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The ball is in Lindsey Harding’s court

Bhavya Dore | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

Net worth: Over a decade-long career, Harding played in 270 games in the Women’s National Basketball Association league Image courtesy: nba.com/kings

Meet the Sacramento Kings’ assistant coach, who is about to embark on her first season with them. She also happens to be one of the few women coaches in the prestigious NBA league in the US

As the Sacramento Kings took the newly installed basketball court at the National Sports Club of India (NSCI) in Mumbai’s Worli past 2pm on October 3, shoes squeaked on shiny wood, and the symphony of a dozen bouncing balls reverberated through the arena.

Amidst the towering men — some seven-foot tall — was the 5’8” Lindsey Harding, former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star and the only woman on the court. Dressed in the staff’s kit of purple t-shirt and grey shorts, Harding (35) tossed balls back at some of the players, threw in a few defensive moves and even had a laugh or two.

The Kings were warming up two days before the first of their two pre-season games in Mumbai, the only time an American sports league has sent its teams to India.

It’s part of the league’s wider push to popularise the sport in a country of a billion cricket-lovers, and flying down the Kings, owned by Mumbai-born, US-based Vivek Ranadive, was a natural fit.

Which is how Harding happened to be running drills with a bunch of players as they prepared to take on the Indiana Pacers.

Hired in July by the Kings as an assistant coach (player development), Harding is one of just a handful of women coaches in the men’s league. Other active women assistant coaches in the NBA include Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Kristi Toliver (Washington Wizards) and Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks).

The numbers are so low that very often, even in the US, Harding is assumed to be a member of the media or the non-coaching staff; and she’s used to it. Just before we sat down to chat, security personnel at the NSCI had come up to her to say that fans were not allowed to sit so close to the arena during warm-up. “I looked up and said, ‘I’m a coach’ and they were like ‘Sorry, we didn’t know’,” Harding says.

Harding, who played nine WNBA seasons and several more abroad before retiring in 2017, was previously with the Philadelphia 76ers as pro personnel scout, evaluating players, their strengths and weaknesses, and then player development coach.

Over her 270 career games she averaged 9.8 points (baskets) and 4.0 assists (setting up a teammate for a basket) while with New York, Phoenix, Minnesota, Washington, Los Angeles and Atlanta. She also played in Turkey, Russia and Lithuania, and was a member of Belarus’s Olympics team in 2016 in her decade-long career.

When she got a call from her agent some months ago, telling her the Kings were looking to hire, she went and interviewed for the assistant coach position. She will now embark on her first season with them. “It’s exciting to know that a lot of teams are open now to hiring women and I hope that it continues to grow, so that it becomes a career option for young girls,” says Harding.

Though men often coach women, and the WNBA has several women coaches, at the very elite level, instances of women coaching male athletes and teams are rare; perhaps the most prominent example comes from tennis, when former Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo worked with former world number 1 Andy Murray.

But coaching was never a particular plan for Harding during her playing years. “No, not really,” she says. “I knew I liked the NBA and kind of wanted to work in the league. And then I saw some other women who did coach and it showed me that I had a chance to do it as well.”

Previously, in 2015, the Kings hired former WNBA star Nancy Lieberman as assistant coach, only the second woman to be hired in NBA’s more than seven-decade history, after Becky Hammon.

Harding has never coached a major women’s team — barring some at the high-school level — but her approach to coaching is gender-blind. “Basketball is basketball,” she says. “I’m teaching a lot from what I’ve learnt in my experience playing women’s basketball.”

Earlier this year, the NBA’s diversity head told Reuters that the league was closer than ever to having a woman in a top coaching position. Harding sees a head coach role as a possible goal. “I’d love to do that and go to that level,” she says. “Right now I’m taking it one day at a time and learning and growing, and hoping I can keep making that step up.”

The Kings lost 0-2 to the Pacers in the match on October 5. But Harding has her sights set on the upcoming season. “The biggest goal is to get to the playoffs; the team hasn’t been to the playoffs in a while and we have a lot of young talent. And we think we can definitely make a push and get there,” she says.

Harding had little time during their tight visit to participate in coaching clinics or see Mumbai. But she was impressed by the country’s growing interest in the sport. “There’s 28 million people in Mumbai; you can’t tell me there’s not an NBA or WNBA player in there.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist

Published on October 11, 2019
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