“Here, take my things.”
That’s the last thing I said before I kicked this kid’s ass.
I was 10 years old, walking home from school with my brothers, Tom and Larry. Some kid — a bully — started jawing at Larry real bad. He wouldn’t stop. Now, Larry is older than me. Having his little sis step in to defend him probably wasn’t the look he wanted. Too bad. I wasn’t having it.
I handed my books (and a hamster cage) to Tom. I was gonna knock this guy out.
I rolled up my sleeves and beat him up so badly that he ran away.
Larry hates that story. (Sorry, Larry.)
But it’s one of my favorite memories from childhood.
I grew up in Omaha, and ever since I can remember I liked digging in the dirt, climbing fences and playing ball with the neighborhood boys. Picture me in a baseball uniform and trucker hat. I would’ve worn that every day if I could. My mom used to send me to school in these flowery dresses and leotards. I’d come home with holes and grass stains. I ruined so many outfits that she eventually gave up.
I played tetherball with the boys at recess. I rode bikes all day with my brothers. I played on a Little League team back in the ’70s, when there weren’t many other girls playing baseball. I never thought much about being the only girl. I just wanted to be the best shortstop in town.
I enjoyed the times I spent with my dad as a child and really admired him. Our family always told me how much I was like him.
And in many ways, I was.
My dad was in the Air Force and he was a very disciplined guy. He and I both really hated to lose. If he was playing Monopoly and things weren’t going his way, he would just flip the board right off the table.
The thing I most admired about my father was that he treated me and my brothers the same.
Girl. Boy. It didn’t matter.
All chores were created equal. We all did the dishes. We all raked the yard. We helped my mom with the cooking sometimes.
I loved doing home-improvement projects with my dad. I’d be right by his side any time he repaired the sink or fixed the refrigerator. If he needed a tool, I was there to hand it to him.
I knew the difference between a monkey wrench and a pipe wrench before I was 10.
When I was a kid, it was almost as if I lived in a genderless world. No one ever pointed out that I was the only girl on my baseball team.
And then gradually something started to change. As I got older, I started to see how girls often didn’t get the same respect as guys.
For me, that really became noticeable in college.
By that time, I had fallen in love with basketball. My senior year of high school, I had earned a scholarship to play at La Salle University.
Back then, there weren’t any pro female athletes for me to look up to, but I remember really wanting to be like Kim Mulkey. Long before she became the head coach at Baylor, she had been the point guard at Louisiana Tech. It’s funny — who she was as a player is a lot like who she is as a coach today. I’ve always loved her tenacity and her competitive will to win. I’ll never forget watching her play on TV as Louisiana Tech won back-to-back NCAA titles in ’81 and ’82.
I wanted to be like her.
When I got to La Salle, I didn’t really know what college athletics was about. I was a shy girl — a pass-first point guard who had to be forced to shoot when open. Just before I arrived, La Salle had hired a new coach, Bill (Speedy) Morris, a legend in Philadelphia boys basketball. It wouldn’t be long before Speedy instilled winning ways. We went from 11-18 the year before my freshman season to 22-8, and competed for the MAAC championship.
No one ever pointed out that I was the only girl on my baseball team.
While we were winning on the court (and in the classroom), it became apparent that we weren’t winning when it came to being treated the same as our male counterparts.
Mind you, we’re talking about 1984 here, a time when women’s sports at universities all over the country were neglected. Title IX was 12 years old. I expected the same support that male athletes got. I thought that the law meant that men’s and women’s athletics would be supported equally in college.
Equal opportunity? Sure. Equal resources and support? Not so much. Some things were immediately apparent: The men’s team had nicer locker rooms. They got prime court time for practice. They got better gear. More per diem, better hotels, and buses for travel.
Speaking out on these inequities was a no-no for female athletes. We operated in an environment in which we didn’t want to be labeled as one of “those” women who were rocking the boat — for fear we’d lose what we did have.
In other words, we couldn’t ask for too much. We should be happy with what we got in the first place. At least we had a team, right?
I just kept playing my game and hoped that one day things would get better.
In 1996, it felt like a sea change.
Female athletes dominated at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The U.S. women’s soccer, softball, basketball and gymnastics teams all won gold medals. These women were the first generation to grow up under Title IX.
People were saying the Summer of ’96 forever changed the way Americans saw women’s sports.
