Sue Bird knows she is living in a unique time.
The WNBA was in its sixth season when Bird entered the league in 2002, meaning the Syosset native is from the first generation of high school basketball players who could realistically aspire to having a pro career. Now that Bird is 35 and nearing the end of her career, she appears to be in the first generation of women who can aspire to a high-level job in the NBA.
Bird, who helped lead Seattle to a WNBA title this past summer, is spending her “offseason” working as an associate in basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets. She is one of more than 20 current or former WNBA players and coaches who are working in the NBA or G League this season.
With the San Antonio Spurs making Becky Hammon Gregg Popovich’s top assistant this past summer and the Indiana Pacers hiring longtime WNBA executive Kelly Krauskopf as the league’s first female assistant general manager last month, there is an air of opportunity for women in the NBA.
Bird told Newsday that she believes it is only a matter of time before the league has a female head coach or general manager.
“Clearly we are knocking on the door. I don’t think it will be long,” Bird said in a phone interview. “These are highly coveted jobs. Organizations don’t mess around. They are not doing this just to do it. These are situations where everyone’s job is on the line. When you do see a GM or coach, it’s going to be because they earned it.”
No major men’s sports league has ever had a female general manager or coach, though the NBA has long been seen as the most progressive of American sports leagues. For example, while the NFL is making headlines this week for selecting Sarah Thomas as the first woman to officiate in a playoff game, the NBA broke down that barrier more than a decade ago in 2006, when Violet Palmer officiated a postseason game between the Pacers and the Nets.
In September, after an article in Sports Illustrated detailed embarrassing allegations about the harassment of female employees in the Dallas Mavericks' organization, the NBA released a memo encouraging more of its teams to hire women in positions of leadership. According to the memo from commissioner Adam Silver, which was obtained by The Associated Press, the league wants to expand “the pipeline of female talent in basketball operations roles” and has planned several workshops, including one scheduled for All-Star Weekend in Charlotte.
The NBA is the only major sport to have a women’s league directly associated with it so it only makes sense that NBA teams are starting to tap that league for talent. This is exactly what Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly did. Though he didn’t know Bird, he was so impressed after watching her lead the Seattle Storm to a WNBA title this past summer that he reached out to a mutual friend, Caron Butler, to ask for her number.
Bird quit playing overseas in the WNBA offseason a couple of years ago and had been using the offseason to check out post-playing careers, most notably broadcasting, as she did women’s college basketball for ESPN. The league’s all-time assist leader said she had long been intrigued by getting into coaching or a front-office role, but until Connelly called, she figured she would have to wait until her playing days were over.
“I never thought I could do both, but he was like, ‘Of course you can do both,' ” Bird said. “It was like, boom, a no-brainer. I couldn’t turn that down.”
Connelly, who selected triple-double machine Nikola Jokic in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, knows something about finding and developing talent. This season, he has let Bird try out a number of different roles with the team, everything from scouting games to developing relationships with the team’s point guards. Right now, Bird said she finds both coaching and front- office work appealing.
Bird said that although she isn’t thinking day-to-day about being a trailblazer, she realizes one day that she will.
“It’s all about opening up doors,” Bird said. “Becky clearly knocked down some doors for women in the NBA. I think you can argue that it’s just about when you are born. This is the generation I am born in and I have these opportunities and I know I am lucky.
“Similar to what the Lisa Leslies and Rebecca Lobos and Sheryl Swoopes did as players for my generation, I want to follow in those footsteps and pay it forward . . . In 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, it will be cool to look back and know I was part of a group of people that were able to break down some barriers and doors.”
Current/former WNBA players and personnel now associated with the NBA and/or G League:
NBA assistant coaches
Becky Hammon, Spurs
Kristi Toliver, Wizards
G League assistant coaches
Chasity Melvin: Greensboro (Hornets G League)
Jennifer Azzi: NBA global director
Ashley Battle: NBA associate program
Jenny Boucek: Mavericks basketball staff assistant
Sue Bird: Nuggets associate
Tamika Catchings: Pacers/Fever player development
Kaayla Chones: Timberwolves director of player programming
Allison Feaster: G League player personnel
Lindsey Harding: 76ers scout
Kelly Krauskopf: Pacers assistant GBA player development
Stacey Lovelace: NBA and G League player development
Taj McWilliams Franklin: NBA associate program
Jamila Wideman: VP, Player Development, NBA