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Meet the women working for the NBA’s Eastern Conference teams

Kristi Toliver again will bring her championship bona fides to the Wizards, while Kara Lawson has left the booth for the Boston sideline. Women who did not make their name in the WNBA also will be lending their skills and smarts to some of the NBA’s Eastern Conference squads, such as Brittni Donaldson, who moves to the bench for the defending champion Raptors. 

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Washington Wizards
Washington Mystics All-Star and Washington Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver looks to impart some of her championship-winning intelligence to Troy Brown.
Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Just like their Western Conference counterparts, the women who work for the NBA’s Eastern Conference organizations are, through their knowledge and commitment, helping to make women part of the cultural fabric of the NBA.

Here they are. Who are you rooting for?

Kristi Toliver (Washington Wizards)

Before recently winning her second WNBA championship, Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver made news for her extremely inadequate salary. Because of the rules outlined in the WNBA’s current CBA, Toliver earned only $10,000 for serving as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards last season, far less than the $100,000 or more made by the average NBA assistant coach.

Nevertheless, Toliver again will assist Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

Toliver’s willingness to forgo the significant income she could earn by playing overseas to instead coach the Wizards underscores the degree to which coaching men is understood as a privilege, one presumably worthy of significant financial sacrifice. Coaching men endows women with cultural capital that is seen as invaluable and otherwise inaccessible.

Needless to say, this circumstance is a far cry from gender equality. While Toliver’s situation is unique, women too often have to endure such inequities to access opportunities in a male-dominated field. Hopefully, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will rectify this absurd accounting snafu and ensure that Toliver can receive fair compensation.

Toliver nonetheless demonstrated the value women players can bring to NBA teams. She not only impressed players with her basketball intelligence, but also established herself as a trusted confidant. As Toliver told the Washingtonian:

The guys have been great, and I think it’s been great for them, because when things come up in pop culture, we talk. We talk about LGBTQ stuff. They’ll ask questions. They have a person they feel comfortable with, not feeling like I’m going to look at them weird. I thought that was very cool. I think women athletes are more likely to take on certain topics, politically or otherwise. People say all the time, ‘Is it because we have less to lose, whether it’s money or endorsements or whatever?’ I don’t know. But I think we’re very aware that if we don’t use our voice for ourselves and for others who can’t speak, then we’re going nowhere.

Kara Lawson (Boston Celtics)

In recent seasons, Kara Lawson had begun to threaten Doris Burke as the best NBA commentator. Unfortunately for television viewers, Lawson no longer will be in the booth for NBC Sports Washington or ESPN.

The Tennessee Lady Vol legend and WNBA champion takes her acute basketball acumen to Beantown as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics and head coach Brad Stevens. As a broadcaster, Lawson repeatedly demonstrated that basketball knowledge is basketball knowledge, knowing no gender. As she told the Boston Globe:

My mind-set is being the first to do something is great. I want to be the best. I don’t want to be the best of my gender, I want to be the best in the league. So obviously that’s easy to say when I’m on my fifth day, but I’ve got a lot to learn and I’ve got a steep mountain to climb. But I don’t like qualifiers when it comes to judging things. Every time somebody talks about me, I don’t want it to be about my gender, at least when it comes within the confines of a competitive environment.

Lindsay Gottlieb (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Lindsey Gottlieb also wants to be great. This past summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired the former University of California head coach as an assistant coach, making her the first woman to go from coaching women’s college basketball to coaching in the NBA.

In a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune, Gottlieb details her proudly nerdy basketball journey, exuding the confidence and intelligence that allowed her to break this barrier. She also highlights how women coaching in the NBA can produce an often-unrecognized but nonetheless important outcome. Gottlieb writes:

And you know what? I think moving things forward isn’t just about young girls and women. Sure, women need to see other strong women in positions to achieve. And those of us with a platform have an obligation to make sure that our impact reaches as widely and deeply as possible.

But can’t that reach include making an impact on young men, too?

You always hear that old, outdated nonsense about how women couldn’t possibly coach men because, like, they’re not men themselves, or don’t belong in a locker room, or won’t be respected, or any of the other ridiculous things that close-minded people think…

She continues:

But I think it goes one step further.

I truly believe that in this role there is real value I can bring to these young men right now. To suggest that they couldn’t benefit from the perspective of a female coach just seems … off. Maybe I help them with tactics — I have studied the game for 20 years and will work as hard as I can to find ways to make our players and team better. But it may also come in ways that coaches impact players off the court.

Maybe I can help them see new options for reaching their full potential.

For me, a big part of this opportunity is about using my unique perspective to bring value to these young men, and to this organization, just as much as it is about being a role model for girls.

Having more women coach men and, in turn, allowing more boys and young men to see women coaching their NBA heroes, can have accumulating cultural effects.

While Gottlieb undoubtedly will inspire young women who see her on the Cleveland bench (and she may well be the only reason any such young women choose to watch the Cavaliers this season), she also can impact the young men who witness her offer instruction to the veteran Kevin Love, the rookie Darius Garland and other Cavs. Seeing women on NBA sidelines can encourage men, young as well as older, to see and respect women as voices of authority.

