The career of a professional athlete is often short and figuring out what comes next isn’t always the easiest challenge for those who have spent a lifetime preparing for a singular focus. Team staffs are filled with former players but it’s not as easy as stepping off the court and into the front office.
While players can offer unique insights and experience there are a wealth of other skills it takes to succeed in the front office. This is one of the reasons the NBA created the Basketball Operations Associate Program — a year-long program designed to give former players experience working in front offices and help them transition into similar positions.
The program is in its second year and the current class — Cherokee Parks, Acie Law, Lindsey Harding and Michelle Van Gorp — includes former players from both the NBA and WNBA.
Harding a 10-year WNBA veteran, retired at the end of the 2016 WNBA season and knew she wanted to continue in basketball.
“About four years ago, I was an assistant coach for the Raptors in summer league. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to the NBA side. And it was such a great experience, it really opened my eyes that this was something I could really do,” she told The Step Back.
The program rotates associates through a variety of positions within the league office, as well as allowing them to spend time working with teams. The goal is to give them immersive experience with business fundamentals, league operations and front office competencies. They learn about the CBA, referee operations, scheduling, the league’s analytics program, and all the overlapping scouting, sports science, analytics and coaching work that teams do.
Harding talked about her time working in referee operations and the eye-opening experience it provided.
“I’ve spent time with referee operations, learning what they do, behind the data analytics and what they do with that. We’ve actually sat and watched games and to go through one game it takes five or six hours to get the data from it, so we can really see what these officials go through.”
Law also highlighted referee operations as an opportunity to gain a new perspective, saying, “Everybody is tough on refs, and me learning about that process, how those guys are coached up at a grassroots level, and how they work their butts off to get to where they are, and how much time and effort goes into putting the best refs possible out there.”
As players, each had been able to see and experience certain parts of the business of basketball. Seeing things from the other side often showed how much more complicated all the systems of support are.
“As a player, when you get your schedule you look at how many back-to-backs you have,” Harding said. “You look at how far you have to travel, you try to see if you have a pretty good schedule. But we always complain about something. Being in the office, seeing everything it takes, and how long it takes, and how many pieces have to come together to get that schedule as fair as possible, I have a better appreciation for it.”
Obviously, unique experiences and perspective go both ways. Knowing the effect of these systems on players makes their insights in designing and improving them that much useful. Having decision-makers who understand the impacts on all stakeholders just strengthens an organization. Law talked about his own experiences as a player and how he felt they could be valuable in a front office position.
“I was a lottery pick, and didn’t have the greatest career. A lot of these kids who are coming in, I have a perspective on what they’re going through. Bringing that to a front office, and the construction of a roster and dealing with a players, I think I have a lot to offer.”
Allison Feaster, part of the program’s inaugural class, played for years in the WNBA and overseas. The opportunity to join the Basketball Operations Associate Program arrived at the perfect moment for her.
“I was playing professionally in Spain and 2016 was my last season,” Feaster said. “I was exploring opportunities in basketball but definitely ready to retire, you know I was 40 years old. I was able to interview for a position in NBA Spain in basketball operations and I was about to accept that role, based in Madrid, when I got a phone call from Greg Taylor introducing me to this new program that was about to be unveiled.”
For Feaster, and the other associates, the program is not just a chance to get functional experience. It’s also an opportunity to see different parts of the business and really understand what their strengths and interests are, clarifying the vague desire to work in basketball into a specific goal to pursue.
“I couldn’t really verbalize what my ideal role would be,” Feaster said. “I knew it would be basketball related and I knew I didn’t want to do something that was traditionally business related. I had just completed an MBA in Madrid, I was playing and studying at the same time, just really exploring opportunities. I just had no way to verbalize what I was looking for. This program just helped me understand what it was I wanted to do.”
When Feaster finished the program she was hired as the G League Player Personnel and Coach Relations Lead. The NBA has long been at the forefront of promoting gender equity in professional sports and incorporating both men and women into the program, potentially heading for positions in both men’s and women’s leagues, is a way for the NBA to continue living its values.
“It’s certainly helpful to see women in executive positions at the league office — Kathy Behrens and Amy Brooks, and our supervisor Bethany Donaphin, women who are the forefront of the NBA,” said Feaster. “It’s important that we add diverse voices to the conversation. A player’s perspective, and a woman’s perspective, isn’t going to be what we traditionally have in basketball operations circles. It’s something that I’m dedicated to, contributing my voice and trying to make it a more equal playing field for women.”
There are obviously challenges, being a woman and working in leadership position in a men’s sports organization. While there is still a lot of ground to cover, the NBA has been at this for awhile and an expectation of respect for diversity is embedded in the program and in the areas in which the associates work.
“You get the credibility for playing,” said Harding. “The respect is there. The WNBA maybe doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves but everyone else around basketball understands how hard we work to get there and the kind of players we get there.”
The program ends in October and with that Harding, Law, Parks and Van Gorp could be stepping into a variety of roles. Although they don’t yet know what’s next for them, the skills they’re developing, the experience they’re gaining and the connections they’re making could lead to opportunities before the program is even completed.
“That’s the kind of the plan for all of us,” said Harding, “figuring out what we’re going to do [next] and where we’re going to be before the program is over.”
As they exit, a new class of former players will step in and being the program anew. One career ends, another one begins, and basketball just keeps on giving.