Players believe a woman is ready to be an NBA coach, so why don’t their front offices?
If not for an offer of a lifetime, Lindsay Gottlieb might be the focus of this story. Instead, the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant and newly hired USC women’s basketball head coach is watching from afar as the NBA’s wait for its first female head coach continues.
With the NBA Finals underway, six of the league’s eight open head coaching positions have been filled, all by men. Three are first-time head coaches, five are people of color, all are former players. Becky Hammon was a popular name for several positions and a finalist for the job in Portland, but the seven-year Spurs assistant was reportedly passed over when she received less-than-stellar recommendations from San Antonio staffers.
“I look at the hires across the board and there’s men who look all different kinds of ways — short, tall, former player, not — and no one bats an eye,” Gottlieb said. “Except when it’s a female. [Then] it’s like, ‘Well, how will the guys respond?’ Guess what, they respond well to good coaches and good people and they respond negatively to bad people and people who aren’t good coaches.”
Hammon has inspired calls for a woman to be named an NBA head coach since she joined the Spurs staff in 2014. With every job opening, a swelling chorus argues it’s time to promote Hammon.
To even have woman in the head coaching conversation is a significant step from 10 years ago, Gottlieb notes, but it’s just a small reward obscured by stereotyping, double standards and gender bias.
Women in the industry wait anxiously for cracks in the glass ceiling to turn into a full-blown breakthrough. That inevitable day is already long overdue.
“Gender balance in corporate America or on a board is seen as a business imperative; that’s it’s good for business,” said Nicole LaVoi, the director at Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “But in sports, we’re really behind the times.”
Before getting hired at USC, Gottlieb was one of six female assistants in the NBA this season, a small, but growing sorority led by Hammon, who was the league’s first full-time paid assistant coach.
With seven years as an assistant, there’s no question Hammon is qualified, Gottlieb said. Now it’s about finding the right fit. With all the focus on one woman trying to break through, it’s easy for general managers in a risk-averse league to find reasons why a historic hire wouldn’t be right.
“She’s really the one,” Gottlieb said. “That’s problematic if there’s one female in the conversation because that one female is subject to a level of scrutiny that I don’t think anyone else would get. ... There’s only 30 jobs in the league. It’s incredibly difficult for any one individual to get one, but to think that anyone who’s coming to the table as a candidate isn’t really qualified in many ways and also flawed in some ways is foolish. The idea that Becky or any female would have to be perfect is I think unfair.”
Although Hammon impressed Trail Blazers officials, Spurs staffers questioned her ability to handle aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities, according to Bleacher Report.
With Portland superstar Damian Lillard growing increasingly frustrated with the franchise, “Blazers personnel then cast doubt that Hammon was the candidate to steer the ship through such delicate waters with Lillard,” according to the report.
Portland general manager Neil Olshey hired Chauncey Billups, a former Finals MVP and one-year Clippers assistant. The choice was marred by a 1997 allegation of sexual assault when a woman accused Billups and his then-Celtics teammate Ron Mercer of raping her.
Jason Kidd, a former Lakers assistant who was hired by the Dallas Mavericks, pleaded guilty to spousal abuse in 2001 and was suspended for two games in 2013 after pleading guilty to driving while impaired.
To observers, the hiring decisions put a spotlight on the NBA’s true values.
“Are they walking the walk with these two hires?” LaVoi said. “Not to say they’re not qualified, but if you have equally qualified women who don’t have a past of accusations or things in their past that are questionable or things that may not align with the values of your team, then why wouldn’t you go with her?”
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon was prepared when she became the first woman to serve as an NBA head coach after Gregg Popovich was ejected against L.A.
Olshey, a former Clippers general manager, had a long-standing relationship with Billups that included bringing the point guard to L.A. in 2011. Kidd, who is 183-190 as a head coach with stops in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, was drafted by the Mavericks in 1994 and returned to the franchise in 2008. He played with former Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki, who rejoined the franchise as an advisor to assist with the hiring of a general manager and head coach.
Networking remains the most powerful tool in the hiring process.
“The one thing I will say about the NBA is there are not enough women who have been there long enough to have the relationships to get all the calls,” said Gottlieb, who was an assistant with the Cavaliers for two years. “That’s where there’s an immense amount of pressure to say, ‘When are we going to get the one?’ Well, how about we have a great pool of women at all levels and then all of the sudden, you’ll see there will be more opportunities for women to advance.”
After Hammon, Mavericks assistant Jenny Boucek has the most experience in the NBA of any current female assistant in the league.
The former Sacramento Monarch and Seattle Storm head coach joined the Dallas bench in 2018 after a season with the Sacramento Kings.
Hammon became the first woman to take over head coaching duties during an NBA game when coach Gregg Popovich was ejected and she replaced him on the sideline during the second quarter of the Spurs’ game against the Lakers on Dec. 30. LeBron James called it a “beautiful thing” to hear Hammon barking out instructions from the sideline.
