The hiring of the W.N.B.A. point guard Kristi Toliver as a full-time assistant coach with the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards while she is still an active player was a notable new achievement for women in coaching.
It followed the San Antonio Spurs’ hiring of Becky Hammon, and other women like Nancy Lieberman and Jenny Boucek also joining N.B.A. coaching staffs.
“With anything, you need to see it to be it,” said Briann January, a guard for the Phoenix Mercury and, in her off-season, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Arizona State. “I see it now because of Becky. Because of Kristi. I see the opportunity that is out there to take that next step in this professional area.”
But often lost amid the focus on the trailblazing nature of these hirings is that N.B.A. teams should be celebrating, too — for finally tapping into what has long been a significant pipeline of female talent.
“I think a lot of women in general are missing out on a lot of good opportunities in which we can be extremely beneficial to any team, to any organization, no matter our gender,” said Alana Beard, a veteran Los Angeles Sparks guard often mentioned as a coaching candidate by her peers.
Beard cited the meager pay Toliver is to receive this season — just $10,000 because of limits in the W.N.B.A.’s collective bargaining agreement — as an “extremely important” issue for the league to address in negotiations for a new agreement. It is about making a barrier that has long been permeable on one side — men into women’s basketball on the coaching side — into a free exchange of talent, regardless of gender, based on opportunity.
Many, if not most, W.N.B.A. players, who are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, cannot afford to spend their off-season working for so little pay. Their basketball skills are worth much more — into the millions of dollars — in service of women’s leagues overseas.
“All of those things on a coach’s plate to take care of, to do that for $10,000 for an entire N.B.A. season is crazy,” January said. “I’d like to break that down and do the math, like how much that is a game or how much that is a day. That would just be insult to injury.”
Yet some people, including trolls in online comment sections and men’s basketball fans in real life, contend these women should be happy to have opportunities at all.
That’s the part that rankles so many W.N.B.A. players — that even Toliver’s shot, let alone chances for other women with considerable experience playing and in many cases coaching, is often thought of as a one-sided benefit for those who are hired.
But in many cases, the N.B.A. came calling after seeing the women excelling on their own. Toliver’s work with the Mystics helped bring her to the attention of Wizards Coach Scott Brooks, just as Hammon got her opportunity in San Antonio because she was employed by the Silver Stars, then owned by the same group as the Spurs, and her W.N.B.A. coach, Dan Hughes, talked her up to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich.
“I had a chance to put two parties together that I knew would work,” Hughes, now the head coach of the Seattle Storm, said. “I knew Becky, and I also knew Pop, and I knew that Pop, we had a lot of years of conversation about Becky. He had seen her play when I first brought her to San Antonio. So to me it was an opportunity to merge two people that would benefit from each other.”
Toliver has opened up that discussion in significant ways, which was a huge part of her reasoning for taking the job in the first place. In Hughes’s eyes, it is nothing less than the overdue elimination of whatever combination of sexism and inertia has prevented the men’s basketball world from taking advantage of all the talent amassed on the women’s side of the sport, the next step toward N.B.A. teams and W.N.B.A. teams and men’s and women’s college basketball programs all hiring from the same pool of candidates.
As Hughes sees it, it’s time, not because these women deserve a chance, but because every basketball team needs more coaches like Hammon, Toliver and those who will follow.
“I want a world someday where people judge coaches on how good a coach they truly are,” Hughes said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, doesn’t matter their background. They can say he’s a coach or she’s a coach, and we can use them.”
And in a twist, if men’s basketball teams become more welcoming to players in the W.N.B.A., it could be a boon to that league, too.
Every W.N.B.A. player who stays home instead of playing overseas in her off-season is one more person around which to promote the league year-round, and that player gets to rest, too. The grind of playing 12 months a year has led to W.N.B.A. players like Diana Taurasi and Angel McCoughtry taking seasons off.
And if the league needed another reminder of this, Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who recently announced she would sit out the 2019 season, provided a fresh rationale for finding a way to keep the W.N.B.A.’s best players from being fatigued prematurely.
“You always want to protect your product,” January said. “And the majority of our product is being run down and beaten up year-round playing this game. So when they come back around to play in the W.N.B.A., you have half of your players injured, playing through nagging things. We still find a way to have a high talent and high level of basketball, which is crazy to me.
“We just have some really strong women, but that needs to be a discussion. What can we do to provide other opportunities for women to make income and prepare for the future on a real-life scale? Something they can live on. Something that makes sense.”
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