Achieving success in a man's world: From college basketball player to professional coach
I want our little girls and boys to grow up understanding and believing that they are equals in this world. All little girls should be taught to speak up and be confident.
Photo credit: PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/Getty Images
My little girl just turned 3 years old. The world has changed quite a bit since her mama was that age, but unfortunately, some things have not changed for #YesAllWomen. When senseless tragedies occur, the worst thing we can do is try to make sense of them. When a man blames women for his miserable life, and uses that as an excuse to harm innocent people, it reminds you how horrible sexism is and just how much it is accepted in society.
I have experienced both outright and covert versions in my professional life. I am one of a small percentage of women who grew up loving the game of basketball, and somehow found a way to earn a living with it. When I was growing up, there were no such things as professional basketball aspirations for little girls. You were lucky if you weren't the only girl at the park playing pickup. After playing in college, I went on to coach basketball for a college men's team. My immediate basketball family was awesome. I had zero problems with the players that I coached. The problem I had was with my contemporaries, other coaches. These men were supposed to be setting an example for the young men they coached on how to mature into productive members of society... not so much. I was constantly being asked insulting questions that would never be asked of a man.
This is my favorite: "Did you even play college basketball?" I'm a full-time assistant coach for a Division I basketball team. You might wonder, who would hire a person that never played college basketball to be a basketball coach? Well, actually there have been several men that never played Division I basketball, or college basketball at all for that matter, that have gone on to be head basketball coaches at the Division I and even at the NBA level, multiple times. I wonder how many times they have been asked, "Did you even play college basketball?" A man with excellent references from a Hall of Famer is perfectly capable of coaching at the highest level, even if they never played. Meanwhile, there have only been a handful of women that have coached men at any level; Bernadette Mattox blazed the trail when Rick Pitino hired her to join his men's basketball staff at Kentucky. It is, however, becoming more and more mundane to see men coaching women's teams. Why is that? There are several reasons that I could list, but I want you to ponder that and come up with your own.
When I went on to become the first woman to coach professional men's basketball, I was constantly being asked different versions of this question: "Will the male players respect you?" So many ways to go with this one, but the gist of it is this: Respect is earned. If the players are getting better (check), winning basketball games (check) and championships (check), why wouldn't they respect one of the people that is helping facilitate the accomplishment of their goals? In my four years of coaching men's basketball I never had a player try to disrespect me verbally or physically... there are more than several male coaches who cannot make that same claim. I wonder how many times they have been asked, "Will the male players respect you?"
As a college assistant one of the responsibilities I had was video exchange. (Yes, actual VHS videotapes. I am really dating myself here.) I had a phone conversation with a less-than-competent coach from another team that didn't have a video he needed. He actually went on a tirade on the phone telling me that his boss was all over him, and that s*** rolls downhill. A figure of speech that I understood to mean that the responsibility of a task continues to get delegated to the next person beneath you in the pecking order. I calmly told him that I was sorry to hear that, but I did not work for him. I expressed to him that it appeared he was going to be in a lot of s*** because he was at the bottom of the hill. It wasn't the language that offended me. Coaches, myself included, are notorious for having what I now refer to as "potty mouth" (I'm a mother of preschoolers). What stuck in my craw was the audacity he had in thinking that he could bully me into doing his work for him, and the indication that I was beneath him professionally; when in fact I outranked him.
I think it is important that we discuss these types of situations for preventative education, but it is equally important to celebrate the men and organizations that do truly believe in equality. Ron "Fang" Mitchell hired me to be his Assistant Coach, understanding that he would catch flak for the hire, but wanted the best person for the job. The NBA hired me to be an Assistant Coach in the NBDL, and Head Coach Milton Barnes trusted me to be his right hand. I am hopeful that one day we will not have to revere these actions, because it will become commonplace.
I was taught by my mother at a very early age to speak up for myself. Not just in defense of myself, but in stating what it is I want. This is a lesson that I am trying very hard to teach both of my children, but in particular my daughter. If she covers her face while talking we encourage her to put her hands down and look at the person she is speaking to. We do not acknowledge any statements or requests made in a whiny "baby voice," we encourage her to use her "big girl" words with her "big girl" voice. I am not excusing the way some men treat women. I just want our little girls and boys to grow up understanding and believing that they are equals in this world. My 5-year-old son knows that boys don't hit girls, boys hold the door for girls, boys let girls go first, and girls can do anything that boys can do.