'You Can Be a Pioneer'

Becky Hammon was only the beginning. Over the past few years, women have slowly moved into positions of power within NBA front offices. There's still a ways to go, but for the female decision-makers already in place, the possibility that they could run a franchise themselves isn't just a theory anymore.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterLead photograph by Josh Letchworth for B/R MagDecember 27, 2017

The sun is setting on a nondescript evening at a nondescript Walmart on West Princeton Street here in Orlando. Inside, the gleeful shrieks of children echo through the Lawn and Garden center. Outside the sliding doors, a woman taps anxiously on her smartphone.

Elfrid Payton is late. And the shopping spree can't start without him.

"I give them a five-minute late rule," Becky Bonner says between texts and calls to Payton, the Magic's slick-passing point guard, "and after that, it's a fine."

A wreck has tied up traffic on the highway, ensnaring Payton. Finally, at 5:23 p.m., a black Maserati Quattroporte pulls into the far end of the lot.

"Here he is," Bonner says with palpable relief.

Within minutes, Payton is inside, joining teammates Nikola Vucevic and Marreese Speights as they accompany 100 kids—all 8- to-13-year-olds from the local Boys & Girls Club—on a one-hour shopping spree. Each child is gifted a $100 voucher, and they eagerly attack the aisles of toys and DVDs and clothes.

It's a scene of pure, unadulterated joy—"My favorite one to do," Payton says later—and the final assignment of a long day for the 36-year-old Bonner, who might hold the most unique position in today's NBA.

Officially, Bonner is the Magic's director of player development and quality control—tasked with everything from player appearances and facilities upgrades to scouting and player evaluation. Unofficially, she's training to become a general manager—perhaps the first female GM in league history.

On this night, Bonner is shepherding Magic players through Walmart. Tomorrow, she'll be filing reports on a batch of draft prospects, then watching the Magic-Clippers game from the executive suite, alongside Magic president Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond.

In the weeks and months ahead, she'll be in the Magic's war room, offering input on free-agent targets or potential deals in advance of the Feb. 8 trade deadline. She will be the lone female voice in that room—and one of the few in the NBA, period.

"I just think she's got unlimited potential," says Weltman, who recruited Bonner from the league office in June, with the promise of full involvement in basketball operations and the belief she could one day run a team of her own.

"It will evolve the way it evolves," he says.

After working in the NBA offices for six years, Becky Bonner was hired in June to do everything from scouting players to arranging team dinners.
After working in the NBA offices for six years, Becky Bonner was hired in June to do everything from scouting players to arranging team dinners.Photograph by Josh Letchworth for B/R Mag

Throughout the Magic offices, they are trying to keep expectations modest, to tamp down the "future GM" talk even as they diligently work to prepare Bonner for that path. She did just begin the job, after all.

Yet Bonner's goal is explicit—"I want to be a GM," she tells B/R Mag—and those who know her best, who have worked alongside her, from South Africa to Brazil to China, running clinics and aiding the U.S. Olympic team, are fairly certain where this is headed.

As Kim Bohuny, the NBA's senior vice president of international basketball operations, and a longtime mentor, told Bonner in the spring, "You can be a pioneer."

Or maybe she'll be one of many.

The last few years have seen a subtle but significant surge of women in front offices across the league—and specifically in basketball ops, where you might not have found a single woman as recently as 2010.

Michelle Leftwich, a veteran of the league office, was hired by the Atlanta Hawks in October to be their salary cap guru. Amanda Green, a lawyer steeped in the collective bargaining agreement, has been with the Oklahoma City Thunder since 2012. Teresa Resch has been with the Toronto Raptors since 2013 and now serves as their vice president of basketball ops and player development. Linda Luchetti has been the VP of player ops for the Utah Jazz since 2015, after a decade with the franchise.

The Houston Rockets have the league's only female scout, Ariana Andonian, who joined the club in 2015 and was recently promoted to scouting coordinator. And in August, the Atlanta Hawks named Tori Miller as the second-ranking basketball executive for their minor league team, the Erie BayHawks.

