WNBA Trailblazers Continue To Forge New Paths

Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray-Penson and Swin Cash made a lasting impact in the WNBA during the league's infancy. They continue to be trailblazers even after their playing days are down and took some time to reflect.
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The WNBA has always been about impact. From letting young girls know where the game of basketball can take them, to using their platform for change, WNBA players have set an example for over two decades now.

Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray-Penson and Swin Cash, just a few of the league trailblazers, spoke on what it’s like seeing current players forge their own paths and the impact of their peers even after their playing days are through.

*Staley's interview occured before the last recruit was announced. The nest is indeed full. 

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McCray-Penson is the newly hired Mississippi State head coach after an impressive playing career. She joins an SEC conference that has five other black female head coaches.

She originally took the media route after he she unlaced her shoes for the last time, reporting on the Memphis Grizzlies for ESPN.

McCray-Penson said that being a point guard during the latter years of her career allowed her to mentor up and coming players like Diana Taurasi and allowed piqued her interest in the coaching field.

As her coaching journey has taken her from Western Kentucky to South Carolina, to Old Dominion and finally to the contender that is Mississippi State, she said she is the product of all the great coaches she’s encountered during her career and it has shaped her mantra as a coach.

“It’s certain things that drive me,” she said. “It’s about how can you get players to want to get to the next level and understand the ground that goes into it.”

For her, seeing what her peers have accomplished serves as an inspiration.

“It’s a sense of empowerment,” she said. “You look at how far women have come and the roles we’re taking and just where we’re being positioned. I just think it’s just unbelievable. You now have little girls not only saying they can be basketball players, they can now be CEOs of an NBA team like a Swin Cash. Or be one of the first coaches to ever coach alongside the NBA. And to me, the first one was Lisa Boyer, who coached with the Cleveland Cavaliers.”

She admitted the idea of them reaching such highs would’ve sounded far-fetched to her when she began her college journey at the University of Tennessee in 1991

“I probably would’ve thought ‘this is crazy.’ When I went to college, my goal was to get a degree, hopefully win a national championship and then go overseas, because that’s all I knew,” she said. “Now to see where women’s basketball is, to have two professional leagues, the ABL first then the WNBA. That Olympic team kind of put women’s basketball on the map to kind of start the WNBA and the WNBA is, what 22 years old? And it’s still in existence, that is just unbelievable. Then you have women assistant coaches on the NBA side, CEOs, I mean it’s truly unbelievable.”

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Cash has taken and even more unconventional route and is blazing a trail as the Vice President of Basketball Operations and Team Development for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Cash also took the media route initially, citing Robin Roberts as a source of inspiration as she signed her first deal with ESPN. As time went on, she said she was pulled in a different direction.

“As I continued be around the WNBA and you’re part of the union executive committee, I just learned so much and gathered so much knowledge about sports and the business of sports. I always felt like I had opinions and thoughts about ways to kinda make the W better or how to look at just being in the front office and being in sports. So although I was covering it, I feel like I was always driving an opinion. I feel like I always had an opinion and more exposure to the union side, more exposure covering it from a media side I think helped me as I finished my career and started transitioning to the front office.”

She was able to gain insight and support from people like Isiah Thomas as she finished her career with the New York Liberty while he was team president. Cash noted that she had a great deal of support from NBA players and those she encountered during her time with Turner Broadcasting along the way.

“That’s why I talk about having allies and having that support,” she said. “A lot of times it is good for us to have that female support, I’m a big advocate of women supporting women. But I want to also give credit to the men out there who not only believe in the importance of having women at the table, but making sure their voices are heard.”

Cash said watching players like Candace Parker and Kristi Tolliver get their foot in the door and their names out there while they’re playing career is still happening is huge.

“I love that more women are allowed to do that,” she said. “I think with the new CBA it’s allowing a pathway for women to do that. Everyone can’t sacrifice. Back in the day, you couldn’t sacrifice because that was how you made your living. Now you can have an option play in the W for the length of the season and you can also have a career and do other things.”

Overall, Cash said she feels a sense of pride with what all she and her peers have accomplished and hope the game continues to move forward.

“It’s really, really rewarding,” she said. “A lot of these players I played with or against and knowing those kind of closed door conversations and things you talk about and wanting to see change, to now see it be happening, you always thought would happen, but to be a part of it it’s amazing. It’s the reason why we go so hard and the reason why we continue to try to create opportunities for women to come behind us.”