Jenny Boucek is talking about the sweet spot where natural talent, hard work, and luck alchemize, and how hard it can be for young people — really, any person — to recognize what she refers to as someone’s “gift set,” when it feels like my guts plummet through a trapdoor.
There is a special kind of sinking terror reserved for mistakes of your own stupidity — realizing you forgot your phone or wallet in a cab the moment it pulls away, or the slowing of a split second where you realize you’re about to seriously hurt yourself. One second you’re fine, and the next, reality has dropped everything to rush up and meet you. In my case, our call hadn’t been recording. Boucek, to then, was walking me with a mix of genteel diligence and chronological care through her upbringing in Tennessee, her time at the University of Virginia, defecting from her family’s long history of medicine for basketball, and the benefits of a non-linear path that eventually led her to a coaching position with the Dallas Mavericks. Halfway through our call, I winced and hit the evil red eye of the record button.
Boucek has a coach’s instinct in listening for the steps of a question and settling into the rhythm of conversation, her Tennessean intonation weaving warmly in when she nears subjects she loves, like her job or her daughter. She’s thoughtful and direct, in part due to a career where she’s had to be, because the steps to get from where she started to where she is now were far less straightforward.
As a student-athlete at UVA, Boucek started at guard and petitioned multiple deans in order to pursue a a double-major of sports medicine and sports management. On track to take her specialized degree into medical school, Boucek got wind that a new women’s league would start up soon. Unlike the other professional woman’s organization that had been launched in Fall 1996, the American Basketball League, this new league would be backed by the NBA. Boucek spent a grueling month getting back into playing shape and showed up at open tryouts for one of the league’s eight original teams, the Cleveland Rockers. She snagged one of two open roster spots in a field of nearly 400 other women.
It should have been halcyon days of baptismal competition, riding a brand-new wave Boucek had pushed herself in order to catch, but that same season, Boucek suffered what would become a career-ending back injury. After accepting an offer to play with a team in Iceland through winter, helping the club that had pooled money to bring her there, Keflavik, take a title, the extent of her injury revealed itself when she landed back in Cleveland and Boucek was unable to continue playing competitively. Where some might opt to recalibrate and return to their established roots, Boucek had gotten a sense of something in the WNBA that she wouldn’t be able to shake.
When asked what it was that had her starting her coaching career as an assistant with the Washington Mystics in 1999, just a year after being forced to give up on playing, Boucek said it seemed the closest thing to what she had loved about potentially becoming a doctor: An opportunity to help people. More than that, coaching seemed an avenue to continue “growing the moment” unfolding of the WNBA, both nationally and worldwide.
When ordered chronologically, any life will move evenly from year to year, upsets smoothed over by time’s steady road crew. Boucek’s résumé — nearly two decades of WNBA coaching, getting hired by former Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger as a player development coach, her pregnancy, moving to the Dallas Mavericks and birth of her daughter — reads as a career accelerated toward a well-designed, destined conclusion. But without the plot of life at some point shattering, there’s nothing for the light to catch on.
In her career, where Boucek’s way forward fractured, she gained the experience to make a wider road. Her being the first in the WNBA to play and then hold assistant and head coaching positions made that arc initially visible for others to follow, and her abrupt firing from both WNBA head coaching roles and tenacity to continue, crossing over into the NBA, lessened the distance of that perceived leap. While Boucek has said there is little difference when it comes to coaching in either league, the erosion of barriers has more to do with public perception than her own.
She tells me she’s more attracted to being part of a team’s ecosystem than to any individual role or title within it. Anything she can do with the Mavs to challenge and develop that ecosystem, she wants to do. In the position that Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle and team owner Mark Cuban created for Boucek, assistant to the basketball staff/special projects, she works across departments and specialties. In a league looking to implement hybridized models in its front offices, hiring coaches with non-traditional backgrounds or less linear roads to get there with the hopes of encouraging a wider range of skill sets in life and in basketball, Boucek is an early model, even if she does not necessarily see herself in that light.
“All I care about is that it’s becoming normalized,” Boucek answers when asked if it feels good to view herself as a trailblazer. “Women getting opportunities. And I don’t even want to say women, I want to say qualified women getting opportunities. To see it becoming not as big a deal, that’s all I ultimately care about. Right now it’s becoming less and less of a conversation, and that’s a good thing.”