Last year, Natalie Jay became the Brooklyn Nets' contracts and salary cap specialist. And just this season, women joined the analytics staffs of the Raptors, Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, putting the first cracks in another male-dominated quadrant.

It's more a ripple than a wave, but there has unquestionably been a surge in the three years since Becky Hammon made history in San Antonio as the NBA's first female assistant coach.

They are the vanguard, the first to walk through corridors, both literal and figurative, that had been off-limits for generations. Though the NBA has long ranked first in gender diversity among men's major sports leagues, women have mostly found roles in marketing, community relations and other off-court divisions. A team CEO, yes. A GM, no. (Major League Baseball has seen three women rise to assistant GM, a title no woman has attained in the NBA.)

Becky Hammon's tenure as an assistant coach with the Spurs has helped usher in an era of more opportunity for women to work in executive positions in the NBA.
Becky Hammon's tenure as an assistant coach with the Spurs has helped usher in an era of more opportunity for women to work in executive positions in the NBA.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

And though the NBA does not track gender stats by specific role, there is little question there are more women in basketball ops now than at any time in league history.

"I think it's part of a continuum," says Bohuny, tracing a line from 1997, when the NBA hired its first two female referees, through the Spurs' decision to hire Hammon in 2014 and all the breakthroughs that have followed. "There was a precedent set, and they've all done outstanding jobs."

Among this group, Bonner is the one best positioned to smash the front office glass ceiling, say countless team and league officials who have worked with her.

Her pedigree sets her apart—as a former high school star and Division I player, as a former college assistant coach, as a six-year veteran of the league office who's worked with LeBron James and played scout team defender against Kevin Durant and, perhaps most significantly, as the middle child of New Hampshire's first family of hoops.

Older brother Matt played 12 seasons in the NBA after starring at Concord High. Younger brother Luke played four years in Division I and three years overseas. Becky was dribbling by kindergarten, playing on boys teams by fifth grade and battling her brothers just about every day of her youth.

Being Matt's sister exposed Becky to the inner workings of an NBA franchise. Her six-year tenure in league operations revealed her as a savvy administrator and relationship-builder. Her deep ties to the game lead straight back to Concord. She is, at heart, a gym rat.

"I speak player," she says.

In the early hours of the morning, Bonner can be found on a treadmill above the Magic's practice court, watching film of a college game. During practices and shootarounds, she's typically just off to the side, tapping notes into her laptop.

"When I'm on the court, I'm very comfortable," Bonner says during a break from her duties on a recent afternoon. "When you're comfortable, you can be confident and succeed."

But then, comfort, confidence and barrier-crashing have rarely been concerns.

Becky Bonner's greatest passion was sparked by a more basic impulse: sibling jealousy.

As a child, she loved swimming. She won a lot of ribbons. Then she saw the trophy Matt received at a Boys & Girls Club banquet.

"I'm like, 'I want a trophy! How do I get a trophy?'" Bonner recalls between bites of a yogurt-and-fruit parfait in the Magic players lounge. "I thought ribbons were stupid. Trophies are better. That's how I got into basketball."

Becky, with her brothers Luke (left) and Matt, both of whom instilled a passion to compete even before she was a teenager.
Becky, with her brothers Luke (left) and Matt, both of whom instilled a passion to compete even before she was a teenager.Photo courtesy of Dave Bonner

An early growth spurt helped—Becky was 6'2" by the time she turned 11, a genetic perk of being a Bonner. Her father Dave stands 6'7" and had the unofficial title of "tallest mailman in America" before retiring from the Postal Service. Her mother, Paula, a retired grade school teacher, is 6'2". Matt, who is one year older than Becky, eventually grew to 6'10", while Luke (four years younger than Becky) topped out at 7'1".

Dave Bonner officiated men's league games in his spare time, his three kids in tow. They took practice shots between quarters. Some nights, they ran the scoreboard. They practically grew up on the hardwood.

By her own assessment, Becky was "really, really bad at basketball" until she was about 12. That's when she received a recruiting letter from Colorado coach Ceal Barry.

"You know when you're a kid, and you get mail, like, that's the coolest thing ever?" she says. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, all right, let's get serious.' It made me realize that this could be something bigger."