But for me, the most magical thing had actually been what happened just a few months before.
That spring, David Stern announced that the NBA was starting the Women’s National Basketball Association — the WNBA. Eight women’s professional teams featuring the best players in the world: Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley … all of the stars from the national team.
When they made the announcement, I was coaching at Indiana State. I couldn’t buy Indiana Fever season tickets fast enough.
In 2001, I applied to be an assistant coach with the Charlotte Sting. I was so excited when head coach Anne Donovan offered me the job. The Anne Donovan. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and basketball Hall of Famer.
The pay was really low: $5,000 a season.
But I would have done it for free.
It was amazing to get a chance to coach those incredible athletes. And reaching the WNBA Finals in my first year is something I’ll never forget.
But if I’m being honest, growing a women’s basketball franchise was extremely frustrating at times, too. When I started in Charlotte, I never expected the W to be viewed as being as big as the NBA. I never expected to get the same resources or even the same pay.
But I also never expected to be treated like second-class citizens.
We had minimal operations staff. There was hardly anyone promoting the team. The salaries of the players was very modest. Not every WNBA team was run this way. It was frustrating.
Sometimes we weren’t even allowed in our own training facilities. If the Hornets were practicing, we couldn’t be in the building. We were told it was “too distracting” to have women around the gym.
Some old-school B.S.
The early days of the W were rocky to say the least.
In my first few seasons in the league, I coached for two teams that ceased operations. There was uncertainty every off-season. Will the WNBA make it? It was quite unsettling and downright discouraging.
Fast-forward 10 years. I watched countless ex-NBA guys land jobs they simply weren’t qualified for, while I struggled to score even an interview. I worked for men, logging hours of grunt work and providing endless amounts of detail. I longed for the opportunity to be a head coach. I felt like I had developed a pretty good idea of how to win in the WNBA. After 10 years, I didn’t want to be an assistant anymore.
Now I was ready to run my own team.
“Why would a team hire you?”
That’s what Bill Laimbeer asked me when I was his assistant coach with the Detroit Shock.
“You don’t have a presence,” he said.
Bill and I talked a lot about a variety of things. He and I shared one thing in common — we both had an opinion. Though he took the time to mentor me, he would say things that would really get me fired up. I cherish the time I spent with Bill as his assistant, but this is one thing he said that has always stuck in my craw. Now, I love Bill with all my heart. He’s taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader, and we have so much respect for each other.
But he thought that to truly be an effective head coach, you had to possess a certain physical stature. It seemed to me like he was implying that men would be better coaches because they were … bigger. It was like he was associating size with power.
I wanted nothing more than to prove him wrong.
Ironically, when Bill went to the Timberwolves and heard the Lynx were looking for a head coach, he was the one who went up to the owners and said, “Hey, you should hire Cheryl.”
That was one of the best referrals of my entire life.
You know, it’s interesting. Bill was actually kind of right.
It’s not easy for a woman coach to have “presence.”
I’m not only referring to stature here, of course. I’m talking about the delicate balance women often have to navigate when we’re in positions of power.
We learn a few unwritten rules. We can’t be too dominant and we also can’t be too soft — but we’re expected to be both. We work just as hard at the same job for 20% less pay (on average), and are still expected to subscribe to female social norms, many of which are fluid and ever-changing and about as real as Santa Claus.
We can’t win.
I get technical fouls called on me for making the wrong facial expressions. Look, I can get a little passionate when it comes to game time.
Remember the Great Jacket Toss of 2012?
The whole dang thing made national news. For 48 hours, there it was … replay after replay. I can’t help but think a large part of why was because I’m a woman, and yet I was showing passionate anger in a way we usually associate with masculinity. If Bob Knight throws a chair it also makes national news — but we laugh at it. It’s ridiculous, sure, but it doesn’t make us uncomfortable.
I think I made a lot of people uncomfortable.
Part of me was glad that my jacket toss caused such a media frenzy. At least more people were aware that the WNBA finals were even going on, right? (I’ll get to media coverage in a bit.)
None of that takes away from what we’ve built here in Minneapolis. In my eight years with the Lynx, we’ve won four WNBA titles and six conference championships. That doesn’t even account for what our players have done off the court, especially when it comes to social change.
How’s that for presence?
