This story appears in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated.For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Last week, the NBA's reigning champions announced a personnel change: After two seasons as a data analyst for the Raptors, Brittni Donaldson was promoted to an assistant coaching role. Just five years after the Spurs prompted widespread headlines (and much pigheaded skepticism) by hiring ex-WNBA star Becky Hammon as the first female assistant coach in NBA history, coverage of Toronto's move was relatively muted. That's largely because Donaldson, 26, became the 10th woman on an NBA bench and the fifth hired this offseason alone.
Meanwhile, among the 1,400-plus full-time basketball coaches in 351 Division I men's programs, there is only one woman: Edniesha Curry, a Maine assistant hired last year. (There are several in administrative positions.) Before Curry there had been just three, beginning with Bernadette Mattox on Rick Pitino's early 1990s bench at Kentucky, and none since 2002. "The NCAA," Curry says, "is just a different monster."
Unlike in the NBA, the lifeblood of a college coach's job is recruiting. Programs favor those who have established networks and track records in the men's game, which reinforces the status quo.
Then there are the cultural biases—not to mention institutional sexism—that persist even today. Curry says that when she was hired, the questions she received from program outsiders were mostly pessimistic what-ifs: What if the players don't listen to you? What if they question your basketball knowledge? "I'm like, What type of people [do you think] we are mentoring and leading?" Curry says. She laments that women still have to overcome preconceived concerns from those who make hiring decisions. "They don't look at our skill sets," she says. "That's why it's only me."
The man who hired Curry, Maine coach Richard Barron, tries to understand his peers' reluctance to hire women. Evaluating a prospective assistant, Barron says, goes beyond a résumé; coaches try to project how someone will work within a program. Thus, most tend to go with someone they have worked with or coached before, or someone recommended by a colleague. With those parameters, the pool of candidates ends up being, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly male. As Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw summed up last spring, in comments that went viral: "People hire people who look like them, and that's the problem."
Barron started with a more diverse candidate pool. Before taking over the Black Bears' men's program in 2018, he spent six seasons coaching the women, two with Curry as an assistant. "I wasn't going out on a limb," Barron says. "I knew exactly what I was getting."
The coach thinks the role of familiarity might begin working in women coaches' favor. He recalls his start as a Division III men's assistant in the early 1990s, when generational resentment over Title IX left many men's programs feeling bitter toward their female counterparts. Now Barron sees men's and women's programs interacting much more, which might foster the professional relationships that lead to hires.
As for the team's attitude, today's college players have only known a world that includes the WNBA, which gets the public support of NBA stars like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. (Curry says recruits often ask about players she played with or against in her two WNBA seasons.) But perhaps most important, women are becoming more prevalent as AAU and high school coaches and in college staff roles, such as director of basketball operations. Current and future generations will be coming up in a men's game where a woman's presence isn't a novelty but just a fact of life.
That presence, plus the precedent women like Hammon and Donaldson have set at basketball's highest level, may help address one of the issues longtime Oakland coach Greg Kampe sees: that women rarely apply for men's coaching jobs. Kampe employed Jennifer Johnston as an assistant from 1999 to 2002 and has had another woman, Sarah Judd, helming team operations since '06. Yet in recent years, Kampe says, he has not received any applications from women. "Now, is that because they don't believe they have a chance?" he says. "I don't know."
Curry, who spends her offseasons working with the NBA Assistant Coaches' Program, is not sure if more progress is imminent in D-I. But she relishes her role in encouraging it, hoping more women will have access to the full breadth of opportunities (and salaries) that basketball offers. "It's just [about] being able to say, Don't allow anyone to put you in a box," Curry says, and "creating a spot where we can all continue to grow in this game."