First of two parts
Few Black women coaching at the helm
Black women make up over 70 percent of the WNBA players but only three Black female head coaches: Seattle’s Noelle Quinn, Tanisha Wright of Atlanta, and Phoenix Interim Head Coach Nikki Blue.
Historically only about 21 percent of WNBA HCs have been Black women, including two at Minnesota (Carolyn Jenkins, 2006, and Jennifer Gillom, 2009). Both Jenkins and Gillom were previously Lynx assistant coaches before their promotions.
Quinn, by virtue of years of service, is currently the dean of Black W coaches. She was named Storm head coach in 2021 after being an assistant for two seasons, including a short stint as associate HC.
Quinn played 12 W seasons, including two with Minnesota and two separate stints with Seattle. She also holds the historic distinction of being the only person ever to win a WNBA championship both as a player (Seattle, 2018) and a coach (Seattle assistant, 2020).
“I think there’s something to say about someone who has been in this league and played in this league, because of their vantage point from being in a locker room,” Quinn told the MSR earlier this season before her team’s game against Minnesota. “We’re seeing more former players get into coaching, which I think is awesome as well.”
Wright, a former W player (2005-19), was hired as Dream HC in 2022. She too is a WNBA champion (Seattle, 2019).
Blue joined the Phoenix coaching staff as an assistant in 2022, and was lead assistant at the start of this season before being named interim coach in late June. She has a combined 15 years of pro and college coaching experience.
“Unforeseen circumstances that led to our head coach being fired got [me] this opportunity to step in as an interim head coach,” noted Blue, a college teammate of Quinn at UCLA, who played five WNBA seasons.
“I didn’t foresee myself becoming a coach [when she was playing]. I thought that I would play forever,” recalled Blue after a Mercury shootaround shortly after her promotion. “During my second year in the WNBA I was given the opportunity to begin coaching at the collegiate level at UNLV. I just fell in love with it… It was more the camaraderie, and the development of young ladies—helping young ladies become women.”
Blue was being groomed to be Arizona State head coach by then-coach Charli Turner Thorne to take over upon her retirement in March 2022, but the school bypassed the Black assistant coach and hired someone else.
“I was obviously devastated because of that,” admitted Blue. After becoming Phoenix HC, she asked her former mentor to join her with the Mercury as an assistant.
Said Quinn, a close friend of Blue, “This isn’t the way she probably wanted it to happen, but at the end of the day she’s in this situation, and she has an opportunity to show who she is and what she can do for that organization.”
Despite garnering high marks for its diversity in many areas, the WNBA nevertheless has had few Black HCs in a majority-Black league, a fact that this reporter consistently points out whenever I can.
“We’re proud to have our A and A-plus in certain categories and will continue to work on that with our team ownership groups as we look to further diversity,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in response to our question on diversity prior to last month’s All-Star game in Las Vegas. “I think having former WNBA players coaching and in the front office as GMs, as team presidents, is certainly a goal of mine,” added Engelbert.
“I think especially for the younger generation that’s coming into the league to see Black coaches at the helm, one who can be relatable. I’m not saying others cannot, but there’s something to say about having leaders and leadership look like the people who they’re leading,” said Quinn.
“As an African American woman being qualified for [coaching] positions,” said Blue, “I think first and foremost we have to go and try to get these jobs. I think it’s good for representation and for our players to see us as former players. This can be their future if they want it.”
Next: A former coaching lifer makes an unexpected career change.