Still, since Boucek entered the NBA, nine other women have been hired into full-time coaching roles, mostly within the last two years. She draws parallels to what’s happened in the women’s game to what is gradually occurring in the NBA, but it isn’t along gender lines.
“We in women’s sports have reaped the benefits of men being involved in our sport, and I’ve really enjoyed working with men over the years in women’s basketball, but I think the same is true in the men’s game,” she says. “Where there’s the same potential and beauty in the complimentary nature of men and women. And also just bringing that difference and that diversity, not just into the staff, but exposing your players to that diversity, it’s just proven in every area of life to be a beneficial thing, to have diversity.”
It’s difficult to address that much needed, overdue diversity in the NBA without addressing the allegations of workplace misconduct and and sexual harassment that were leveled against the organizational ecosystem of which Boucek is presently a growing part. Since Sports Illustrated published its 2018 investigation into the Mavericks — 15 women claiming harassment and serious misconduct that spanned 20 years against former CEO Terdema Ussery — Cuban has donated $10 million to organizations that aid women affected by domestic violence and hired former AT&T executive Cynthia Marshall as team CEO. Cuban was not named in any of the allegations, but there was speculation over the level of his awareness to what had been going on. Boucek was hired in the summer of 2018, five months after the SI piece was published. Regardless of her qualifications, her hiring would have faced speculation as a PR move on the Mavs part, but Boucek was also nine months pregnant when she accepted the job.
The NBA has a progressive parental leave policy, but employees of individual teams follow policy specific to that franchise. Boucek’s pregnancy at the time of her hiring was unique not only to the Mavs, but league-wide for a woman in a coaching position, and she was aware of the optics in the glaring light of the sexual harassment allegation.
“If I thought that was one percent of why I was getting hired,” Boucek says, “I would not have taken this job. I had other opportunities within the NBA. Because I wouldn’t have wanted that. I wouldn’t want to ever get a job because I’m a female. I don’t ever not want to get a job because I’m a female, but I never want to get a job because of it.”
She’d been asked the question before, her hiring made secondary by virtue of its timing. I asked, because I wanted to hear it in her words. Still, this requirement of moral proof as well as professional qualifications is almost exclusively placed on women, especially (and clumsily) in this era of public allegation and even more public recourse. Women who pursue careers peripheral to what has been publicly maligned are asked to morally vouch for themselves as much as their jobs, to be ethically qualified and professionally experienced. The same question, if he has even fielded it, is unlikely to be put to Carlisle repeatedly, or any of Boucek’s male coaching colleagues. They are free to do their jobs as much as step away from them when politics encroach. They are not asked to answer for the actions of the people who preceded them.
Boucek’s wariness to attach revolutionary qualifiers to her work, her path, when framed this way, makes sense. Rarely has she been free to inhabit fully the thing that she was doing in any given era — playing professional women’s basketball in its inaugural year, being one of the first to coach it, stepping into the NBA to be one of the first again — timing has had a hand in that, too. When she resists the persistent tug that would prefer to make her part of a larger, social movement, she isn’t doing it to disavow, she only wants to get to work.
“I don’t want to be part of some movement, I’m a coach,” Boucek says. “If there are ripple effects that end up helping women and opening up opportunities for women then that’s awesome and I’m so for that, but it’s not the reason why I’m doing this. I’m in the NBA because I believe I’m supposed to be coaching in the NBA.”
She laughs on something of tired exhale. “Coaching.” She repeats. “It’s not some social movement. Like I said, if there’s social change that takes place because of it, then, awesome. But I’m not here for social change. I’m here to coach.”
Coaching is what took Boucek to Texas, to work alongside Carlisle, a friend and mentor who also was one of the first people she told of her pregnancy. Boucek did have other job offers, one with the Kings and another elsewhere in the league, but the role Carlisle and Cuban created for her would keep her in Dallas and off the road immediately after giving birth. She fought them on it, intending to travel with the team as soon as six months postpartum. But Carlisle and Cuban, parents themselves, told her she might not want to do that. She gave birth to her daughter, Rylie, twelve days after accepting the job.
She has been vocal and open about her challenges in becoming a mother. Working for two decades straight, Boucek assumed life might sort itself out and having a child with it. In her mid-40s, as dedicated to her career as becoming a mother, she began to explore in vitro fertilization.
