The NBA is a successful multi-billion dollar franchise that seems to gross more and more money with each passing year. This is no fluke.
Throughout the league, scores of former players are involved with teams, from top to bottom. Larry Bird is the general manager of the Indiana Pacers; Vlade Divac is general manager and vice president of basketball operations for the Sacramento Kings. Tyronn Lue coaches the Cavaliers, Scott Brooks coaches the Wizards, Jason Kidd coaches the Bucks, Doc Rivers coaches the Clippers and Nate McMillan coaches the Pacers, just to name a few.
Patrick Ewing has been a director of player development; John Starks is head of the Knicks Alumni Foundation; Grant Hill is part owner of the Atlanta Hawks. Many other retired players work in public relations, marketing, mentoring and other capacities for the NBA. The 30-team league is nothing short of a brotherhood.
In order to grow, the WNBA needs to develop a similar tree of sisterhood. In guidance from those who have played in the league, know it well and love it, the WNBA can break out of its current holding pattern and really flourish.
There are a few retired players in leadership positions around the league. Former New York Liberty star guard Teresa Weatherspoon was named the team’s director of player development prior to the 2015 season, and not only assists in practice but accompanies players to public appearances, among other duties. Members of the team have said her insight is invaluable.
Ruth Riley was tapped this year to become general manager of the San Antonio Stars after the impending retirement of Dan Hughes. Her levelheadedness and keen eye for talent promises to give the floundering organization a big boost. Penny Toler is general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Sandy Brondello coaches the Phoenix Mercury and Stephanie White coaches the Indiana Fever for another month or so, before she leaves to assume her role as coach at Vanderbilt University. Katie Smith is assistant coach for the Liberty.
Those six – soon to be five – are the only former WNBA players involved in the league. This needs to change.
The WNBA is young at 20 years, but there are many alumni who could be brought in by a team to help in numerous capacities, as athlete needs differ significantly from those of NBA players.
A director of player development could help rookies with the transition from college to professional play, as their undergraduate habits are more ingrained than those of men, who do not typically stay at a college all four years before turning pro. WNBA athletes could also use training in what to expect if they choose to play overseas in the winter.
As coaches, WNBA retirees are the most believable because they’ve been there, and have walked their talk. How great would it be, for example, if Tina Thompson was an assistant or head coach for a league franchise instead of assistant at the University of Texas? High-quality coaches lead to coach retention, which results in team consistency and stability – something every team in the league could use.
WNBA players don’t receive as many perks and get far less attention than NBA athletes, so they need more support. The league and its teams and athletes need more marketing. Retired players could help with that, as they have been in communities and know what it takes to reach fans.
Athletes come to the league with their college degrees, and will likely have to use them after they retire, as they don’t receive the multi-million salaries that NBA players get. Former WNBA athletes could assist active players with that transition.
The Liberty is doing the right thing by getting two great retired players involved, and perhaps not coincidentally, they have been tops in league standings for the last two years. More teams need to take this kind of step.
Hire retired WNBA players back into the league to nurture it along. It’s time to elevate the WNBA for the next 20 years.