.
Along with the record number of female assistants, five female referees will be working NBA games this season.
Lapchick also believes the NBA will soon have its female head coach. Whether that is Hammon in San Antonio remains to be seen. But whoever it is, Lapchick said the move would go a long way in putting even more women in position to make basketball decisions.
“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t happen before the next season,” he said, “or during the next season.”
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