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In high school basketball, a rare sight: Women coaching boys’ teams

Springbrook boys' basketball assistant coach Miriam Tesfamikael was the head boys' coach at Woodlawn (Chicago) last season. (Courtesy photo/Terance Crayton)

Past a side door, through two hallways and down a flight of stairs, Springbrook players ran up and down their court, Coach Darnell Myers’s voice bellowed throughout the windowless gym, and Miriam Tesfamikael sat hunched over on a step-stool, crossing her arms, pinching her bottom lip, dissecting the Blue Devils’ sets.

That she said few words during that mid-February practice — some encouragement for a layup and a correction to an out-of-place player — was a product of the former boys’ varsity head coach from Chicago still working to find her niche as an assistant. That she went upstairs to the coach’s office at the end of practice about an hour later, while the rest of the coaches and players dispersed to the locker room to prepare for a film session, was the product of her gender.

Tesfamikael is one of five women coaching on boys’ varsity basketball staffs in the Washington area. This probably is an all-time high, according to several longtime local head coaches, and a reflection of increasing exposure and acceptance of women on NBA benches.

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Kiburi Harvey at Wise is in her first season coaching boys. Lindsay Horbatuck at Landon played professionally in Bulgaria and Australia. Sherrese Russell at Northern started a team book club for motivation. Maddie McConnell at Pallotti is a mother whose toddler attends practices and considers the players her older brothers.

All didn’t know other local women had similar positions. All have aspirations, or at least lingering thoughts, to one day lead their own boys’ team.

Yet Tesfamikael, 27, a middle school teacher who moved to Montgomery County last summer, is the only one who has headed a boys’ squad before. She longs for that opportunity again, bucking what she views is a fraternity-like scene among the sport’s local coaches.

“It’s definitely a boys’ club out here,” Tesfamikael said. “It would be extremely easy if I just jumped into girls’ basketball right now. . . . No one would even bat an eye. The walls are so much taller with boys’ basketball.”

Soon after Tesfamikael arrived at Myers’s office that afternoon, a few Springbrook players came in to raid Myers’s refrigerator.

While unpacking leftovers from the team’s senior dinner and sitting with Tesfamikael at a table, they teased her about being from Chicago, where she led Woodlawn, a charter school affiliated with the University of Chicago, to its best finish ever at 11-4 last season.

She dished wisecracks and asked the boys to clean up their impromptu feast of pasta and chicken wings.

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“You’re a captain,” Tesfamikael said to one player. “Come on.”

“You’re an assistant,” he joked. “You’re a secretary.”

“I’ll remember that next time you come to the bench for answers,” Tesfamikael quipped. “Don’t talk to me.”

The exchange exemplified the balance she has worked to strike since joining Springbrook: maintaining control while developing personal connections through levity and respect. And she has made progress. She is “definitely undefeated” in post-practice shootouts with players. She has become the players’ in-game confidant, handling the clipboard and explaining adjustments. She has broached conversations about current events, including the topic of consent and relationships.

“It’s good because we need somebody we can talk to about anything, and I feel we can do that with her,” Springbrook senior Anthony Deruisseau said.

Added Myers, the head coach, who had never had a woman on his staff: “She has a lot of knowledge, and she knows what she’s talking about. The kids respond to her, and they respect her.”

But Tesfamikael has struggles, too. Often when she goes to shake referees’ hands before games, they don’t reciprocate, she said, because “they probably think I’m a trainer or manager.” Tesfamikael sometimes glances toward opposing benches and worries about her chances of landing a lead gig.

“Even if I want to do this, there are all these guys ahead of me who may or may not be more qualified,” Tesfamikael said. “Do I really want to put this time and energy into a program when I already know I’m going to face issues being a woman?”

Tesfamikael draws inspiration from the late Pat Summitt and her belief that the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history with 1,098 victories is overlooked for the success of male counterparts.

Plus, she sees the NBA progress with diversity. San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon led the franchise to a Las Vegas Summer League title in 2015 and acted as head coach during a 2017 preseason win, while Jenny Boucek is a first-year full-time assistant with the Sacramento Kings.

“It’s systemic just how women are viewed,” said Christy Winters Scott, an NCAA, NBA and WNBA broadcaster and current South Lakes girls’ basketball coach. “If they want to coach on the men’s side, then do that. When men want to coach on the women’s side, there’s not really much discussion.”

While Tesfamikael aspires to lead a boys’ team again, she has already garnered acclaim for her current role — from her friends’ 4- and 5-year-old sons. They have come to Springbrook’s games and now talk extensively about their “aunt” Miriam’s cool job.

“Maybe one day when we play basketball,” the boys once told her, “you can coach us.”

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A former linebacker with ‘the spirit of a warrior’ is one of D.C.’s top girls’ hoops stars