Hoops coach soars beyond glass ceiling

One guy has the word "revolution" tattooed from shoulder to shoulder. Another wears a painted snake slithering down his arm, which writhes as he reaches up toward the basket for a slam.

Many of the players here at the Central Training Camp for the nation's newest basketball league come from inner-city streets. But the gruff grunts go right over Stephanie Ready as she paces the bench.

Ms. Ready, the first woman to coach a pro men's basketball team, moves down the line, slapping shoulders and giving both encouragement and orders. The men hunker down, listen, nod, and pad onto the court to execute.

In an age when some NBA stars are known to not only curse but also choke their coaches, some critics wonder why this young woman would accept a job as assistant coach of the Greenville (S.C.) Groove, which opens the National Basketball Development League's inaugural season today against the North Charleston (S.C.) Lowgators. (ESPN2 will carry the game at 4 p.m. EST.)

But here at the Suwanee Sports Academy complex, what stands out is how unfazed the players are about being bossed around by a woman. Indeed, the 110-year-old game of basketball is leading a charge in the sports world to regularly reach beyond white males for key posts.

"We're in a different time now, where we're more open to certain things," says Richard Lapchick, director of the sports management program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "It's also true that if this was going to happen anywhere, it was going to happen in the NBA or WNBA. Both leagues have had diversity not only in terms of numbers, but in terms of real opportunities."

To be sure, Mr. Lapchick says some skeptics see Ready's ascent into history as a public-relations ploy to get some coverage for the new eight-team pro league, which will offer $8 tickets in small basketball gyms across the Southeast.

But at its heart, the NBDL is a genuine way to find talent by offering up-and-comers a certified shot at the Big Show, league officials say.

True, players will get paid only $30,000, but NBA scouts will be like hawks at every game.

More important, observers say, this new minor league will offer an array of opportunities for women and minorities. "We take the word 'development' very seriously in the NBDL," says Donna Daniels, a 10-year NBA management veteran and now the president of the Roanoke (Va.) Dazzle.

Management is also serious about the jobs' necessary qualifications. "To get to this point, everyone here has had to prove themselves, and the same with Stephanie," says point guard Chris Garner, a Columbus (Ga.) Riverdragon. "Besides, with everything on the line for these guys, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to give the coach a hard time."

Good point. But players also note that Ready exudes a confidence that's tough to ignore. At the same time, they say, she's charismatic, outgoing, and has obviously studied the secrets of squeezing the best out of her charges.

As it is, she's never had a problem with a player disrespecting her because of her gender. "Except for a few physical details, women are no different than guys," Ready says. "In fact, coaching has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with respect. And if you don't have it, you won't get it."

But her skills didn't appear without some hard work. Ready played basketball at Coppin State, and spent four years watching the men's team play after the women's games.

She also hung out in the athletic director's office, picking up details and enjoying a camaraderie based on equal footing.

Then, Coppin AD and men's basketball coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell hired Ready as the women's volleyball coach after she graduated.

That's where she showed her penchant for sideline hollering. Taking over a dejected team saddled by 127 straight losses, Ready worked on the basics and helped the women break their infamous streak.

A year later, Ready took over as assistant coach of the men's basketball team, working with Mr. Mitchell.

"I've had a big advantage, in that I've been involved with men's teams for a long time now," says Ready. "As a coach at Coppin State, I'd be in charge of working with four or five players on plays, and that really gave me a good feel for what drives these athletes."

Milton Barnes, head coach of the Groove, isn't surprised by how well the players accept Ready's advice.

"Just look at how she moves," says Mr. Barnes. "She's confident and smart and knows how to coach. Anybody who carries themselves like that is going to get where they want to go."

Despite the sanguine acceptance of Ready here in Suwanee, there's still something curious going on as the young coach peps her team up.

In a way, Ready's groundbreaking role isn't being questioned for a simple reason: Many of the young men at the NBDL camp, Mitchell says, are admitted boys-in-the-hood, using basketball as a way out of an impoverished lifestyle. Many of them, he says, lack father figures. And the backbone of their families is often a woman.

"I see where having Steph as a coach would be an easy situation for a guy to read, especially considering the fact that a lot of kids in these situations come up in single-family homes, and who was the boss?" asks Mitchell, an eyebrow raised. "In that light, I don't see Steph having much of a problem."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.