“Just having more women around in basketball operations positions will start to, I think, make things a little more normal,” said Harding, 35, who was promoted to player development coach after completing the 2018-19 regular season as a scout, becoming the first woman in franchise history to hold a coaching position. “And there won’t be articles written, like, ‘Lindsey Harding, first woman this …’ ”
In 2014, Becky Hammon became the NBA’s first full-time female coach and the first in any of the four major U.S. professional leagues. There should be a record eight women in on-court coaching roles this upcoming NBA season, with 18 more holding basketball operations positions in front offices. Six women hold controlling or significant ownership stakes in teams.
“The league, they don’t just choose anyone. They choose the right people. It’s a competitive league, and there’s a lot of men in this league. I know the people who are being hired right now, they’ve been ready for this position. They’re prepared,” said Natalie Nakase, a Los Angeles Clippers player development coach. “It’s been really good to see women getting these positions and hitting a home run with it.”
Though the NBA feels less like an old boys’ club, there appears to remain a long way to go. Just getting into the hiring conversation remains an obstacle for many women, and even once they break through, many feel uncomfortable receiving attention for being a sideline “first.”
“I don’t want to be known for my gender or the fact that I’m a mother," Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Jenny Boucek said. “I want to earn my way as a coach and not be given any special treatment or different treatment. I just want to be a great coach and be valued for that.”
A feeling of belonging
When Nakase and the other Clippers assistant coaches go for dinner, glassware doubles as players and napkins transform into whiteboards. The staffers draw up after-timeout plays, moving plates and drinks around on the table to simulate players on the floor.
Every time dinner turns into a huddle, Nakase knows she belongs.
“I’m with the top, and I feel really comfortable because I’m just as obsessed,” said the 39-year-old, who will be entering her eighth season with the Clippers and second as player development coach. “People were calling me crazy before. Man, I know I’m not that crazy. I just really love basketball.”
She loves it so much that Nakase worked two seasons as an unpaid intern in the Clippers’ video room just to break into the business in 2012. She only got that coveted position through a relentlessness with which she crashed a children’s clinic held at the team’s practice facility, volunteered as a ballhandling demonstrator, pelted the coaches with questions and networked with anyone with a Clippers email address.
Other women highlighted similar difficulties in making connections in the male-dominated NBA and then trying not to stand out.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction. I think a lot of people are very much open to this . . . [but] the hardest thing in this job is relationships are everything,” Harding said. “That is the biggest battle. Not just the whole man-woman thing. It’s like how do we get the connection? How do we even get a chance to shake the hand of someone making the decision? To get in the door.”
For Harding and Boucek, it took someone from the men’s game who was a fan of their work in the WNBA. Harding, the No. 1 draft pick in 2007, played nine seasons in the WNBA. Boucek, 45, worked for two decades as a WNBA coach before breaking into the NBA with the Sacramento Kings in the 2017-18 season.
But it hasn’t been easy since.
After Boucek gave birth to a daughter last summer, several mentors encouraged her not to be shy in sharing her story, earning her respect from players and inspiring other women who may face tough choices in having a career and a family. Not everyone has been thrilled.
“There’s been some pretty significant backlash toward me personally about the attention that I receive for the fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I’m a mother, and I think that’s rubbed some people the wrong way,” Boucek said. “And in that way, that has been a challenge because I really just want to be known as a great coach.”
Asked whether the backlash has come from fans or within the coaching community, Boucek declined to share details.
“I don’t really want to get into it,” she said. “It’s a competitive business. I’ll just say that.”
Rising in the game
It appears to be only a matter of time until a woman is hired as a head coach in the NBA. In 2017, Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN there “definitely will be” a woman in the lead position, and he partially placed the onus on himself to “ensure that it happens sooner rather than later.” Hammon interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coaching job in May 2018, and she will enter her sixth year as one of the top San Antonio Spurs assistants as Coach Gregg Popovich inches closer to retirement.
“I have a very high expectation that it will happen — it’s not an expectation. I know it will happen at some point,” said Oris Stuart, the NBA’s executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer. “There are women who have the ability and the interest to contribute to this game at the highest level. If that ability is there, it’s going to be recognized, and if that interest is there, it’s going to be responded to.”
While Muffet McGraw is thrilled that 30 percent of the league’s coaching staffs employ women, and while she looks forward to seeing a woman in a top NBA job, the NCAA women’s title-winning Notre Dame coach hopes the women’s game will not be forgotten when the men’s game opens its doors wider.
“I think we need more women on the 'W' side also. That would be great, if that was the training program,” McGraw said about women learning in the NBA then coaching in the WNBA. "Usually, it goes the opposite way. Everyone cuts their teeth on the women’s side, but, gosh, it would really bring us forward.
“I would love to see women [coach in the NBA], but right now, I want more qualified women so we can keep them in the game,” McGraw continued. “We’re losing women from our game. We’ve got to figure out a way to populate that first.”
Still, the drive for some women to coach in the NBA is a matter of equality.
“I mean, why not?” Harding said. “Men are coaching us all the time.”
Harding doesn’t know when a woman will be hired as a head coach, but she can envision a day soon when coaches like her will no longer be a story.
“There will come a time,” Harding said, “where I believe it will be the norm to have quite a few women in an organization coaching.”