Former WNBA star Swin Cash’s transition to NBA executive is often associated with her playing days in the W, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
It makes sense.
Cash played in the league for 15 years and enjoyed both team and individual success, putting together the kind of resume that bodes well for a soon-to-be front-office executive:
- Three-time WNBA champion (2003, 2006, 2010)
- Four-time WNBA All-Star (2003, 2005, 2009, 2011)
- Two-time All-WNBA second team (2003, 2004)
- Two-time Olympic gold medal winner (2004, 2012)
And those accolades came after an All-American career at UConn that included a pair of national titles (2000, 2002) and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award (2002).
“A lot of people do their research and see me as a former player,” Cash told Bleacher Report. “But I credit a lot of my experience from having spent over a decade in committees [as a vice president of the WNBA’s players union], going through the ups and downs of our union, the experience of going through two CBAs [collective bargaining agreements], working in the front office with the New York Liberty. I bring this kind of institutional knowledge from the different aspects of our business, which really helps me and I lean on in the position I have now.”
Cash, vice president of basketball operations and team development for the New Orleans Pelicans, is an example of the ever-increasing number of WNBA talents making the transition into leadership roles within the NBA.
There are nine former WNBA players with positions in the NBA and G League, a total that’s expected to only increase over time.
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“We love it and appreciate the opportunities,” said Lindsey Harding, who played in the WNBA for nine years and is now an NBA assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings. “But as a whole we aren’t satisfied with where it needs to be. But we continue to take steps forward.”
And while their ascension is key to their own professional growth, creating paths to leadership positions for other former WNBA players in both the WNBA and NBA is just as important.
The NBA has made a number of strides when it comes to gender equity in hiring, according to the 2020 Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s Racial and Gender Report Card.
Women in NBA staff positions increased by 1.7 percentage points to 39.0 in 2019-2020. That was the highest mark in four seasons. There was an even more impressive increase in the percentage of women in NBA team management positions, from 30.9 percent in 2018-2019 to 33.0 percent last season—the highest mark in 20 years.
But with an increased number of former WNBA players in positions of leadership within the NBA, those opportunities come with an unspoken but undeniable responsibility.
Cash now finds herself often being that voice for the unheard, which was in part why she encouraged Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin to give serious thought to hiring WNBA legend Teresa Weatherspoon as an assistant coach in November.
“This is the thing. I don’t say this tooting my horn or anything like that,” Cash said. “Griff makes the hires; he’s the decision-maker. People like me, when you get in rooms, I’m able to know people that maybe Griff and Trajan [Langdon, the Pelicans’ general manager,] haven’t been exposed to, haven’t worked with. And that’s what we’re talking about when it comes to advocating and having women in those spaces where I’m able to bring a whole different list and have eyes on different talent when we’re talking about bringing in people from a staffing perspective.”
The Portland Trail Blazers recently hired former WNBA All-Star Asjha Jones as the team’s director of basketball strategy.
Cash was one of the folks Jones spoke with before taking the job.
“Now she has a person she can tap into as she goes through this process,” Cash said. “For me, that is so important for not just the league but for business. That’s what I talk about all the time. Listen, it’s just good business sense. I’m hella competitive. I want to win, but I also want to win on our bottom line, too.”
And as much as Cash wants to continue to grow and evolve in her career as an NBA executive, she says there’s plenty of room for more women with similar goals.
“Being able to speak other people’s names in rooms is not going to take away from who I am or what I’m able to accomplish,” Cash said. “For so many years, women have been made to feel like, ‘If I’m the only one in the room, I have to protect my little corner.’ It doesn’t mean just because you’re the only woman, there can’t be two or three. That’s my mindset, and I firmly believe that one day it will happen.”
The journey often begins with entering the WNBA, which for most starts with the draft.
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Jamila Wideman, a standout point guard at Stanford, was part of the first WNBA draft class in 1997.
For Wideman, there was no fanfare, or even a light, when she was drafted with the No. 3 overall pick while at the home of her coach, Tara VanDerveer.
“It turned out the only place I could get cell service in Tara’s house was standing halfway between her entryway and the coat closet,” Wideman told Bleacher Report. “So I literally heard my name called while I was in the dark, leaning on all her coats. The signal wasn’t fantastic.”
The WNBA in its early stages showcased the talents of athletes who for so many years had to leave the United States to continue playing beyond college, a reminder of the unequal access they endured for years in comparison with their male basketball-playing counterparts.
Now, the mantra of maximizing opportunities is alive and well for Wideman and other former players in their quest to create more inclusion in NBA leadership positions. They continue to build on the work of WNBA pioneers such as Becky Hammon, the first woman hired as a full-time NBA assistant coach (in 2014 by the San Antonio Spurs), and those who came before her, such as Ann Meyers, the only woman to sign an NBA player contract (in 1979 with the Indiana Pacers—nearly 20 years before the WNBA’s first season).
“My [WNBA] experience, in part because of the fact that I was part of the inaugural season, was really about being a pioneer,” said Wideman, senior vice president of player development for the NBA. “That opened us up to curiosity and, for me, was a fundamental touchstone of my experience. As I transitioned into the role I have with the NBA today, I really tried to hold that and try to avoid feeling like I’m on a train track that has already been defined, with the hope that retaining that openness, that curiosity will mean that we can continue to innovate and evolve and not just do the same over time.”
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Like Harding, Allison Feaster made the transition to a leadership position with the NBA after a long playing career in the WNBA.
Feaster is the vice president of player development and organizational growth for the Boston Celtics.
“I’ve always credited a lot of my post-playing career success to my association with the WNBA,” Feaster told Bleacher Report. “Having played in the league just a year after the league started was a dream come true. Where basketball has taken me because of the [WNBA]—I can’t say enough positives about the league, where it started and where it’s come today. I’m very proud to be a former player.”
Prior to being hired as an assistant coach with the Kings, Harding was the first Black woman in an NBA scout role, with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2018.
Marc Eversley, GM of the Chicago Bulls, was senior vice president of player personnel for the Sixers when Harding was hired.
Harding—one of seven Black women who played in the WNBA who now hold positions in the NBA—recalled conversations with Eversley in which he made it clear that he didn’t want her to just be in the room when decisions were made.
“‘We’re hiring you because of your experience,'” Harding said he told her. “‘I don’t care if you are the only one who doesn’t agree. I want you to say it.’ To have a boss that empowers you is amazing.”
Harding added: “When we get these opportunities, we can’t just be good; we have to be amazing. We have to be great. It makes it a little bit easier for the next one behind us.”
Chris Szagola/Associated Press
And as they continue to make the most of opportunities that come their way, they are often asked about what’s next on their list of goals.
Coach a team?
Become a team president?
Harding said that’s not the question that should be asked now.
“The question should be asked,” Harding said. “Are NBA teams ready to actually hire a woman who has the experience, has the relationships with the players, that can do everything, can be that GM, can be that coach? I can want all I want. Are [team owners] ready to do that?”