A league of their own: how women are changing the NBA

From the coaches' bench to the CEO chair, more and more women are conquering uncharted territory in the NBA • Eran Soroka explains the reasons

If you love the NBA for the dunks, the behind the back dishes, the buzzer-beaters - go on, keep watching. But if you’re in it for the female dancers and their minimal outfits - well, we have a problem.
 
Some NBA teams took an unusual step this offseason. The San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Silver Dancers, and the Dallas Mavericks Dancers will feature "less skin" for this upcoming season. The motive behind these moves might be similar to other things that happened in the world in the last year - the #MeToo campaign.
 
Earlier this year, Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther from SI published a story about the "real-life animal house" culture in the Dallas Mavericks, which included claims about sexual harrasments against former team CEO. The Mavericks are considered one of the NBA's most respected teams, partly because of its owner, well-known billionaire Mark Cuban.
 
ג'ני בוסק מאמנת במשחק האולסטאר של ה-WNBA
 

Boucek coaching in the WNBA all-star game (Reuters)

 
 
"One irony in this story", Wertheim tells News 10, "'was certainly the fact that Cuban is known as being famously 'hands-on' and involved, and yet, this culture happened under him - and he claimed to be oblivious". Doyle Rader, who covers the Mavs on Mavs Moneyball blog, adds: "That was definitely shocking, to know that it had gone on for so long and haven't handled appropriately, or even stopped".
 
Soon after the embarassment, the clean-up began with a major step. Cynthia Marshall from AT&T was hired by Cuban as interim CEO, and became the first woman (and first Afro-American woman) to fill the role on an NBA team, citing the need for a culture of "inclusion and diversity". The dancers, as mentioned, went through a style change, and Jenny Boucek was hired as an assistant coach, shortly before being the first NBA coach to go on maternity leave.
 
But while the Mavericks needed an institutional shock to start changing -  "it does seems like the teams made strides to clean up their image, and that's good because they had to at this point", according to Rader - a female undercurrent is starting to bubble across the league. The days of muscular fights about manhood, between Shaq, Sir Charles and the 80's and 90's heavyweights, seems quite distant now, with figures like Boucek, Becky Hammon, Marshall, Sixers new member Lindsey Harding, Kings VP Matina Kolokotronis and of course, Analyst and Announcer Doris Burke - entering the field.
 
ננסי ליברמן זוכה באליפות ליגת ה-BIG3
 

Lieberman winning the BIG3. "Adam Silver is the best comissioner in Sports" (GettyImages)

 
 
Nancy Lieberman, the Hall of Famer, and the first woman in the USA to coach a men's professional basketball team, tells News 10 that the #MeToo campaign made everybody in sports and basketball be more aware of their behaviour. "Sometimes when you have money, power and fame, and you think you're Teflon, you think you can do whatever you want, you think you're untouchable - in this day, of communication, social media and access to the media, you don't want to do that. You don't want to cross that line. You better have some discipline".
 
The growing appreciation for women might lead to the breaking of another glass ceiling. Hammon, the Spurs assistant that Lieberman hails as "Bright and with great interpersonal skills", became the first woman that interviewed to a head coaching position - although Mike Budenholzer was chosen - this summer, with the Bucks. 
 
"Our commissioner, who I think is the best commissioner in sports - Adam Silver - he's an advocate for women", Lieberman tells us. "He's the one who came out and said recently that he expects that there will be a female head coach in the NBA, sooner than later. And Rick Carlisle from Dallas, the head of the NBA Coaching association, said at a conference that 'these women - they are coming. And we the men, we have to be ready'".
 
"The NBA is ahead of other leagues", says Wertheim, "And enlightened players, many of them especially close to their mothers, are ready to respond to a female coach".
 
בקי האמון, מאמנת כדורסל בסן אנטוניו ספרס
 

Hammon. Will she break the glass ceiling? (Reuters)

 
 
While the story is still on the theoretical level nowadays, the players seem ready to embrace the idea - judging by Pau Gasol's essay on Hammon in the Players' Tribune ("She can coach NBA basketball, period"), or by this quote by former NBA star Jalen Rose in ESPN's Get Up: "Sports changes the dynamics of society, because it becomes the ultimate melting pot. Players are just want to be better, and if you're gonna teach me, we're gonna win and I'm gonna get paid - it doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl".
 
While female players in the NBA doesn't quite make sense - Lieberman, who was a legendary player and competed in the NBA Summer League, reminds us that "I was 5'10'', female and white, so I had some occupational hazards in my playing career" - at almost every other position around the parquet, the world's best basketball league seems ready to welcome the female wave.
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  • NBA