Another realization struck her early on: bad players sit on the bench. And Becky didn't like sitting on the bench. "So I just decided that I would become a starter and do anything it took," she says. "That's when I became the workout queen."

Becky was the hardest worker of the Bonner siblings—"by far," according to Luke, who recalls his big sister "always playing basketball, always in the gym, always going for long runs while dribbling, Pistol Pete-style, on uneven surfaces."

At home, Luke and Becky would team up against Matt, whose age and size advantage made him a formidable opponent. Becky honed a jump hook, the one way she could consistently get a shot off over Matt. Like her two brothers, she also mastered the long-range jumper—"the Bonner brand of basketball," Luke says.

In pickup games, Matt and Becky both imagined themselves as Larry Bird, though Becky would later adopt Rebecca Lobo as her basketball spirit guide after Lobo led UConn to its undefeated season in 1994-95.

"I used to braid my hair like her, too," Bonner says.

Matt towered over his younger siblings, so he invented ways to make the games competitive, like limiting himself to a single dribble. When that didn't suffice, he handed them Wiffle ball bats—presumably to challenge his shots.

"Then eventually we'd tape them up, and I'd say, 'You can foul me with it,'" Matt says. "It would always start out nice and easy, for fun. But our family is so competitive that by the end it would just be like full-on almost a fight. Just smashing me with this bat every time I tried to shoot it."

From fifth through eighth grades, Becky primarily played with a boys travel team—eventually bailing on the middle school girls team—but not for the reasons one might assume. It wasn't necessarily about needing better competition.

Frustrated with the "social stuff" she encountered playing with other girls, Bonner found she could largely concentrate on just playing basketball in boys leagues as a teenager.
Frustrated with the "social stuff" she encountered playing with other girls, Bonner found she could largely concentrate on just playing basketball in boys leagues as a teenager.Photo courtesy of Dave Bonner

"Girls can be mean," she says. "And in your teenage years, if you're not cool, it can be hard. And so, I wasn't cool. But I really liked basketball. I didn't want to have to deal with the social stuff if I didn't have to. So this was an easy solution."

She was the only girl on her team or any team they encountered along the way. In some cities, where the Boys Clubs had yet to go co-ed, she was the first girl to play in the gym, period. Bonner doesn't recall her gender ever being an issue among her teammates, though it occasionally became a point of attack for opponents, as they argued over who would "guard the girl."

"There was one time where I left the court crying," she says, "and then I came back."

Ultimately, Bonner's career in the boys league ended around the time a particularly tall, athletic kid pinned her shot to the backboard. "I'm like, 'OK, I have reached my athleticism peak,'" she says, laughing.

In her high school years, Bonner went back to playing with "the mean girls"—she recalls this with an audible sigh—who she says were great athletes but "weren't as into basketball as I was." She got her competitive fix playing for the prestigious Philadelphia Belles traveling team. Though two years younger than her teammates, Bonner was a fixture in the starting lineup, a product of her hard work, her hustle and her hook shot.

"I was decent, but I wasn't good," Bonner insists, though she had enough talent and drive to earn a basketball scholarship to Stanford before she finished her college career closer to home at Boston University.

Her one pro season, for the Norrkoping Dolphins in Sweden, included doing player development drills with the club's men's team each morning. It was part of her contract. The only woman in the gym, once again.

All these years later, the journey has come full circle once more—with Bonner challenging the boys in their own space.

Bonner earned a basketball scholarship to Stanford before eventually transferring to Boston University.
Bonner earned a basketball scholarship to Stanford before eventually transferring to Boston University.Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics

"It's my world view and my upbringing," she says of the parallel, "so it must have some impact, you know?"

The team executives who hired Bonner are a progressive-minded group. It's their arena that's sexist.

Case in point: There are only two ways to reach the team lounge, where players, coaches and team officials gather to eat and socialize. And both lead past the showers.

"I feel awkward about it, but this is the way it is," Bonner says while giving B/R Mag a brief tour.

There's no women's bathroom in the vicinity, either. For that, she has to leave the practice court area and head down a hallway to the family lounge.