Karen Stack Umlauf (Chicago Bulls)

When The Athletic asked Rebecca Lobo why an increasing number of women suddenly are joining NBA franchises, she quipped: “Because sometimes men take a really long time to do the right thing.”

Here comment captures the basketball career of Karen Stack Umlauf.

Stack Umlauf has been a Bulls lifer, joining the organization soon after the conclusion of her collegiate career at Northwestern. After first working in the marketing department, she transitioned to basketball operations in 1985, serving as director of team operations. 33 years later, she realized she could do more to contribute to the organization, expressing her desire to also serve as coach. Early last season, the Bulls’ leadership obliged, naming her associate coach.

As revealed by Stack Umlauf’s journey, women have been in the NBA for longer than just the last few years. But she was anonymous until she moved to the sideline; she then became a story. Her path also underscores why it is a story every time an NBA franchise hires a woman. It is important to know and to see that women are in the NBA. As emphasized above, women coaching men allows the public to see women in a position of authority in a traditionally-masculine space, creating scenes that, slowly but surely, can change ideologies.

Kelly Krauskopf (Indiana Pacers)

Kelly Krauskopf realizes the power of representation. After serving as the Indiana Fever’s lead executive for 19 years — and winning a title along the way — she excitedly took advantage of the opportunity to move to the Pacers’ executive team. At the outset of 2019, she officially became the first woman to serve as an assistant general manager in the NBA.

Krauskopf told The Athletic:

We say this a lot for young girls – how important it is to see it because once you see it, then you start thinking about it. I guess, for me, I hadn’t thought about it because I had never seen a female in a front office on the basketball side really weighing in on player decisions and managing your team. In some ways, it wasn’t a thought, because I just didn’t think it was a possibility.

Becky Bonner (Orlando Magic)

Down in Orlando, Becky Bonner appears poised to follow in Krauskopf’s footsteps — or even do one better and become the first woman general manager in the NBA.

As the Orlando Magic’s director of player development and quality control, Bonner is not only tasked with helping the young Magic men develop as players and people, but also with helping the infrastructure of an NBA organization accommodate women. Literally.

As recounted by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:

There are only two ways to reach the team lounge, where players, coaches and team officials gather to eat and socialize. And both lead past the showers….There’s no women’s bathroom in the vicinity, either. For that, she has to leave the practice court area and head down a hallway to the family lounge.

The very architecture of NBA facilities shows how far the league as progressed, as well as how far it has to go. Bonner was charged with redesigning the facilities to welcome all comers. She also has ensured more women will walk through these facilities, hiring another woman, Regan Karner, as her assistant.

And yes, Bonner is the sister of the red-headed NBA journeyman Matt Bonner, most known for his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs. Growing up, she honed her skills playing against Matt and her other brother Luke, as well as by playing on boys’ travel teams. She would earn a scholarship to Stanford University before finishing her collegiate career at Boston College.

Brittni Donaldson (Toronto Raptors)

Brittni Donaldson may offer the most encouraging story of a woman making her way in the NBA.

Donaldson lacks the women’s basketball pedigree of many of the women now working on the basketball side of NBA organizations, having played at the University of Northern Iowa rather than a top-tier women’s college basketball program or in the WNBA. Yet, as evidenced by her quick rise through the Toronto Raptors organization, Donaldson does not lack for basketball intelligence. She therefore is an exemplification of the broader population of basketball knowledge that largely has remained untapped, due both ideological and institutional inertia.

Last season, Donaldson worked in Toronto’s analytics department, a job she received after producing reports for the team through her night-shift job with STATS LLC, where she analyzed the data from the motion-tracking cameras in NBA arenas. This season, she is moving to the bench as an assistant coach, a promotion that speaks her preparedness and impressiveness.

As Donaldson told ESPN: “Every rep I do, even if it’s just passing and rebounding, I try to be really precise and show that I’m there to make them better. I don’t mess around.”

According to Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri, her approach allowed her quickly to earn players’ trust. Speaking also to ESPN, Ujiri elaborated: “We were confident Brittni could do it. But when you see her do it, it’s different.”

Yes, seeing is believing, both for the men who run NBA organizations and for the many girls and women who will see the 26-year-old Donaldson sitting on the World Champs’ sideline.

That the Raptors, considered one of the NBA’s best-run organizations (evidenced by the banner they hung on Tuesday night), first took a chance on Donaldson and now are giving her a chance to further contribute to the organization should encourage other teams to follow suit. The NBA cannot and should not fulfill NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s goal of 50% women coaches by only hiring former, big-name WNBA stars or established, well-known women’s coaches.

Such a strategy, while representationally powerful, reeks of tokenism (fair or not).

Instead, employing and empowering largely unknown young women who have demonstrated passion for the game can most help the NBA become a world where, in fact, basketball is basketball.

A final shoutout to all the other women working in a variety of capacities for Eastern Conference organizations, such as the Toronto Raptors’ Teresa Resch and Shelby Weaver, the Boston Celtics’ Allison Feaster, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Annelie Schmittel and the Atlanta Hawks’ Michelle Leftwich and Chelsea Lane, as well as those serving in administrative support roles!