I found myself watching the Golden State Warriors take on the San Antonio Spurs one evening not long ago and caught a glimpse of Becky Hammon sitting on the Spurs bench, clipboard in hand, coaching some of the best players in the world. The sight of her there, in that front-row seat, is still undeniably inspirational.
Now it’s becoming aspirational.
“Really, Becky is the one who knocked that door down and to see her moving up and up,” said Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird. “She’s the one who truly, truly broke down that barrier and to see that, and have people acknowledge that somebody like Becky is a great basketball mind, it’s great. But for me, it’s made a ton of sense for a long time.”
Bird is walking through the door that Hammon opened. As is Kristi Toliver. Two point guards with long professional careers, championship resumes and still some time left as active players, Bird and Toliver have one more thing in common now, experience working with NBA players in vital coaching and scouting roles. Toliver was hired as an assistant coach for the Wizards following the WNBA season. Bird is working as a basketball operations associate with the Denver Nuggets.
What Hammon made noteworthy may be on the way to becoming routine.
This isn’t a story about whether the NBA players on the Washington Wizards or Denver Nuggets rosters find Toliver and Bird credible mentors or instructors. They simply do. It isn’t about whether a woman can coach men. They simply can.
This is a story about opportunity whose time has finally come. These opportunities are part of a moment. More importantly, they signify movement.
“This is a life-changing experience for me,” said Toliver, while on the road in Indianapolis with the Wizards. “I feel like I have a golden ticket. And I’m so thankful for the opportunity.”
Bird and Toliver bring years of basketball experience, knowledge and championship mentality to their respective NBA teams.
They have trained their bodies, maintained their games and performed at the highest levels. They have hit clutch shots with titles on the line. They have been leaders, pace-setters and examples for young players and fellow veterans. Bird is an 11-time All-Star and a four-time Olympic gold medalist. Toliver, who won her first WNBA title with Los Angeles in 2016, has twice been a WNBA All-Star and the league’s Most Improved Player in 2012, in addition to her time playing for the Slovakian national team.
They bring basketball gravitas.
“I know this hasn’t been done before, but the Wizards folks know me. They want the best basketball minds and the best people to contribute to their success,” Toliver said. “I know the game and they know I know the game. I’m learning to use my voice and my knowledge. I want to have that voice.”
Toliver, who was an assistant coach for the Wizards summer league team this season while in the WNBA season, where she led the Mystics to the WNBA Finals, is working directly with players as an assistant coach for player development.
Bird is involved in scouting, and essentially getting a front-office apprenticeship experience, a position created specifically for her.
“This is a great opportunity to get the lay of the land and to see what it means to be in the front office of an NBA team. What they said to me was ‘Hey, why don’t you take the time to develop your eye as a scout,’” Bird said. “Being on the court is my comfort zone. My goal is to be able to share that perspective with players is really valuable and they have been really welcoming to me.”
As Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said, “If you have a pair of eyes, if you know the game, if you see the game, it doesn’t matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. You know the game or you don’t.”
Like Hammon, and Mavericks assistant coach Jenny Boucek (who had coached, in various roles, for almost two decades in the WNBA), Bird and Toliver know the game.
This experience, however, is new. And they are leaning on one another.
“We are really good friends, so we are regularly in touch anyway, talking about whatever,” Bird said. “But we have definitely been sharing our experiences now.”
That they are being given this opportunity while they are still active players is noteworthy.
In increasing numbers, WNBA players are evaluating their ability to earn livings after their careers are over, seeking opportunities the lay the groundwork for their futures away from the game.
Bird is 38, nearing the end of her playing career, even after winning another championship in September with Seattle. Toliver is 31, with, conceivably, quite a few years left as an active player.
Both may be walking through the door first opened by Hammon. But they are also paving a pathway for others to see their active playing days not as a limitation to what they can do outside of being a professional basketball player, but an exploration of the possibilities.
“This experience found me,” Toliver said. “I’m 31. I have a lot of my career left and I am not trying to think too far ahead, but it’s worked out. I wanted to take a physical break from playing overseas and this has been a perfect opportunity to use my mind and rest my body.”
Meanwhile, Bird thinks the WNBA’s longevity as a league is going to lead to more of these opportunities for more players.
“The WNBA is finally at a point where it’s been around long enough and you have players like Kristi and Becky and me, who have had long pro careers, who have gained tons of experience and knowledge,” Bird said. “Now they are ready. Becky played for a long time and she was really good and when she retired. She was ready to do this. And she got a position that she deserved.
“I think the NBA teams are starting to see that a great basketball mind is a great basketball mind, regardless of gender. That’s how I’ve always seen it, and it makes a ton of sense, but for a long time, it just wasn’t viewed that way.”