These are modest inconveniences, but they illustrate the subtle ways in which NBA teams and facilities are still wholly geared toward male employees, without the slightest thought that a woman might work in the same space.

As it happens, upgrading team facilities is part of Bonner's portfolio.

She started by redesigning the team lounge ("my baby," she says), replacing the tall, round, bar-style tables with a few long, rectangular tables, to encourage more socializing. She ordered more comfortable chairs. It was too dark ("like a cave"), so she also ordered a brighter paint job and better lighting. "The idea was to create a homey feeling," Bonner says, so that players and staffers would spend more time just hanging out and socializing. "More time together brings comfort."

On the road, Bonner will organize team dinners, then nudge players to fill in the empty seats rather than spread out around the table.

"Great things can happen over food," Bonner says. "I call it fellowship."

"I'll stand up and go, 'Sit over here.' I learned it from Kim Bohuny," Bonner says, referring to her former boss at the NBA. "She's a master. She would host dinners, and she was very good at doing seating as well. I kind of feel like I'm mimicking her behavior."

This is the player development part of the job, and it consumes much of Bonner's schedule. The Magic had no player development program when Weltman and Hammond took over in the spring. They tapped Bonner, with her extensive experience working for the league, to reassess everything and build a program from scratch.

Though she pays careful attention to college prospects, Bonner's days, for now, are consumed with building a player development program for the Magic almost from the ground up.
Though she pays careful attention to college prospects, Bonner's days, for now, are consumed with building a player development program for the Magic almost from the ground up.Photograph by Josh Letchworth for B/R Mag

Bonner has since hired two assistants (including another woman, Regan Karner), to fill out the department. The hope is that once the program is fully developed, Bonner will hand off some of these duties and increase her focus on scouting and personnel.

But not now. Now Bonner is working on plans to remodel the kitchen, to make life easier for the new team chef (a registered dietician) and to upgrade the locker room. Also on the agenda: construction of a theater to watch game film—an amenity that other teams added long ago.

Everyone whose job touches the players' daily lives eventually seeks out Bonner, with requests for new training equipment, video equipment or technological updates. There are communication channels to establish and procedures to streamline. Oh, and one of the players needs help getting his passport renewed.

"I always joke I could work all day," Bonner says. "I call it a lifestyle."

As she leaves the players lounge, Bonner pushes open a swinging door, only to find the metal handle rattles in her grasp.

"This is loose," she says, turning to her assistant, and you can bet it won't be for long.

Ariana Andonian figures she attended between 85 and 100 college games last season, in 25 different cities. She was the only woman in the scouts' section every time.

"I've never seen another female scout at a game," says Andonian, who is in her third season with the Rockets.

Veteran scouts surveyed by B/R Mag say they know of no others. Even amid a spike in women in basketball ops, Andonian is an anomaly among anomalies. (She's also just 23 years old, making her a triple anomaly.)

And because scouting is solitary work, done largely away from team headquarters, she's subjected to more quizzical looks than some of her female peers.

"All the time," she says. "I get the 'Who are you?' and the 'Oh, are you someone's wife?'"

Rival scouts sometimes assume Andonian is a reporter who lost her way and direct her to the press area. Or they pepper her with what she refers to as "test questions"—queries intended to not so subtly gauge her hoops acumen or her knowledge on a prospect.

"I think the pride for me comes when I actually impress them," she says.

Is it all a bit irritating?

"For sure," she says. "But at the same time, they haven't seen many females do this. So they're not used to it. ... People don't mean to offend you."

After joining the Rockets as an intern in 2015, Ariana Andonian now scouts and coordinates the schedules for the Rockets' group of eight college scouts.
After joining the Rockets as an intern in 2015, Ariana Andonian now scouts and coordinates the schedules for the Rockets' group of eight college scouts.Photo courtesy of the Houston Rockets

Andonian arrived fully prepared. A former high school player, she found herself missing the game while studying at USC. She wrote scouting reports in her spare time, just for practice—so she'd have something to show an NBA executive if the chance came. After internships with a sports agency and the Clippers (though not in basketball), Andonian met Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who quickly hired her as a scouting intern in 2015. A year later she was promoted to full-time scout. She now serves as scouting coordinator, in charge of setting the schedule for a team of eight college scouts.

