W-Insidr EXCLUSIVE: A Q&A with Taj McWilliams-Franklin

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Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s lengthy WNBA journey seems set to only continue with her involvement in the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associate Program.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s professional basketball journey is older than the WNBA itself. It’s a trek that began through humble beginnings at NAIA school St. Edward’s.

The quest is now nearing its third decade. With her latest endeavor, she’s ensuring she’ll stick around even longer.

McWilliams-Franklin is one of the latest participant in NBA Basketball Operations Associate Program. The program was formed in 2017. According to the league office, the program “is a yearlong immersive league office experience that positions former NBA & WNBA players for league and team management opportunities”. McWilliams-Franklin currently works alongside fellow WNBA veteran Ashley Battle and NBA alum Andre Barrett.

“Taj is awesome. Not only her work ethic, and her passion for the work and the desire to grow professionally, she’s just really brought a level of experience and grounding as a former player to the program,” said Greg Taylor, he NBA’s senior vice president of player development, who is a main figure in the program. “She asks questions, she’s prepared for meetings. I just think she’s going to be an outstanding professional going forward in whatever she chooses to do. Just a gem of a person.”

McWilliams-Franklin has built an impressive resume as is. A 14-year WNBA career with seven teams featured a pair of championships, six All-Star Games, She remains the league’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds and playoff games. The Dallas Wings brought her aboard as an assistant head coach in 2017. She later served as the team’s interim head coach after the firing of Fred Williams. Her first career win against Las Vegas on August 17 allowed Dallas to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth.

The El Paso, Texas native recently sat down with W-Insidr for an exclusive interview to discuss the program and the current state of the Association she knows so well.

Q: What are your overall thoughts on the program? 

A: I knew some limited information going into it. I had spoken with a previous associate, Michele Van Gorp, at the WNBA All-Star Game last summer. She gave me a lot of insight. I had already applied for it. When you look online, and you read the qualifications, you don’t really think that those are exactly “it”. So I had spoken to Michele, who had been immersed in the program already, to give me the ins and outs, to see if it was something I really wanted to pursue, if it was relevant, all the good things. I spoke with her, and she gave it an A-plus bill of health. She said it was rally amazing to be a part of, (things like) the information you’re exposed to, the different departments of the NBA, just the scale and scope of the program. So I was really excited just to get in and start working.

I think the first month, maybe two months, was just culture shock, because, as a player, you never think about what goes into what you do. You think of it on a macro level, like how much practice, watching game film, scouting and all of those. But I didn’t think that, when I got to the gym, that there wouldn’t be people there, things wouldn’t be set up. When you work for that organization, the NBA, you realize that everything is thought about down to the slightest detail. As a basketball ops associate, I have just been exposed to everything that I could possibly want to know about our product outside of playing and coaching, even some of the coaching I’ve been exposed on this level.

Q: How would you describe your experience in this new program?

A: I think one of the things, for me, is that it’s an opportunity to allow the players of the NBA and the WNBA to get the experience in a league that they helped develop and grow. That’s something that can’t be understated. I think that’s the mentality of a leader that I have. I say this to everyone: you’ve been given a gift. How you do you give back? How do you pay it forward for having such a great gift as being able to play this sport. For me, this program, career crossover, I’m allowed to share the knowledge that I have with all of these great people that, every day, are trying to make this game bigger and greater for everyone, not just in the US, but all over the world, a global game of basketball that brings people together.

For me, having this program, means that the people who are picked for it spend a year learning this and then moving on to give back in player development, ref ops. Lindsey Harding, for example, is now a player development coach for the Sixers. We have that urgency to want to give back. This program gives the knowledge that what we need in order to be effective in doing that whether we choose a team or the league. For me, I would look back and say I’m super excited. One, I was picked. Two, I was able to come in. I have learned at least ten things I didn’t know coming in. I’m looking forward to the next six months of growing and developing for this program.

Q: What has been the biggest difference between this program and your tenure as a WNBA coach?

A: I think it’s the aspect where you get such an inside view, a magnified view, of everything it takes to make the NBA the biggest global, professional league ever, anywhere. I learned that in a month. I was in so many different meetings, team business, ops, and marketing. Whether it was basketball stats and analytics, our social responsibility and player programs, whatever it was, I was exposed to it. Bryan Spruell, the head of league ops, came in and did a presentation for us so we can understand the different pillars of the business, how it relates to the overall product and how it relates to those departments.

It was just an amazing amount of information that you would never think about if you were playing or coaching. Even when coaching, I didn’t think about it in those terms.

Q: What is your personal endgame through this program?

A: Well, if I told you that, I’d have to kill you! (Laughs)

Truly for me, my ambition and goal was to learn about the business side that did not include the playing and coaching. Get out of my comfort zone, get out of my wheelhouse and pick up information that could help me whether I’m a general manager, I’m working on a field level or in the front office, or I stay in the NBA office and work in a department there. I want to have the most information and the most knowledge I can in order to be in the business of basketball. For me, I’m a student of the game. So now, I’m a student of the NBA and the WNBA and the G-League and how they all come together to form this amazing, amazing company.

