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WNBA Coaching Chronicles: Analyzing the Liberty’s Walt Hopkins hire

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The New York Liberty’s hiring of Walt Hopkins is about more than the Liberty and Hopkins. His rather rapid ascension up the coaching ranks can provide insight into perceptions of authority and expertise, both within women’s basketball and across broader society.

New York Liberty Head Coach Announcement Press Conference
The New York Liberty’s hiring of Walt Hopkins reveals much about issues of gender, race, opportunity and authority in the WNBA.
Photo by Mike Lawrence/WNBA via Getty Images

Is Walt Hopkins the right coach for the Liberty? If we’re being honest, who knows?

Nonetheless, Hopkins’ hire has revived a familiar conversation about coaching in the WNBA, with this conversation focusing not on Hopkins but on who Hopkins is not. In a league dominated by women of color, many of whom also identify as gender non-conforming, Hopkins is none of these. As Swish Appeal’s Tamryn Spruill has discussed, no woman of color currently holds a head coaching job in the WNBA.

And yes, this matters. Representation matters.

However, rather than further focus on who Hopkins is not, it is instructive to consider who he is. Who he is can explain why he was hired. So why did the Liberty see Walt Hopkins as the right coach?

The answer goes beyond the Liberty and Hopkins; it involves examining the entrenched social and cultural ideologies that made Hopkins the believed right hire for the Liberty.

Hopkins’ path to the Liberty

Just as the Chicago Sky did with James Wade last season, the Liberty plucked Hopkins from the Cheryl Reeve-Minnesota Lynx coaching tree. Hopkins had worked under Reeve for the past three seasons. Before that, he served as an assistant coach at Utah Valley University for one season and as the director of player development for the Tulsa Shock (now Dallas Wings) in 2013.

The Liberty likely are hoping Hopkins’s inaugural effort in Brooklyn resembles Wade’s first season in Chicago. Wade was named 2019 WNBA Coach of the Year, leading the Sky to a 20-14 record and a return to the playoffs.

Yet, it is worth recognizing the differences between Wade’s and Hopkins’s paths to the top of a WNBA team.

Constant hustling has defined Wade’s coaching career. After playing professionally overseas, he joined the San Antonio Silver Stars (now Las Vegas Aces) as an assistant coach in 2012, working under Dan Hughes (now the head coach of the Seattle Storm). During that same time period, he also was an assistant coach for BLMA in France. In 2017, he joined the coaching staffs of the Lynx and UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia (a position he maintains).

As noted, Hopkins, in contrast, enjoyed a remarkably quick ascendence up the coaching ranks. All the more, Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb did not hesitate to declare, “For those of you that don’t know, Walter is a genius!”

Watch out, Brad Stevens!

A basketball wonder boy

Why did Hopkins encourage such effusion from Kolb?

He fits a certain “basketball intelligence” archetype.

Similar to Stevens, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie and Memphis Grizzles executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman, Hopkins is seen as something like a 21st-century basketball wonder boy, resembling the often white, male and youthful-ish innovators and disruptors of Silicon Valley who, for better or worse, are granted power and prestige in contemporary society. The wonder boys of modern basketball benefit from similar assumptions, as they are presumed to possess the skill sets seen as progressive in professional basketball today.

As Kolb further emphasized at Hopkins’s opening press conference:

This is a person with high basketball intellect and he’s a strong leader. He sets standards and holds people accountable while leading with positivity.

Kolb’s assessment is not necessarily wrong. (In fact, for the good of the W, let’s hope he is right.) Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that social and cultural forces conspire to situate Hopkins (and guys that look him) as rightful, trusted wielders of authority.

Hopkins is legible as a “basketball expert” in a way that other coaching candidates are not.

The color and gender of advancement and opportunity

It is not a total coincidence that it took Wade, an African-American man, twice as long to earn a head coaching opportunity. Or that Shelley Patterson, who is reported to be leaving the Lynx sideline to join Hopkins and the Liberty, seems to have hit a glass ceiling. A woman of color, Patterson had served under Cheryl Reeve since 2010, winning four titles along the way. Prior to that, she had occupied various assistant coaching and front office positions in the WNBA since 1999.

Even Cheryl Reeve seemed a bit shocked that Hopkins was hired by the Liberty. She told The Athletic’s Erica Ayala:

I pushed him to throw his hat in the ring because I believe it’s the first step. The first step to becoming a head coach is actually interviewing to be a head coach, so we talked about that. That was the goal this offseason, to see where it might work, where it might go. And obviously, in New York, he was found to be a fit.

Ayala elaborated:

But it’s no secret Hopkins has a limited coaching resume. Reeve acknowledged that herself, even as she supported him pursuing other opportunities.

Reeve, who has proven to be acutely aware of gendered, raced and sexual inequities, appears to have grasped more fully the insufficiency of meritocracy. She has realized the importance of heeding Muffet McGraw’s call, telling Ayala:

Muffet McGraw talked about only hiring women. I know when I first heard that, I thought how unfortunate that would be the direction that we go, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Now, having gone through the last couple seasons and having groomed a couple of male assistants to be (head) coaches, and they’ve gotten positions quite quickly, I now see an opportunity to only hire women and position them to be the next head coaches in the WNBA the same ways that we were able to do with both James Wade and Walt Hopkins. And so I will personally impact the pool by only providing female candidates going forward.

Reeve immediately has begun to actualize this process, bringing former New York Liberty head coach (and Lynx legend) Katie Smith back to Minnesota as an assistant coach. Smith’s situation will present an interesting test case. Will she benefit from the “Cheryl Reeve Shine”? Will an uninspiring tenure in New York, disadvantaged by the post-Dolan doldrums, be quickly redeemed by working under Reeve? Or, will Smith’s identity prevent another head coaching opportunity from quickly coming her way?

The coaching chronicles continue...

In short, Cheryl Reeve is in a somewhat complicated position, celebrating the ascendance of Hopkins while also seeking to ensure that she will no longer “be responsible” for the gender disparity among WNBA coaches. Issues of race and sexuality further complicate coaching opportunity in the WNBA.

So, the chronicling of the complicated story of coaches in the WNBA must continue.

This piece represents the first in a regularly occurring Swish Appeal series on coaching in the WNBA. After analyzing some other pressing, present-day matter, we will dive into stories from the past before then considering future possibilities.

Next time, we will consider an issue inspired by a tweet from Skylar Diggins-Smith.