Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Shay Murphy is no stranger to fated happenings. Whether it was using basketball as a coping mechanism in the aftermath of her father’s early death, dealing with the untimely loss of her basketball idol Kobe Bryant or eventually stepping into her role as the first Black woman coaching associate for the Lakers’ franchise—the former WNBA star always finds a way to “turn breadcrumbs into bread,” something she attributes to her own Mamba mentality.
Murphy has a natural generosity with which she prioritizes the well-being of the athletes around her, from focusing on the mental health of the players she manages to ensuring more equity behind the scenes. Now, the 36-year-old is concerned about the next generation of Black women stepping into, dominating and rebuilding spaces that weren’t built for them.
It was natural for the Los Angeles native to be a lifelong Lakers fan, but she never would have imagined the role basketball would take in her life until the death of her father in 1996. “In order for me to go back to school, I had to go to child therapy and an afterschool program,” Murphy says. “Basketball was something to distract me as a 12-year-old mourning the loss of my father—literally just so I would stop crying.”
This new way of handling her grief would set the trajectory for the rest of her life, including a run-in with the man who would become her idol, Kobe Bryant. “We signed up for the YMCA, and that same year Kobe entered the NBA with the Lakers. He and Derek Fisher came to speak to my team,” Murphy recalls. “It’s all so crazy. My dad never saw me play. We couldn’t even afford basketball shoes. My whole family chipped in and bought me my first pair of Nikes that same year. Now, I’m working for the Lakers and Nike at the same time.”
Murphy went to college at USC and, following a successful collegiate run, was drafted by the Lynx. Ten years after losing her father and beginning her basketball journey, Murphy started her 10-year career in the WNBA, playing for the Lynx, Shock, Mystics, Fever, Sky, Mercury and finally the Stars in 2017. Her WNBA career was supplemented by a 10 years as a professional player in the EuroLeague, playing in Greece, Spain, Russia, Turkey, France and Montenegro in the offseason.
The death of Bryant, who inspired her career and whose path she had followed closely, was another moment of fated realignment for Murphy. She was just a few months into a new dream job at Nike, as an assistant product line manager, when she received the news about her idol’s death. “ I was at church when it actually happened, in Oregon,” she says. “I broke down. Everyone thought I lost a close family member.” And in many ways, Bryant’s death brought up old feelings of losing her father.
“I just flew back to L.A. to take a week off and mourn the loss,” Murphy says. “It was so crazy, because Kobe died at 41. My father died at 41. Everyone knew my connection to Kobe. He means so much to me. He is my whole mentality. I applied the Mamba mentality throughout my whole life, whether it was in academics or physically in the game.”
Her 2021 appointment to coaching associate of the Lakers and her career at Nike were more opportunities for Murphy to defy the adversity set in her path, and to leave that door open for Black women coming behind her. “I just got inserted, like an alien, into this new world of corporate America. Without any tools, without any guidelines, without any onboarding. Because when you're the first, everything’s not ready for you,” she says.
When it comes to the actual game, Murphy is confident the Lakers can be a top-five team in the West—if they follow her four-step plan. “With any new team, it takes time,” she says. “We had a great preseason and strong bonding. LeBron’s a great leader on and off the court. But there’s four C’s. Conditioning—you have to be conditioned to play, conditioned to receive, conditioning your mind and body.
“Then there’s chemistry—that’s going to take time to build. To create a legacy, a dynasty, there’s no grey area in that, you either have it, or you don’t. Then there’s consistency. You have to do all of this consistently, and you have to do it with your teammates. Day and night for 84 games. Finally, confidence. Once you have that, the sky's the limit.”
However, based on her own experiences, Murphy knows nothing can move without mental health at the forefront of the game. She wants her players to know and feel that their emotional intelligence and well-being is as valued as their physical strength. “We say this game is 90% mental and 10% physical. So why aren’t we tapping into emotional intelligence?” she asks. “Forget sympathy—where is the mental empathy?” Rather than being stifled or overwhelmed by the ostensible adversity of being the “first Black woman,” Murphy uses it as velocity to keep moving forward.
“When I'm walking into Staples Center every day as the only Black female, I'm not toning myself down, not for Nike, not for the Lakers. I'm always going to be me,” she says. Murphy is looking to effect long-term changes that will encourage not only her team, but Black women coming after her to bring their full, nuanced selves to all spaces, and to transform those spaces and continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.
“We've come a long way. I'll celebrate small wins, but we still have a long way to go,” Murphy says. “I think for Black women it’s really about empowerment. Some people play the game. Some people change the game. I won the game by being my true, authentic self. I am the game. There’s not one seat at the table. We are the table, and you can come to meet us.”
Her solution to the misconceptions Black women working in basketball face daily? Increased representation and more Black women at all levels of the game. “We offer a different perspective,” she says. “These corporate spaces, Nike, the Lakers. They’ve been doing it for 100 years, their way, the white way, the male way. Now, there's a new way to do it.”
Naya Samuels is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.