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Amber Nichols Will Run an NBA Team Someday

For the glass-ceiling smashing G League general manager, it’s simply a matter of when.
Capital City Go-Go GM Amber Nichols

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.

In the summer of 2015, the Kings convened an orientation meeting for new arrivals to their sales team. One by one, folks went around the room listing their five-year career goals. Answers ran a predictable gamut, from selling premium suites to event planning to brokering corporate sponsorships. And then Amber Nichols spoke up. “My goal is to be a GM one day,” she declared. Her coworkers looked at her as if she had said she wanted to play basketball on Mars.

Nichols’s career ambitions might still seem out of this world, if she wasn’t already the general manager of the Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards’ G League affiliate. The Raleigh native started the job in January 2021, six months after the College Park Skyhawks’ Tori Miller became the first woman general manager in the history of the NBA’s 28-year-old farm system. Not only are both Black women, but also both were hired well before turning 30. Of course at that age and as a woman, you risk being taken lightly in this business. “Personally, I go into every situation assuming people don’t know what I’m talking about or doing,” says Nichols, 29. “It just helps motivate me, keeps me very humble and it also just makes sure that I’m working twice as hard for that credibility.”

She might be green for the pros, but she’s hardly a novice in the game. From 2010 through ’14, Nichols was a reserve guard on the University of Richmond women’s team, a speedy ballhandler who averaged 10 minutes per game. It was there that she struck a friendship with T.J. Cline, a star on the Spiders men’s team and son of Nancy Lieberman—the Amelia Earhart of women’s hoopers. As Lieberman was embarking on yet another bit of history, this time as a Sacramento Kings assistant on Michael Malone’s staff, Nichols was starting in the Kings’ sales department and asked T.J. to make the connection. “We spoke immediately,” Nichols recalled of that first meeting with Lieberman. “She invited me to the Kings’ practice facility, gave me the tour, sat me down and asked me what my aspirations were.”

Amber-173 2 - Amber Nichols

When she hit her with the GM line, Lieberman didn’t just not blink. “Despite the fact that it was also her first opportunity as an assistant coach in the NBA, she made time to give me little projects and critique me and help me get better in that regard,” Nichols says. “The one thing I just remember her saying is, ‘You’re going to be an NBA GM one day. You gotta believe that.’ She just kept saying it.”

Ten months after her sales team ice-breaker, Nichols landed a basketball ops internship with the Wizards. Two years later she was heading the Go-Go’s ops department. Three years after that she was promoted to general manager, beating her five-year projection by five months, and COVID-19 has only made the job tougher. Like the NBA, the G League played the 2019 season under a bubble in Orlando, but not all teams participated, owing to a variety of logistical and financial factors. With the Go-Go in that number, Nichols had to work the phones to re-roster Capital City players that still wanted to compete.

This season her personnel moves have played an essential part in the overall roster picture as the Wizards have had to call up farmhands when NBA players drop out of the lineup and into the league’s COVID-19 protocol. The smooth choreography of these transactions owes to Nichols’s tight working relationship with Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard and first-year coach Wes Unseld Jr., who arrived in the capital last summer from the Nuggets. “Tommy and I have been close since I was an intern,” says Nichols. “When Wes got the job he initiated the communication with me. He’s never had a G League team before; Denver didn’t have one while he was there.

“So he kinda wanted to know the ins and outs of the G League, how it can be utilized. So we kinda sat down and told him,” Nichols continues. “It’s not just for development. It could be for rehab, for finding vets and getting them back in the mix. It can be for finding underrated talent, bringing them into our system and developing them.”

When it comes to asset management, Nichols has seized on the opportunities to work the phones, hoarding talent and cashing in her chips when she hits on the player she really fancies. This year, it was former University of Houston standout DeJon Jarreau. “That was probably my proudest day,” she says of that Jan. 23 exchange. “What was really cool is I wouldn’t have been able to get this deal done if I didn’t get the assets needed from other trades.”

Another deal she’s especially proud of: picking up T.J. Cline off waivers days before the Jarreau trade, a fitting thank-you to Lieberman for her career advice. Ever since their fateful chat, Nichols hasn’t stopped believing she could be an NBA GM one day. Pretty soon, the rest of us will have to start believing, too.

Empower Onyx/Sports Illustrated present Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports

Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.