Why Doesn’t the NBA Call Cheryl Reeve?

This past week the Minnesota Lynx signed head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve to a multiyear extension.  Although the terms were not released, it seems very likely the Lynx got a bargain on this deal.

There is a strong argument that no coach in professional North American team sports has been more successful than Reeve in the past decade.  Consider the league where Reeve works. The WNBA only consists of 12 teams and the odds of draft-eligible college player landing a job with the league are lower than the odds of a similar athlete reaching the NBA, NFL, MLS, NHL, and MLB.  Every WNBA team employs players taken in the top five of the draft (something that is not true in the NBA).  Both those stats highlight how competitive the teams are in this league.  Every team has amazing players.

Despite the highly competitive nature of the league, though, Reeve and the Lynx won 68% of their regular-season games from 2010 to 2019.  And in the playoffs — where the competition is even more intense — Reeve and the Lynx got better.  Across the last ten years, the Lynx have won 70% of their playoff games and four WNBA titles.  No team in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and MLS has had this much success in the last decade.

Given this record, the demand for Reeve’s services must have been intense.  Certainly, every professional basketball team must have wanted to hire someone with such a record. Right?

Actually, that’s not what happened.  According to Reeve, not a single NBA team has ever even called Reeve to discuss a job as head coach.  Yes, not only has Reeve never been interviewed.  No one has even called to start a discussion.

Adam Silver said this past summer that he would like to make it a league policy that roughly 50% of new coaches entering the NBA are women.  But if no one is even calling Reeve, it appears not everyone is on board with this objective.

For example, Rick Carlisle — head coach of the Dallas Mavericks and the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA) — appears to have an issue with this idea.

 “This all starts with developing good talent and creating opportunities for people to become qualified. Quota systems don’t work. They’re ineffective, and we’re not interested in that. We’re interested in a level playing field with regard to development,”

So, Silver has a goal that 50% of new coaches by women.  And Carlisle seems to say that such a target won’t work and that we can diversify the coaching pool by simply “leveling the playing field.”

Unfortunately, there is some very clear evidence that Carlisle’s approach to this problem is not likely to work.  Let’s consider some basic statistics about who is currently working as a head coach in the NBA.

A job as an NBA head coach is immensely difficult to find.  There are 435 people in the U.S. House of Representatives and 100 people in the U.S. Senate.  But only 30 people working as NBA head coaches.  Yes, you have a better chance to be elected to Congress than you have of being an NBA head coach. And who are the lucky people who land these jobs?

First of all, unlike what we see in Congress, every single head coach in the NBA is a man. And 24 of these head coaches –or 80% of the people in this position — are white males. This may seem surprising when we consider the NBA is a league where about 80% of the NBA’s players are people of color. But when we consider that 23 of the NBA’s principal owners are also white males, this result isn’t all that surprising.

What did these men do to get these jobs?  One might think playing the game is important. But only nine head coaches had any experience as an NBA player.  Taylor Jenkins, the current head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, apparently never even played college basketball.  Jenkins, though, had experience as an NBA assistant coach.  That is a common story with 25 of the NBA’s head coaches having some experience as an assistant coach.

Perhaps that is good news for the future of women working as a head coach.  Currently, there are eleven women working as an assistant coach in the NBA.  So, perhaps in the future, these women will work there way up and eventually land one of the NBA’s head coaching positions.

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Although the NBA employing women as assistant coaches is progress in a sense, one wonders why women can’t follow the lead of some men and move from a head coaching position in women’s basketball to a similar position in the NBA.  Consider the case of Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan, and John Beilein. None of these men ever worked as an NBA assistant. Stevens and Beilein never even played in the NBA.  But all three made the leap from head coach in college basketball to head coach in the NBA.

Given this experience, why couldn’t Cheryl Reeve make a similar leap? Or how about Sandy Brondello, who has won a WNBA title and has been named WNBA Coach of the Year?  Or how about a college coach like Tara VanDerveer, C. Vivian Stringer, Muffet McGraw, Kim Mulkey, and Dawn Staley?  If men can make a leap from leading a college basketball program to being the head coach in the NBA, why can’t these women make a similar leap?

As Adam Silver notes, there is no reason why women can’t do this. Kelsey Trainor, a New York City-based entertainment lawyer, argues that the NBA is obligated to follow Silver’s plan.  “the NBA is an Equal opportunity employer, and that since there are no differences in the ability of women to coach men, the absolute lack of women in head coaching positions does not reflect that sentiment.”

But how can we make this happen? There is a great deal of resistance to a quota system.  White men often argue that such a system means that unqualified people will be given jobs that they don’t deserve.

But when it is clear a hiring process discriminates, it is also clear that unqualified people are getting jobs.  Currently, the NBA only considers men as eligible head coaching candidates.  And most often, only white men. When so many people don’t get to compete in the race — or in the case of black men don’t appear to be given the same consideration for these jobs– some of those who ultimately win the race must have won because the race was rigged in their favor. In other words, many of the white men who have jobs as head coaches in the NBA would not have landed those jobs if everyone were considered. Yes, some of these men don’t deserve these jobs.

This isn’t hard to see.  Again, no one in professional basketball has done more than Cheryl Reeve in the past decade.  Yet, not one NBA team bothers to call her when a job opening appears.  If a coach like that isn’t getting a call, maybe it is time for the white men who don’t like quotas to ask this question:  If you really don’t want people getting something they don’t deserve, why aren’t you doing more to end gender discrimination?

View Comment (1)
  • Is Cheryl Reeve qualified for the job? Yeah. But I doubt she pursues it at this point. Those young up and comers on NBA benches are much more likely to go for it. Ms. Reeve has a great thing going in Minnesota, and to the extent she’d answer those calls is to the extent that she’d need them to ask for a (well deserved) raise.

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