The sheer-force-of-will strategy also paid off for Tori Miller, who spent months cold-calling team execs and sending them what she calls her "booklets"—spiral-bound, 30-page rundowns of that team's roster and salary cap situations, with recommendations on free agents, draft picks and potential trades. She attended NBA games and G League tryouts, taking every possible opportunity to meet team officials.

In August, the Hawks named Miller, 27, the manager of basketball ops for their Erie affiliate, the BayHawks, where she is effectively the top assistant to GM Malik Rose—and one of the few women in the G League.

Her experiences mirror Andonian's. She gets held up every time she steps off the team bus at an arena loading dock, while players, coaches and male staffers breeze through. The questions come rapid fire: "Who are you? What do you do? Do you have a badge?"

The routine is predictable, bordering on comical, so Miller laughs as she tells the stories.

"I love the puzzlement. That's my favorite look," she says. "I don't find it insulting. They just don't know."

Amanda Green, the Thunder's 33-year-old director of information management, recalls being in an elevator with an opposing coach who blurted: "I thought you were a cheerleader. I could have sworn I saw you being flipped in the air."

Even Bonner, who has been a presence in NBA arenas for years, gets stopped.

"We only have one [credential], for the NBA scout," she recalls being told. "I was like, 'Yes.'"

And so it will go, presumably, until enough women are doing these jobs that it no longer catches people by surprise. Until stubborn old notions of what a GM or a scout is "supposed" to look and sound like fade—or evolve.

Sexism remains a barrier to entry, like anywhere else, but the women of this vanguard say they have found mostly support—from their teams and from each other.

Tori Miller, who is GM Malik Rose's top assistant with the Erie BayHawks, has laughed off the double takes she gets in arenas as one of the few women to work in a G League front office.
Tori Miller, who is GM Malik Rose's top assistant with the Erie BayHawks, has laughed off the double takes she gets in arenas as one of the few women to work in a G League front office.Robert Frank/Erie BayHawks

They are connected via group email. When a new woman gets hired, she is added to the chain, with a simple message: "Welcome, and congratulations." They speak regularly, trading stories and advice.

When Andonian was hired, she immediately reached out to Green. She also speaks regularly with Resch. They talk basketball business more than gender dynamics, but Andonian says there's no question gender connects them and that every new hire emboldens more women to crash the gates.

While it's probably an oversimplification to say this all started with the Spurs' hiring of Hammon, the moment was indisputably meaningful—particularly because it was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a living icon, who made the hire.

"Becky blazing that path, and someone like Pop showing a trust in her, I think is super important," Andonian says, "because Pop is obviously such an important person in this industry."

And yet, progress remains slow. Just two other women have been hired as coaches: Nancy Lieberman, who spent two seasons with the Sacramento Kings, and Jenny Boucek, who is with the Kings now.

There may be more women than ever working in basketball ops, but they occupy a tiny fraction of all the scouting, analytics, personnel and cap specialist jobs across the league.

"It can be bro-ey, the culture, at times," Bonner says, though she's a bit inured after growing up with two brothers.

When Andonian sits down for a full-staff meeting at Rockets headquarters, with all coaches, scouts and execs present, she's the only woman in a room of 30-plus people. Colleagues will reflexively apologize after cursing in front of her or remarking on players' off-court exploits.

"And I would say, 'Why are you apologizing to me? I'm not offended,'" she says.

It all takes getting used to. But "it's all been awesome," she says. "This is my dream job by far."

The office is sparsely decorated—she prefers to work near the practice court or the team lounge, around people—but the abundant mementos tell you how Becky Bonner got here.

On one wall above her desk hang two framed Basketball Without Borders jerseys, from Africa and Rio de Janeiro, covered in autographs—Joel Embiid, Alex English, Kyle Lowry, Dikembe Mutombo, Kristaps Porzingis.

On the back wall, a handwritten thank-you note from Popovich, whom Bonner befriended during a Global Games trip to Mexico City.

