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Viewpoint When will we see some courage?

December 18, 2018

STORRS — The conversation turned to surprises Monday and UConn’s Hall of Fame coach quickly volunteered the most unexpected Christmas present of his life.

“Heather Buck, best gift ever, flash-frozen Stonington scallops,” Auriemma said. “That is the most amazing Secret Santa gift of all time. I guarantee you never got Stonington scallops for your Secret Santa. She’s really proud of being from Stonington.”

After 11 national championships, after all of life’s surprises, there has to be one shocker out there on the other end of the line from one of his players that’s even bigger than flash-frozen scallops. And it probably would go like this: “Hey, coach, this Sue of Syosset. Flash: I want you to be the first to know I’m the new head coach of the Lakers (or Celtics or Knicks or Nets).”

Now that would leave Auriemma in frozen silence. At least for a minute.

On a day when the Indiana Pacers hired longtime WNBA executive Kelly Krauskopf as the NBA’s first female assistant general manager, Auriemma was asked if he can envision Sue Bird, the greatest point guard he ever coached, as head coach of an NBA team.

“The big question I’ve always asked (his older professional players) whenever I’ve had these conversations is, ‘Do you want to?’ ” Auriemma said. “The response I get a lot of times is, nah, not really. How about part of ownership? Yeah, I’d like that. Or how about being a general manager? Yeah, I’d like that. I haven’t heard too many of those guys talk about, yeah, I really would like to be a head coach in the NBA.

“Having said that, do I think they would be really, really good at it? Yeah, I think they would. Sue would particularly. When you study the game like she has, when you’ve played the game for as long as she has, when you’re as good with people as she is, I think you have all the ingredients to be a great coach. Obviously, there’s an apprenticeship program if you want to do it. It’ll be interesting to see what the next move by Sue and (Diana Taurasi) will be after they’re finished playing.”

While making it clear she wants to keep playing for the Seattle Storm, Bird, 38, accepted the job as Denver Nuggets’ basketball operations associate last month. She’s scouting. She’s getting a taste of front office work.

NBA head coach and NBA general manager obviously require different skills and neither require a windmill dunk or guarding LeBron James. Krauskopf, the WNBA Fever’s top executive the past 19 years, clearly has the qualifications and acumen for the job. As she said, “building winning teams and elite level culture is not based on gender — it is based on people and processes.”

There have been two assistant GMs in baseball with the Yankees, Jean Afterman and Kim Ng, now MLB senior vice president for operations. And while Krauskopf’s appointment is historic with basketball, Auriemma is staunch in his belief real history will be made when a female is hired as an NBA general manager or head coach.

“Whether it’s a WNBA player getting an opportunity like Sue or where Kelly is getting an opportunity, you first want to make sure that it’s not, ‘In this era of empowering women we really need to show we’re on board with that,’ ” Auriemma said. “That’s part of it, but the bigger part is these people are really qualified and they add to our ability to have a high-level organization.”

Becky Hammon has been San Antonio Spurs assistant coach since 2014. At this point, the onus isn’t on her to prove she should be a head coach. It’s on others. In that respect, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Auriemma employ the same word. Courage. It’ll take an owner of some moral fiber.

“We’re not talking college sports,” Auriemma said. “This is professional basketball where the lifespan of a coach or a general manager is not very long. They’re only going to hire people that hopefully are going to improve the organization. There’s a long way to go from someone being hired to be a coach that sits on the back bench to suddenly being on the front bench. And there’s a long way from being hired as assistant general manager to having an owner call you and say, ‘Hey, we need a general manager and we think you’re it.’

“That takes a lot of courage. That takes a lot of guts. I think you’re starting to see more of it and I hope it continues. I hope these people who get hired get an opportunity to prove themselves. Once they prove themselves they’ll realize she’s doing the job anyone would do in this situation. No, ‘Hey, for a woman she’s doing a great job.’ ”

Auriemma is big on ridding that stigma, ridding the paternalism, ridding insincere praise.

“That’s the thing that has to be overcome — and when will it be, I don’t know — can you pinpoint the time when it was OK to be a black starting quarterback in the NFL?” Auriemma said. “When people stopped saying, ‘For a black quarterback he’s pretty good?’ When did that end? When did people start saying that guy is a great quarterback and not have a second thought about it? When will that time be when someone stops saying for a woman she’s doing a pretty good job?

“Sue, for all intents and purposes, has been an assistant coach, assistant GM for most of the teams she has played on. She has been that for a long, long time. I saw first-hand evidence of it when I coached the national team. Someone asked me what it’s like to coach the greatest players in the world with the Olympic team. I said, ‘I don’t know. You should ask Sue and D.’ ”

While respect and acknowledgement has grown in the last decade, Auriemma said it’s important that women’s basketball not to go begging for praise.

“I have these conversations all the time with the WNBA people,” Auriemma said. “They run out all the NBA players in their ads. ‘Here’s my favorite player. Here’s what I think of the WNBA.’ Which almost makes you feel who gives a spit what you think? But that’s the world we live in. We need acknowledgment from someone who’s really, really good in the men’s game to elevate us to that level. Is that flattering from them to say that? Yeah. But the longer and more you do that, the more you’re almost saying even these guys think we’re good.

“And that’s not fair, because the best NBA players will be the first to tell you they look at Sue and look at Chris Paul and think the exact same thing. They don’t think for a woman’s basketball player she’s pretty good. They look a D and look at Kobe Bryant and think the same thing. It’s almost like what tennis has come to with the level of respect the men’s Wimbledon champion has for the women’s Wimbledon champion. It’s off the charts. That’s equality where you don’t have to make a statement.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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