Former Monarchs and WNBA coach Jenny Boucek found herself out of a job last August, and like so many other unemployed coaches who eat, sleep and breathe basketball, the sabbatical was short, frenzied, and fruitful, as it turns out.
The texts exhausted her cellphone. Friends. Former players. WNBA coaches. College teammates. College coaches. NBA coaches. Most of the callers offered condolences, while a few offered career advice.
“My father said, ‘OK, are you ready to go to medical school now?’ ” said Boucek, who was hired by the Kings as an assistant player development coach. “I come from a family of doctors on both sides and I have been hearing that my whole life. Usually I just play along. I’m 43 years old, and they’re still asking.”
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Crazy, and not so crazy. In another time, the Nashville, Tenn., native would have been nudged toward nursing instead of a medical degree. Or teaching and typing. Both have long been acceptable professions for females. But while her father pressed her again about joining the family profession when she was fired as head coach of the Seattle Storm, Kings coach Dave Joerger called with a more appealing offer: Get your sneakers. Grab a whiteboard. Pack your laptop. Come down to Sacramento and hang around the practice facility.
The invitation was extended to September, and then to training camp, where she went from watching from the sidelines to supervising drills, working individually with players, to being offered a contract.
Boucek’s hiring is notable for a number of reasons, starting with the numbers: Though there are more than a dozen women working in NBA front offices or as executives at the league headquarters in Manhattan – with international basketball operations vice president Kim Bohuny arguably the most influential for decades – San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon is the only other woman on a coaching staff.
Nancy Lieberman, the Hall of Fame player who was an assistant on George Karl’s staff in 2015-16, spent the duration of last season tending to her ailing mother and is in the midst of a self-imposed sabbatical.
“Women don’t want anything they haven’t earned,” said Boucek. “We don’t want to be a token. But we have a generation of women who played or coached in basketball and have been bred to work in the NBA, and you would hope that they would get the opportunity.”
Though Boucek lacks the profile of a Lieberman, or even Hammon, she has no shortage of WNBA experience. A former guard at Virginia, she played for the Cleveland Rockers in the WNBA’s inaugural 1997 season, played professionally for a year in Iceland, and had been an assistant in Washington, Miami and Seattle when Monarchs general manager/coach John Whisenant contacted her in 2007.
A popular figure around town, the no-nonsense, defense-oriented coach known as “Whiz” had guided the Monarchs to the 2005 WNBA championship and a return to the Finals a year later.
When his request for a raise was denied by the Maloofs – an ominous sign, as it turned out – he stepped down as coach and gave Boucek her first head coaching opportunity. She led Ticha Penicheiro, Yolanda Griffith, Kara Lawson, Nicole Powell, DeMya Walker – a team of talented, strong-willed veterans and Whiz disciples – to records of 19-15 and 18-16 in her first two seasons. After a 3-10 start in 2009, Whisenant, hearing murmurings that the Maloofs were desperate for the financial benefits of a playoff berth, released Boucek at midseason and returned as head coach; three months later the franchise was disbanded.
Boucek spent the next several years as an assistant in Seattle, where she closely monitored the Kings relocation situation.
“I had mixed emotions,” she said. “I missed having an NBA team so much. I would go to their (Sonics) coaches meetings with Nate (McMillan) before the team left (for Oklahoma City). But I was heartbroken for the city of Sacramento. I know how crazy this city is for basketball. Very mixed emotions.”
Boucek won her second title as assistant with the Storm in 2010 and served as head coach until being replaced in August.
Joerger, who had encountered Boucek at the various offseason coaching clinics and appearances through the years, met with her in Sacramento briefly last season and came away impressed. And as coaches so often do when a member of the brethren loses a job, he invited her to spend a few days huddling with his coaches at the practice facility.
“I wanted to pick her brain, especially because she has such a good feel offensively,” Joerger said, “and she has head coaching experience, which I value greatly. She can be contrary, and by that I mean she will challenge you. She is not into group think, because group think is death.”
Asked whether he had any reservations because of her gender and the still-rare presence of women in coaching or developmental positions, he laughed. “That didn’t even register,” he added. “I have such esteem for her as a coach. Is it possible to be … sexless? And I have two daughters. I want them to know they can do anything they want in this life.”
Lieberman, who is close friends with both Hammon and Boucek, says she is delighted the Kings weren’t discouraged by her complicated experiences.
“I am really grateful to Vlade (Divac),” she said of the Kings GM. “That first year, I was pulled in two directions with my mom, and it’s unfair to say to one of your fellow assistants, ‘Hey, can you handle my scout, I have to fly to see my mom?’ You want to carry your load, and they get that. Jenny is going to be great in player development. She’s an intelligent, faith-based person who adds to every conversation. And the players just want to get better. They don’t give a flip if you’re a guy or a gal, or black or white. ‘Can you make me better?’ Given where society is going, you could say the Kings are among the leaders promoting diversity in sports. I’m always going to root for them.”