“I don’t know if I’d have a child right now if I didn’t freeze my eggs,” Boucek says. “They don’t know whether it was from my frozen eggs or from my current eggs, but it’s possible that I might not be a mom, which is one million times greater and more important to me than anything I’ve ever done. Anything else I’ve ever done. And if I didn’t have that opportunity and I’d given my whole live to other things, to basketball,” she pauses, “it would be one thing in life that I would really regret. I would not want that for any woman. To not have an opportunity to be a mother if they so wish.”
It’s an opportunity that has been made all the more viable to thousands of women by the recent changes to the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement. The agreement stipulates paid maternity leave, full salary during that leave, coverage of IVF, fertility treatment and adoption, along with childcare and housing stipends.
“I think it’s incredible, it’s way overdue,” Boucek said of the changes. “You know [the WNBA] was started by the NBA, and we’re so thankful for that, but men and women — it’s not lesser or more — are different. And we have different issues so the policies need to be different. That one obviously hits close to home right now. Any policy, not just in the WNBA but in companies across our country and across the world, that try to alleviate and relieve women from some of the tension and choices they have to make between career and motherhood. Any alleviation of that is a huge thing.”
Boucek began to explore IVF through a clinic in her final year as head coach of the Seattle Storm. As someone who has been through the process, and has experienced how draining it can be, physically and monetarily, she keenly feels what it can mean to other women.
“For some players it’s not going to be realistic to do it while they’re playing, or maybe not ideal, and so to help them have options to have a child when they’re playing career is over potentially — it’s brilliant, it’s beautiful,” she says. “And now that I’m a mom and I’m experiencing just how incredible it is, I want it for every woman that wants it.”
Professional sports, playing or coaching, hinges so much on what’s physically possible in the moment. Planning past a year either isn’t practical or can feel like tempting fate. For women in the game, there’s the added leveraging of one’s body for the present over a future that, if your career is going well, is worth holding off as long as possible. The reality is that for women in any professional position, the work is taking longer. Women hit their mid-30s, 40s, and only start to feel the kind of job stability and financial fulfillment the men alongside them hit without considering what it would mean to stop halfway there and potentially forfeit it all by having a family. It’s a race where perseverance doesn’t always prove enough.
“We get so consumed with the day-to-day of a high-octane career like playing or coaching in professional sports, where it’s so high-stress, day-to-day, that it’s hard to think about the future, it’s hard to plan for the future, it’s hard to take steps for the future,” Boucek says, when asked whether measures like what the WNBA have put in place can act as a kind of future-proofing for its athletes. “Helping with that, so that all these women who dream of being a mom someday or that don’t even know that they want to do it yet because they’re so consumed, I want it for all of them.”
Where Boucek is not as comfortable with the conversation centered on herself, the changes she has put in motion, she is at home in talking about the next generation. Her speech accelerates, lightens, when she broaches all the possibilities for women, whether in their careers or their lives off the court, and loosens considerably when she gets to talking about the generation entering into the league now.
“This young generation, they’re, man, they’re fascinating,” she excitedly says. “There’s something to be learned from all generations. Just like I talked about the diversity in other ways, even generational diversity is important in a group. This young generation, this generation coming up, has unique challenges and unique struggles. That’s something that I’ve become very passionate about learning about. I think it’s the mental health side of my family and caring about people, not just as players but these young men and women, as people.”
We get back to the idea of gift sets, how the acceleration of our lives, where everything is on display, all the time, can blur the lines of expectation and reality. What people want versus what they are good at, or better equipped to handle. Learning that trying and failing has practical value in the larger scheme of life when it comes to being comfortable with the upsets, where the way forward requires reconciling what didn’t work with what you might be meant to do after all. In that, Boucek looks at basketball, sports overall, not as a crystal ball capable of giving a brief, glowing look into the future, but an x-ray of the present, every part laid bare.
“One of the things I love about sports is it brings [out] real life issues,” Boucek says. “It’s a pressure cooker. So whatever’s going on inside you is going to get exposed, but that’s an opportunity for truth and growth and enlightenment.”
Boucek admits to becoming more fluid, a person not especially fixed on setting goals, because she has become more comfortable with the idea that planning life doesn’t always work out. A lot of iterations of her life didn’t. But it was in the things that fell away, forced or discarded, that gave her the clarity to see that what she has now, she was working for all along.