Q: How much has the WNBA changed since your 1999 entry? 

A: I’m extremely hopeful about the future. I’m excited that we’ve done the transformation, the refresh of the WNBA brand. I think the impact it has on young girls is significant. I was at the WNBA Draft and I listened to our young players’ stories about how they watched the WNBA growing up. I remember feeling a sense of pride and joy that the league was in the hands of these great young women, but also a sense of pride and joy that I had a hand in shaping their views for women’s professional basketball.

I think it has been an amazing journey from looking at where it was to where it is now and where it will go. I think the fact that the NBA has invested so much time, talent, money, and resources into making sure the WNBA brand is just as relevant as it should be. It’s impressive for me to be in the NBA offices and now and to see what’s going into the day-to-day for the WNBA and the G-League, and, of course, the day-to-day operations of the NBA. I have a much higher appreciation for what the NBA is doing for the W.

I’m really excited. I think the future’s amazing. I think it’s huge amounts of growth. I, personally, don’t have any thoughts about what challenges are up. I think the challenges are more on a global scale, making sure we keep the young girls invested in basketball because there’s a growing number that are quitting at an earlier age. I think the WNBA and the NBA are very cognizant of that fact and are putting in programs like Her Time to Play to increase and keep the interests of those young girls in sports, whether that’s basketball or not. Obviously, basketball is what we do, but we want to keep those young girls interested. I think that’s our challenge going into the next five years: increasing those numbers through our programming and our impact on the communities.

Q: In your opinion, why are girls quitting sports at this rate? 

A: I think, now more than ever, we have a lot of distractions. As someone who has raised three girls, there’s so many different distractions now that sports doesn’t have an impact that it once had. When I was growing up, my dad made me get out of the house. He didn’t care what I did, and I didn’t come back until the lights came on outside. So I had to find something to do outside. I used to run all the time, with all the people in the neighborhood, we’d be running. So I’d start with just being able to run. I didn’t play basketball until (age) 15 because it was an indoor sports. So, for me personally, I would say a lot of distractions for young people.

I think, in the younger kids, there’s a lack of coaches that really devoted to young girls and their growth and development. I think one of the great things we’re doing is bringing in all these awesome coaches in the NBA that are women. So that will also spur when women coaches realize there’s an opportunity for them as well. I think we’ll an influx of those women come into our coaching ranks, providing valuable resources and valuable help for these young girls, who may be looking for that type of role model.

Q: What can you say about the WNBA’s “Make Way” campaign and its goals?

A: I didn’t have a look at that campaign specifically. But any campaign that encourages little girls to play any sport is one that I can get behind. As a mother of three girls and as a former athlete, I grew up in an area where there were only men playing basketball on TV, men that were my height and did what I did. So I am fully for any opportunity that we have to encourage young girls to play sports earlier and often because it leads to high self-esteem as it did for me, a greater self-confidence, as it did for me.

I know the traits of perseverance, integrity, honesty, character, all of those of things, were not magnified through me playing sports. I had them in me. But, in order to apply them to my life, sports helped me do that.  I know that anything we put our name to as a league is going to thrive because that’s the important part: we strive and laser-focus in on the group that needs that help. Younger girls need to know that sports are a valuable, valuable part of your life. It should be a lifelong quest. A lot of companies that are not the NBA love to have athletes working for them because of those traits you learn as an athlete.

Q: You spent one year with the New York Liberty. What are your thoughts on their future, especially with new ownership in tow?

A: Besides the fact that New York City fans are super amazing, I think it’s super important because they’re one of the three original teams. Most importantly, it sets the tone for all the other teams. I know other teams will say “no it’s LA!” or “no, it’s our place, Minnesota, Phoenix, Seattle!”. But New York really sets the tone. I know, for me, the impact, back when (James Dolan) owned the team, of my first time walking into Madison Square Garden and playing the (1999) All-Star Game there, against the Liberty there. Fast forward to where I played for the Liberty and fast forward to where I was an assistant coach with the Liberty, the impact is monumental because I think all eyes are always on New York. That’s why all the major companies are here, but that’s also why our league headquarters are here. We’re going to make sure teams know this is the epicenter of the W.

So when Joseph Tsai, the minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets, comes through and keeps the team here, that’s huge. I took a deep breath and I was like “thank you”. But I think also, for everyone, when you look at our league, Sue Bird is from New York. Tina Charles, New York. Chamique Holdsclaw, New York. All of the kids that have been loved are New York products. When you come through, you know you’re going to be in the center where everyone wants to be. So I think it’s really important for us to have that prescience.

I was a little saddened when I heard Mr. Dolan wanted to sell the team. I was also one of the people who were saying “we’ve got to keep them in New York”. We’ve got personal reasons, but also just understanding that, as a league, we have to keep our team in our city where are headquarters is located.

on Twitter @GeoffMags5490

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