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Liberty's Anne Donovan on Coaching Opportunities: "I've had some women that have stepped to the plate"

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Since basketball legend Nancy Lieberman was hired as coach of the NBA D-League's Dallas affiliate, there has been talk about the "woman-coaches-a-mens'-pro-team angle" that will only increase once she actually starts coaching, win or lose.

Can a woman successfully coach a men's team?

Can a woman help develop NBA players at the post-collegiate level?

Can a woman eventually coach in the NBA?

Let's be honest: those are all legitimate questions to ask about something that has not been done before. So although making history is certainly not foreign to Lieberman, this opportunity does come with additional pressure. It isn't just a woman breaking ground, it's a woman leading men in a domain that has been men only.

However, the argument for hiring Lieberman was that she simply knows basketball, coincidentally resonant with the WNBA's new "Basketball is Basketball" campaign.

Nancy Lieberman's next play ... coaching men in the D-League -
Since her November hiring for Dallas' D-League affiliate, Mavericks President and general manager Donn Nelson keeps discovering more in her hoops background.

"For what Nancy has done for basketball, I couldn't think of anyone more qualified and deserving of an opportunity," said Nelson, adding he can envision her as an NBA coach. "Every bone in her body is devoted to basketball, and that's what we wanted.

"The eyes of the world will be on her and it is added pressure, but if anyone can overcome the odds, it's her. If you don't believe it, just challenge her."

There's a lot packed into Nelson's statement but the underlying theme here is opportunity -- Lieberman is getting a "deserved" shot at parlaying her dedication to basketball into coaching men, something that's never been done by a woman.

Yet it's also worth noting that even in women's basketball -- perhaps moreso the NCAA than the WNBA -- women still have not always gotten opportunities in the coaching ranks. Although 6 of 12 current WNBA coaches are women with the off-season hirings of Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve and Los Angeles Sparks head coach Jennifer Gillom, that doesn't necessarily mean we have finally achieved the promised land.

Perhaps more important to watch now that the league has achieved a 50% gender balance is how well it sustains a reasonable balance. Moreover, the question that frequently goes unasked when talking about "diversifying" any workplace is what the pathways to "success" -- as defined in a given field -- actually "look like". It's insufficient to keep getting people in the door if they are neither retained nor reach success. The career trajectory matters.

Swish Appeal had the good fortune of interviewing New York Liberty head coach Anne Donovan about her team today and during that conversation she spoke about what it means to be a different sort of coaching first -- the first female coach to win a WNBA championship.

"Well I'm proud of that -- I'm proud that I was given some great opportunities," said Donovan when asked what the distinction of first woman to win a WNBA championship means to her. "I'll start with Kelly Krauskopf in Indiana who hired me to coach the expansion team -- the Fever -- that first year and just getting my foot in the door in the league, before I really made a national name for myself. With that opportunity and then the opportunity to go to Charlotte and then out to Seattle, I've had some women that have stepped to the plate and hired me and given me the opportunity to lead teams.

"So I am very appreciative of my role [in history] and very proud of it, but also recognize that that opportunity was given to me. Many times women haven't been given the opportunity to coach in the league."

What Donovan alludes to at the end of her statement is obviously important -- there are qualified female coaches who simply have not been given the opportunity. And it goes double for black and other minority female coaches (in a women's league that is 64% black, Gillom is the only black female coach). Of course, the fact that women were around in decision-making positions is no small factor in her story.

However, Donovan's story is also an example of how after getting one's foot in the door, people have to be given the chance to succeed. In addition to access and opportunity, we also have to consider participation and success rates: first, beyond the opportunity are underrepresented coaches given either time to grow from mistakes or get second opportunities after major mistakes? Second, are they given the necessary support -- in sports, that means talent, among other things -- to achieve success?

For Lieberman, this may be an even more daunting challenge -- if she makes a mistake it will inevitably be attributed to her being a woman in addition to (and, unfortunately, overshadowing) her status as a first-year coach who is still learning on the fly. Borrowing from Comedian Chris Rock, the right to make mistakes -- or even fail -- without that being attributed to some inherent failing of one's identity is as important as the right to try in the first place.

So even as women's sports advocates celebrate the newfound opportunity for Lieberman, hopefully we don't lose sight of both Donovan's "first" and the pathways of success for the WNBA's other 5 female coaches. Independent of the details of each previous stop or the reasons for moving, the Liberty will be her 4th coaching "opportunity", which is noteworthy in a world in which women get so few first leadership opportunities.

For Donovan -- a New Jersey native -- it's even beyond a "dream come true".

"It's hard to really put that in words as a Jersey girl who grew up watching the Knicks," said Donovan when asked about what it's like to enter a full season of coaching in the legendary Madison Square Garden. "Every now and then, our family got a ticket or two to sit in the rafters and watch the Knicks play. And when I couldn't get there -- which was often -- I was listening to them on the radio. For me, this is not a dream come true, because I never dreamed it -- I never thought this would possible in my lifetime."

Related Links:

Nancy Lieberman Is Still a Pioneer (from Scott Shroeder of SBN's D-League blog Ridiculous Upside)

Anne Donovan on whether the team will re-sign forward Ashley Battle