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New database, coaching summit can establish path for women in NBA

Back in February, a 20-minute meeting in Dallas set the NBA on a more progressive path when it comes to coaching hires. It also improved the odds of a team naming a female head coach in the near future.

Here’s what happened: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver met with Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. They sat down in Carlisle’s office at the American Airlines Center. Oris Stuart, the league’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, and Kathy Behrens, president of social responsibility and player programs, were there, too. It was supposed to be a casual conversation.

Five minutes into the meeting, Carlisle, who’s also president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, mentioned some feedback from fellow NBA coaches. They felt overlooked when teams searched for new head coaches and top assistants. They wanted decision-makers to know more about what they brought to the table. They asked for better development opportunities.

Carlisle suggested the NBA and the coaches association work together on a coaching summit and create a coaching database. By the end of the meeting, there was a handshake deal to do both.

“We all agreed that quotas don’t work,” said Carlisle. “It’s been proven in other professional leagues that quotas or mandates in this type of situation are ineffective and turn into a negative. The goal was to come up with a plan that helped all of our members develop and all of our members be known. The important thing is that no one gets left out.”

Even better for women, no one gets singled out.

When the NBA’s female assistant coaches talk about their jobs, they don’t want gender to be the focus. They don’t want to be seen as part of some optics-driven, up-the-numbers campaign. Like Carlisle said, pro sports, coaching hires and mandates are a bad mix. (See, obviously, the NFL and the Rooney Rule.) The initiatives from the NBA and the coaches association wisely focus on ways to promote equality of opportunity and expand the candidate pool overall.

The password-protected database will launch later this season and feature profiles of every NBA assistant coach, including the 11 current female assistants. Each entry will list everything from biographical information to past NBA jobs to coaching philosophies. “The goal,” said Carlisle, “is to give all assistant coaches a greater opportunity to be recognized by team decision-makers, particularly when they’re hiring head coaches.”

Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase has a professional coaching and playing career dating to 2005.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase has a professional coaching and playing career dating to 2005.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Natalie Nakase has a professional coaching and playing career dating to 2005.
Photo: nbae / getty images

The inaugural NBA coaches summit took place during the Las Vegas Summer League in July. It featured networking and professional development sessions with current and former head coaches, as well as panels with league and team executives. The idea there: increase the number of qualified coaches in the NBA pipeline.

That’s more good news for female coaches.

While the NBA is a multibillion-dollar business with global reach, it’s also a small, insular community where decision-makers often rely on recommendations from people they’ve known for a long time and trust.

If the database works the way the NBA and coaches association envision, then it should make hiring more about qualifications than connections. At least, it should make executives more aware of a greater number of qualified candidates. The summit and similar events in the future should help increase the number of qualified candidates, naturally upping the number of female NBA coaches in the process.

Still, no plan is perfect. The right time, right place and right connections will always be a big factor in NBA coaching hires. But with the database and the summit, there should be more right times, right places and opportunities to make the right connections. 

Another wise move by the NBA and coaches association? Proposing more than one way forward when it comes to inclusion. To increase the number of women in the league, whether it’s coaches, referees or front office personnel, you need both more qualified candidates and more awareness of qualified candidates. The combination of the database and the summit make the NBA and the coaches association appear more sincere about change and more invested in it.

With those two initiatives, you also improve the odds of changing people’s mindsets about who can coach in the NBA and bring women from a wider range of backgrounds into the conversation.

“It’s about opening people’s eyes to the possibilities,” said Cavaliers assistant coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “The first thing is to open decision-makers’ eyes to say, if you’re looking at the college ranks, it would be remiss to leave out 50 percent of the population. People coaching women’s college basketball have skills that do translate [to the NBA].”

When Gottlieb went from head coach of the women’s team at Cal to Cavaliers assistant, she became the first coach recruited from a top women’s college program to the NBA. That sends a valuable message to NBA decision-makers: Get outside your comfort zone in coaching searches. (And that comfort zone includes WNBA players and coaches.) If you admire the job done by a female coach at a women’s college program, then ask if she’d be interested in working in the NBA. 

Gottlieb wasn’t a beneficiary of the database or the summit, but those initiatives send the same message to team executives with coaching vacancies: Get outside your comfort zone. It’s also the message Silver and the league send when they make good on a handshake deal and work quickly with the coaches association to pull together the database and summit.

With support coming from the very top of the league, Gottlieb said her transition to the NBA “was more realistic to do and easier.” At this stage, that’s as significant a sign of progress as the ever-growing number of female NBA assistants.

 

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com