Marcus Hayes: Lindsey Harding’s historic rise from Sixers scout to coach is just the start

It was midseason in moribund Miami and one well-lubricated courtside clown was delighted that his team was finally winning. Obnoxiously, he turned to the two credentialed onlookers nearby, who sat at a table with computers and notebooks in front of them, and he offered them this advice:

"Ya'll need to write about that!"

"We're not sportswriters," the closer one replied.

"Oh yeah? Then what do you do?"

"We're scouting."

He looked over at Lindsey Harding.

"Well, then you need to write about it."

"I'm not a writer," she said. "He told you. We're scouts."

He stared at her and sneered.

"How in the world did you become a scout?"

Wrong question, pal.

"Oh, I don't know," she replied. "I was a No. 1 draft pick? I played 10 years professionally? I played in the Olympics?"

His jaw dropped. "Oh," he said, and turned away.

A pugnacious point guard at Duke and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 WNBA draft, Harding became the only female scout in the NBA and just the third in league history when she was hired by the Sixers in August. This week, she was promoted to player development coach, which made her the seventh assistant coach in NBA history.

Harding, 34, played for five teams in her nine WNBA seasons, and for seven European teams as well, finishing with Besiktas JK in Istanbul in 2017.

At the urging of her friend Becky Hammon, who became the NBA's first full-time female assistant when the Spurs hired her in 2015, Harding spent a year in the NBA's Basketball Operations Associate Program and emerged with a several job offers. The Sixers snagged her by promising her choices.

She was good. Eight months after getting hired, she was promoted to player development coach.

"I think she's going to be a star," said Sixers head coach Brett Brown.

So does his general manager.

"She knows the skill set a player needs to produce at a high level," said Elton Brand, a former Duke star himself. "Her eye for the game, her eye for talent and what we need for our organization is what really sets her apart."

Harding is looking forward to her new role.

"This is the right opportunity and organization for the next step in my overall growth," she said after the announcement was made official. "I want to contribute in any way possible to help this organization reach its goals."

Two Sixers executives said they think Harding could become the NBA's first female general manager or head coach. Sit next to her for five minutes, and you'll see why: She's the type of hoops nerd who can carry on a conversation while staring at a player and analyzing his footwork.

Which is how she spent the last six months. Harding rented an apartment in Philadelphia, but she hardly saw it. She lived the exhausting life of a pro scout: four cities in four nights, three time zones in five days, her off days sometimes spent on Miami Beach, sometimes in a Cleveland health club, sweating out travel toxins, eating organic antioxidants.

When asked last month about what her experience had been like, she couldn't remember where she'd been in the 10 days since the All-Star game in Charlotte.

"I can say I went to ... um ... I went to ... oh, no. I went to – I was supposed to go into Milwaukee, but my flight was canceled. Then I ended up going to Memphis the next day," she said, slowly. "The next day ... I was in Miami for three days, and then I went back to Charlotte. Coming up, I go to California for two days, Utah for another day, back to California for the next day, Portland the next day."

Now that she's a coach, her frequent-flyer days are over.

She'll travel with the team, work with young guards Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton. It is not her first foray into coaching men: She was on the Raptors' bench in the 2015 summer league, when Hammon led the Spurs to the summer league title. Harding also spent part of the Raptors' 2015 training camp with them in Vancouver.

"It was kind of, like, I can do this!" Harding said, her face framed by a cloud of tightly pulled-back hair suddenly illuminated by a rare, brilliant smile.

But she wasn't sure if she wanted to coach when she stopped playing. That's why she chose the Sixers.

"The feeling here, the vibe, the support, growth – the belief in me. Knowing that I know the game," Harding said. "Respecting my path and everything that I've done."

Does that path include recommending this season's trades for Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic?

"That's exactly what I do. I wrote reports on these guys," said Harding, who will focus on as many as three or four players per game. "I was asked questions about my thoughts, considering my experience."

But outside the Sixers' organization, not everyone has that level of respect.

She hears the whispers: How can a female scout evaluate men?

She pauses. She chooses her words carefully.

"Basketball's basketball. Shooting form. The way they cut. You're looking exactly at the same things," she said. "You take a deeper dive. Why is he a good shooter? What does his form look like? Is he balanced all the time? Do you think they have the ability to improve? Are they a good on-ball defender? Are they a good help-side? Are they good at closing out? Are they good at pressure defense? Can he help us out in our system?"

She's becoming irritated at having to justifying herself. Again.

"You ask a male scout to scout a women's game, they're not going to look at anything differently," Harding said. "How many scouts even played professionally? How many coaches?"

OK. Touche.

The reality is, Harding does face differences in her job – differences men don't have to worry about.

"Simple stuff," Brand said. "For example, when she goes on the road, we'll make sure she has a place in the arena to change from her sweats, when she's working out players before the game, into whatever she wears for the game. Not every arena is prepared for that."

As a scout, picking up her pass became a point of delight in a weird way, especially when a woman was working the door:

"They would look in the media pile and wouldn't see my name. I'd say, 'I'm a scout.' "

Inevitably, the woman's eyes would grow wide: "Oh. My. God. I've never seen a woman scout before!"

Inevitably, Harding would feel the chills and the gravity of how important what she was doing for the women who came before her, who work with her and who will come after her.

"It makes me smile," she said. "As many years as they've done that job, and they see me come through – I think it's great.

"That," she said, "makes me feel proud."