If you’ve ever doubted the validity of the adage, “what a difference a day makes,” consider the changes that have occurred in one short year for California native Lisa Willis, recently making NBA history with her segue into a position almost exclusively reserved for men.
Just a season ago, Willis, 35, a former UCLA women’s basketball team standout and record-shattering sharpshooter in the WNBA, focused her attention on improving the level of performance and knowledge of the game as head coach for the girls b-ball program at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
However, with the announcement by one of the NBA’s most–celebrated organizations, the New York Knickerbockers, Willis secures a page in the franchise’s archives becoming the first female coach in the team’s storied history. Her duties will include serving as an assistant coach for the Knicks’ G League team – the Westchester Knicks (the official minor league team).
Who Says Women Can’t Coach Men?
Willis, a former New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks guard in the WNBA, joins a growing number of retired WNBA stars now holding important positions for basketball teams including Becky Hammon and Kristi Toliver, assistant coaches for the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards, respectively. Still, she contends it’s foolish to waste time debating whether men or women come better equipped to coach a men’s team.
“Men and women are different, absolutely,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we [women] can’t do the same things they do. It’s not an issue of better but different – different methods and different outlooks. As a woman, I didn’t want to be brought in so the Knicks could check off a box. What matters is whether I’m qualified.”
“There are some men who fit the traditional image of an NBA coach but they’re aren’t very good at their job even though, or even because, they’re men.”
“I’ve always been a coach I suppose. I realized that while working with the girls at T.C. Williams. That’s when I first acknowledged how much I love to mentor athletes – both on and off the court. If you’re not helping your players develop, then you’re not coaching. Management picks the players – coaches have the responsibility to coach those players. And it’s an all-encompassing job, for both the head coach and their staff.”
“I know wins and losses matter but you can’t measure success on a team’s record alone. Players have a variety of needs – needs that must be addressed and met if a coach wants them to perform at their highest possible level.”
“Men coaching women? Women coaching men? Truth be told, neither the efficiency or effectiveness of a coach can be determined by or limited to gender.”
Family Matters and a Dream Deferred
While the recent season opener scheduled for Nov. 9 had to be delayed due to problems with court conditions, Willis says the celebration continues both for her and the “team” which she credits as being integral to her success – her family.
“There were so many times along the way, even in this recent process which led me to the NBA, that I wanted to quit but my family wouldn’t let me,” she said. “They let me know that I could do whatever I wanted. They helped me see myself the way God created me and they’ve cheered for me every step of the way.”
Willis admits having once considered abandoning basketball for a more traditional nine-to-five job, denying the passion she says she so deeply simply by being around and involved in the discipline-building sport. But her father’s love, ardent support and the relationship forged between the two served as the impetus for the strength she needed to never give up.
“I was my father’s little hooper,” she said. “He made sure I had everything I needed to pursue my dreams and we had a strong basketball relationship. Whenever people have shared their congratulations, I’ve had to deal with mixed emotions because my dad, who died in 2017, was my guy. It’s been a bittersweet experience. More than anything, I wish he was still here sitting on the sidelines and rooting me on.”
More Mountains to Climb
“The journey I’ve taken has often been trying so to get to this point really feels amazing and awesome,” she said. “Less than 10 other women are currently coaching in the NBA and naturally I feel the pressure. But I decided a long time ago to remain faithful, trust in God and allow Him to take the wheel.”
“Sometimes I became angry or sad when doors through which I wanted to enter were closed. But my faith told me that there were other doors that I’d find open. The Knicks have opened a door for me. Now, it’s my responsibility to do a phenomenal job and make sure that door stays open for others – other women – to enter.”
The regular season for the Westchester Knicks continues through March with the playoffs culminating in April.
For inquiries about Lisa Willis, contact Warren Doles, 202-553-3004 or www.thenexxtone.com.