We’ve won four championships with the Lynx, and every title we’ve ever won means something special to me. I suspect those championships and our success make my voice louder than others. I have a platform that I take very seriously. I think a lot about that word — champion. There’s the kind that wins games on the court. But there’s no greater champion I can be than one for other women.
I feel empowered by what’s happening around the world. I feel empowered when I turn on the TV and I see women marching — together. I draw strength from other women. It’s an injustice to ignore women who are voiceless or underrepresented.
It’s easy, sometimes, to lose hope when we see things sliding backwards. But there are measurable changes we can work on that give me hope: diversity in the workplace, closing the gender pay gap, women’s health care. There are also changes that are harder to measure but no less important, including redefining what it means or doesn’t mean to be a woman. For example, what a woman should wear or how she should speak or the type of job she should have. There are very practical things that need changing in my own field: Making more room for women on the management level in the NBA; or the amount of support we give the WNBA, as a league — advocating for higher salaries, more visibility and media coverage, more marketing dollars. Even ticket sales.
Speaking of, once in a while I’ll hear someone say something dumb like, “Well, women’s sports don’t hold people’s attention.” This year, 20,000 people attended the women’s NCAA championship game in Columbus, Ohio. So don’t say people aren’t interested in women’s sports. That is a sweeping, biased generalization. What if we invested more coverage in women’s sports? The media directly correlates to cultural conditioning. If we never show female athletes on TV, or at a significantly lower percentage than we do male athletes, what are we teaching young girls and boys? What’s the implication there?
When I drive around Minnesota and listen to the radio, I hear a lot of talk about the Twins, the Timberwolves, the Wild, the Vikings. I think to myself,Wouldn’t it be great if they’d mention the Lynx more regularly?How could anyone be a fan or choose to support our team if they don’t know we exist? It doesn’t take much time for a mention. Space isn’t an excuse. (Although I do hear a lot of excuses.) It’s about a mindset that absolutely needs to change — that women’s sports are less than. That women’s basketball is “boring.” And the people in positions to make decisions to change that mindset? Well, most of them are men.
I think a lot about that word — champion. There’s the kind that wins games on the court. But there’s no greater champion I can be than one for other women.
I guarantee when the bottom line starts being affected — viewership, ratings, sponsors —then change will come. But the bottom line should not be the sole impetus for change.
Let’s go bigger than broadcast.
Imagine if we just obliterated the stigma of the female basketball player.
Basketball is a beautiful game. There’s nothing masculine or feminine about it.
Sports is a microcosm of society, so this is not just about how women are viewed in sport. This is also about how women are viewed in business, in politics, in media and beyond. It’s all interrelated.
Advocating for women is more than “girl power.” It’s about real life. We need to eradicate the inequities that have marginalized half of the world’s population for generations. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize that we as human beings — and especially we in positions of power and influence — have the power to change culture.
I’m talking about actual change. I want every girl — of every ethnicity, of every sexuality, of every body type, of every ability, of every economic class — to grow up in a world where their possibilities feel limitless. A world where being born female doesn’t mean being born at a disadvantage.
Basketball is a beautiful game. There’s nothing masculine or feminine about it.
I have some control every day within my own world to make change. We all do. Those tiny, daily decisions we make. Imagine if we all made those decisions mindfully every day to support women. When we do that — when we make those daily decisions — then we start to change the culture. And then we change lives.
Imagine this: How radical would it be if we raised our children by their interests, skills and talents, and not by their gender?
When I look at my son Oliver, I’m always so amazed. He’s only three years old and he already has such a big heart.
I never thought I would experience the love that I have for this little guy, and I am so glad that I became a mom at 48. Before then, I don’t think I would have been ready to give everything to this kid — to give him that selfless care and attention he deserves.
My wife, Carley, and I want him to see the world. He’s going to meet all sorts of strong women and men from all different backgrounds. He already has. He doesn’t know the difference between men’s and women’s basketball — he just knows the game.
You know who his favorite superheroes are? Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl. He’s always asking for Wonder Woman toys and he gets excited when “Supergoil” or “Batgoil” is on TV. (He’s still working on his r’s.)
Ollie, like all children, is going to develop his own perspective on life. He’s going to decide what his interests are and develop his own opinions. And we will fight like hell to raise him according to his interests, not his gender.
What a beautiful way to change the world.