“She’s been putting in the work, and any time you put in the work you get rewarded with opportunities,” James said after the Lakers’ 121-107 win at AT&T Center.
To develop qualified coaching candidates, the NBA launched the Assistant Coaches Program in 1988. It provides current and retired NBA, G league and WNBA players with hands-on experience. The result is a deeper pool of head coaching candidates than any other American pro sports league featuring male athletes.
“Once I got the job, me being a woman, [the players] didn’t care. What they cared about was my résumé.”
— Tamara Moore, former WNBA player and head men’s basketball coach at Mesabi Range College
Tamara Moore is exploring analytics and video study through the program with hopes to climb up the coaching ranks. But the six-year WNBA veteran has already broken ground in coaching.
In April 2020, she was named the head men’s basketball coach of Mesabi Range College, a Division III junior college in northern Minnesota. Moore is the only female head coach of a men’s collegiate program and the first to do so since Kerri-Ann McTiernan led the men’s team at Kingsborough Community College in New York in the 1990s.
Moore was the head coach of a high school girls’ program when Mesabi Range volleyball coach Sara Matuszak was recruiting one of her players. Matuszak knew Moore from high school, when she led Minneapolis North to a state championship as a senior and was named Minnesota Miss Basketball. Matuszak was a guidance counselor at the school.
Moore, eager to coach at the college level, mentioned to Matuszak to let her know if there were any open positions at Mesabi Range, where Matuszak’s husband coaches women’s basketball.
There were, but with the men’s team.
No problem for the former Wisconsin star who was picked 15th overall in the 2002 WNBA draft.
“Once I got the job, me being a woman, [the players] didn’t care,” Moore said. “What they cared about was my résumé.”
Moore is seventh on Wisconsin’s all-time scoring list and still leads the program in career steals. She bounced around to seven teams during her WNBA career, crossing paths with many of the women sitting on NBA benches now. She played with Hammon in 2005 in New York and is close with Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon. Seeing their success shows knowledge is “gender-less,” Moore said. She believes “we’re right on the cusp” of seeing the first female head coach in the NBA.
“People behind me are looking to say, ‘I can be a head coach of a men’s program,’” Moore said, “and then I look at Becky Hammon and Teresa Weatherspoon like, if you guys get that, I now know I have a chance to make it as a head coach in the NBA.”
“If you’re talented, if you’re someone who can coach, you’re someone who can coach at any level. I think that’s where my story goes with this.”
— Lindsay Gottlieb, former NBA assistant and current USC women’s basketball head coach
Weatherspoon has been with the Pelicans since 2019 and was promoted to a full-time assistant in 2020. The NCAA champion at Louisiana Tech, Olympic gold medalist and two-time WNBA defensive player of the year was in conversations about the vacant Pelicans coaching job.
Weatherspoon is lauded for her relationships with players. Star Zion Williamson told ESPN this year that he didn’t think anyone outside of his mother and stepfather could get the kind of reaction that Weatherspoon elicited from him. Rookie guard Kira Lewis Jr. first met Weatherspoon when his cousin played for her at Louisiana Tech. Weatherspoon remembers the young boy grabbing her leg proclaiming that he wanted to play for her one day. He was drafted 13th to the Pelicans in 2020.
“She wants the best for you,” Lewis said in a video produced by the Pelicans. “She wants you to be the best version of you and she also cares about you as a person, not just a basketball player.”
The slow increase of women in positions of power has shifted the way people view leadership, said Emily Grijalva, an associate professor specializing in gender and leadership at Buffalo School of Management. Gender stereotypes often paint men as more assertive and dominant, thus making them more natural leaders, but the idea of leadership is changing to include qualities more often associated with women, who are viewed as more kind and nurturing.
Analysis done by researchers at Florida International and UNC Charlotte in 2014 examined 95 studies and found that observers rated women significantly more effective as leaders than men.
If NBA decision makers don’t dismantle their own gender bias, they could be depriving themselves of worthy candidates. A way to do that may be to make changes at the top.
“A huge difference will come if more women get into these positions of power,” Grijalva said. “Then you’ll have more women voices in the room and women are less likely to fall prey to those kinds of stereotypes than are men and also are more open.”
Blazers owner Jody Allen, who inherited the team after her brother Paul Allen died, reportedly favored Hammon for the head coaching job. The Pelicans have former WNBA star Swin Cash in the front office as the vice president of basketball operations. Gottlieb considered whether she could parlay her assistant coaching position with the Cavaliers into a front office position before she realized she wasn’t done being a head coach.
Leaving the NBA, where she felt proud to be part of a group of women influencing change daily, was a difficult decision, Gottlieb said. She almost felt guilty that she was giving up on that fight.
However, she sees a new battle ahead. Not only is she reviving USC’s once-proud women’s basketball program, but she’s providing a bridge between women’s basketball and the NBA. NBA players have already called to work out with her.
“If you’re talented, if you’re someone who can coach, you’re someone who can coach at any level,” Gottlieb said. “I think that’s where my story goes with this.”
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