NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It’s not rare to see heels on a basketball court, but it is rare to see them in a huddle during a men’s game.
“I’ve been on some well dressed staffs so I had to step up my game after my first year, so the heels just accompany the outfit,” said Nicki Gross, Vanderbilt men’s basketball special assistant to the head coach. “I take them off right afterwards, too. My feet hurt sometimes.”
That’s the reality for Nicki Gross and Adell Harris – two women on Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball staff. It’s a trivial example, but one not many in the men’s college basketball world identify with.
As for how they arrived on West End, well, each story is unique.
“I started this hashtag on Twitter called #DearAssistantCoach where my objective was to try to share everything that happens behind the curtain,” said Harris, a former DI women’s basketball head coach now Chief of Staff at Vanderbilt. “I thought I was talking to 20-22 year old people who wanted to be college coaches and low and behold, I was talking to Jerry Stackhouse.”
She turned the tweets into a book and the second person to purchase that book was Stackhouse.
As for Gross, her story isn’t quite as visually appealing.
“Mine was picking up trash, it wasn’t as cool as a twitter feed,” she said. “So after I was a grad assistant, I got an internship with the NBA Summer League. We were literally picking up trash around the arena and we run into a G League coach that was the G League affiliate of the Clippers at the time, she was like, “hey I got someone I want you to meet.” And I literally have soda and popcorn and like half a hot dog in my hand and we walk up to her and she’s like, “hey, this is Nicki, if you’re looking for a video coordinator, she’s really good.” I’m trying to shake his hand, and it was a mess.”
So, the video coordinator job turns into assistant roles and the rest is history. It may sound like your average grind your way to the top kind of story, but for a woman in the NBA, it’s anything but average. At least on the outside.
“Someone joked, they’re like, “man, you’re just naive.” I guess I am,” said Gross. “I just love the NBA, I love basketball, I wanted to coach in it, and I didn’t even think that there was a barrier. The players don’t care if it’s female coach, they just want someone to help them get better.”
But, they do recognize the responsibility that comes with paving the way.
“More opportunities will be created if we do well. I think both of us probably are fixed more on can we do well? Can we do a great job? And then the rest of it’ll just take care of itself,” said Harris.
As for the man who hired these two women, Stackhouse recognized there’s nothing quite like a woman’s touch.
“They just have a way an understanding of how to deal with our student athletes that quite frankly, men don’t,” he said. “They comfort them, at the same time they’re tough on them, but I think its a different way than male coaches are. I think it’s an advantage.”