Slowly but surely, things are beginning to change in the NBA. It seemed to begin about four years ago when Becky Hammon became known more for her spot on San Antonio’s sideline, sitting alongside Gregg Popovich and his team of assistants, than her playing career. And when the Spurs’ Summer League team won the championship in 2015 with Hammon pulling the strings, the topic of women in the NBA seemed to hit a fever pitch.
Sports talk shows wondered when Hammon might garner attention for head coaching gigs. Would she remain in the pros on the men’s side or opt to go to college to refine her talent? Her name recently popped up in consideration for the Bucks’ coaching gig and the Pistons’ job, though neither panned out.
Now it’s 2018 and Hammon has worked her way up and become Pop’s top assistant on the sideline, and she’s no longer the only female name associated with the NBA—perhaps you’ve heard of recent WNBA champion Sue Bird joining the Nuggets’ front office? Whether it be coaching, taking a role within the front office role or working in the scouting department, a shift appears to be developing.
That change can be attributed to programs like the Basketball Operations Associates Program and NBA Assistant Coaches Program and the work of Oris Stuart, the NBA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, and his team.
One woman who recently joined the NBA family is Lindsey Harding, a former WNBA player who broke ground when she completed the Basketball Operations Associates Program and accepted a job as a full-time scout with the 76ers. Harding was eager to jump into the league after completing the program and felt that scouting was a great way to get started.
“I wanted to get my foot in the door when it came to working with a team,” she said. “I knew that my goal was to be on a team, work on a team and work my way up within the front office, and I think that scouting is a great start. There are a lot of coaches or GMs that have all started in scouting and it will help me really know the league.”
Harding, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 WNBA draft, is only the second former WNBA player to be hired to a full-time NBA scouting position, with the first being Jenny Boucek—who is currently an assistant coach with the Mavericks—with the SuperSonics in 2006.
Joining her in the ranks of women breaking into the NBA are Bird, Kristi Toliver, who is now on the Wizards’ coaching staff, and a laundry list of other women from the WNBA currently holding it down in the Association.
Within that group of 20 women working in the NBA is Chasity Melvin, another graduate of an NBA program that brings former pros into NBA jobs. Melvin was recently hired as an assistant coach with the Hornets’ G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm.
But just because there are more women in the men’s pro game doesn’t mean the journey was easy, as Melvin described over the phone. Getting a coaching job in almost any capacity—whether it be at the NBA, WNBA or college level is tough. It’s not made any easier by being a woman, according to Melvin.
“A lot of people don’t know about my journey but I got a lot of no’s,” Melvin said. “I was just trying to coach in college and women in college, so I’m just very surprised to be here and that my first coaching job is in the G League.”
Melvin believed she initially missed out on coaching jobs due to her lack of experience after retirement, so she worked with high school athletes for a couple years before being accepted into the NBA Assistant Coaches Program. That experience was her first chance to coach men, and she took full advantage, working the Portsmouth Invitational, the NBA Draft Combine and the G League Player Invitational. Those events ignited her passion and provided what she needed.
That’s where Stuart and his team come in. They are charged with making sure people like Melvin and Harding are given the opportunity to coach in the men’s game. In recent years, the NBA has been seen as a progressive league, one that doesn’t turn a blind eye to social issues and encourages stars like LeBron James and others to speak openly about problems affecting their communities.
Despite that reputation, gender diversity has never been a topic that felt like a particular focus of the NBA. That’s begun to change, though. During his tenure, Stuart's team has focused on creating a shared understanding of why diversity and inclusion are so important. They've set out to implement a wide range of strategies across the league, working to close gaps that previously went unmanaged. They want to eliminate unconscious bias and make sure everyone has a shot at getting the job they deserve.
Stuart believes Hammon’s example is having a positive effect on the league and other women’s perception of what they can be in the NBA.
“[Hammon’s] success speaks volumes to the opportunity for anyone in getting in the game at that kind of role,” he said. “It speaks to the nature of who we are as a league. But I think it speaks to former players and current players who love the game, and now in her and others like Becky, seeing opportunities that they never would have thought they could have.”
So is the recent trend of women coming into the men’s game just a fad? Will more women get the chance break into the NBA? What will it take for the NBA to see more coaches like Hammon in the near future? Melvin had a simple answer: give women a chance.
“Allow them to be interviewed,” she said simply. “That’s across the board. It’s not just the NBA. When I was applying for college jobs as far as coaching women, I’d also applied to coach men in college, and I don’t think those resumes are looked at.
“I don’t think—I mean, I can’t say for everyone—but I know my other female colleagues that coach in college now, I know they applied for coaching jobs in the men’s division and never received a call or got the opportunity to interview. So it just starts with interviewing young women.”
If teams decide to take that advice to heart, we could see Hammon or one of the women following in her footsteps patrolling an NBA sideline sooner rather than later.