Nearby, a USA Today clip from 1999, profiling Matt and Becky as "the next Reggie and Cheryl Miller"—a piece of hyperbole that still makes Becky chuckle.

A few inches over, a framed drawing of Bill Murray in a red beanie, his look in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—"because I'm obsessed with Bill Murray."

On the cabinet, a stack of Russian nesting dolls, purchased in Russia.

Though Bonner says she's not "too cool to do anything" at this point in her NBA executive career, she says that in time, "I want to be a GM."
Though Bonner says she's not "too cool to do anything" at this point in her NBA executive career, she says that in time, "I want to be a GM."Photograph by Josh Letchworth for B/R Mag

And on the next wall, a massive dry-erase calendar, highlighting key events and a series of detached words and phrases: "Resilience. Inclusion. Recognition. Legacy. Discipline. Respect. Tapestry of life. Help others. Honor the game."

"These were for me, just to remind myself," she says. "Sometimes the day to day can get funny. So it's nice to be reminded what your goals are."

The key words were borrowed from the book Legacy, by James Kerr, about the All Blacks rugby team from New Zealand. Bonner has entire passages saved in her phone as screen shots. Example: "A collection of talented individuals without personal discipline will ultimately and inevitably fail. Character triumphs over talent." And, "Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done."

It all makes sense after hearing Bonner explain her new gig, peppering sentences with words like "service" and "fellowship."

"I'm not too cool to do anything," she says. "If you need me to rebound for you in my skirt, I will. If you need me to look at the players lounge and redesign it, I'll do that—even though I may lack that talent. I can't really decorate. But I'll find the right people to bring in to do it right."

This much, team officials around the league learned long ago, through Bonner's international work, which is why so many inquired about her interest in team-based jobs.

So when Weltman was looking to fill out his front office in the spring, he lobbed a call to Bohuny, to ask permission to speak with Bonner. The job would be in player development but with a voice in personnel and a chance to make history.

"She could be the first female general manager," Bohuny recalls Weltman saying.

Bohuny's advice to Bonner was just as direct: "I said, 'Becky, you have all the intangibles to do this. You can be a pioneer. You've grown up on the game. ... If this is what you want, this could be an incredible opportunity for you, and you could pave the way for so many women.'"

So here she is, helping guide the Magic's young squad through the rigors of an 82-game season, attending to their families on game nights, acquiring concert tickets on request, securing passports and generally trying to meet everyone's needs amid a hectic schedule.

Multiple teams sought out Bonner in recent years, but Weltman was the first to explicitly offer a road map to becoming a GM. Perhaps worth noting: Weltman's mother, Arlene, was an early NBA trailblazer as one of Commissioner David Stern's top executives in the 1980s.

"As anyone who has daughters, you're always hoping that, as we all progress, we get to the point where none of this matters, whether it's hiring practices or compensation," says Weltman, who has twin girls. "And obviously, we have some distance yet to travel. For us, our job as a basketball administration is to win. And we look for the best people, the people that can most dramatically impact our chance to win. ... Becky was that person for us."

Bonner's rise is just one step in a potentially history-making journey. She isn't assuming anything, and she knows there is much still to learn. The only thing she's certain about is her goal.

The epiphany came on a Global Games trip, while shepherding an NBA franchise and suddenly realizing, amid one hectic moment or another, that she could do this better.

"I know the specific moment, and I got real fired up," Bonner says. "I had this deep, dark secret that I wanted to be a GM, but I never wanted to tell anybody. And then I told that to someone, and they're like, 'Well, then that's your goal.'"

The breakthrough is coming, whether in Orlando or elsewhere, whether it's Bonner or someone else. Scan the league today, and you'll find GMs who came up as analytics experts or player agents, in addition to the more conventional ex-player types. The leap to the first female GM really isn't that steep.

Bonner downplays any talk of "first" or history making, preferring process over platitudes and focusing on the many things she still must learn before she could even declare herself ready to crash that barrier. Then she recalls a chance exchange with a college intern while she made her rounds before a recent home game.

"She says, 'I want to do what you do!'"


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.