Gender’s no barrier for WNBA veteran coaching UMaine men’s team
BY TRAVIS LAZARCZYK
ORONO — The University of Maine men’s basketball team was going through a routine layup drill, with Edniesha Curry and another assistant coach making passes to players cutting to the basket.
The mundane drill continued until Curry made a perfect, behind-the-back bounce pass from 25 feet beyond the hoop. In one motion, Isaiah White caught it and made the layup. If Curry’s pass had taken place during a game, it would have elicited a collective “Ooohhh” from the crowd. At the morning practice, it got nothing more than a polite nod from White.
“She’s very detail-oriented, which isn’t a surprise. She’s a pro. She’s worked with pros,” said White, a junior guard. “She’s worked with me a lot on the details. Footwork and things a lot of people don’t take note of when watching the game or watching film. The little things. Everything has a purpose. Everything is intentional.”
White and other players have taken quickly to Curry, the only female assistant coach in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball.
Curry, 39, is a WNBA veteran and has played and coached on professional teams overseas. She also has coached male players preparing for a chance at the NBA.
“I’m just staying in the moment in this opportunity,” she said of the job at UMaine, “and hopefully this season I open up doors for others who want to pursue it or try it. We’ll see where it goes from there. It always has to start with one.”
Curry isn’t the first woman to coach Division I men’s college basketball. That was Bernadette Mattox, who coached at Kentucky from 1990-95. Stephanie Ready coached at Coppin State from 1999-2001, before moving on to coach in the NBA Developmental League. Jennifer Johnston coached at Oakland University from 1999 to 2002.
Mattox and Ready contacted Curry with words of encouragement almost as soon as she had moved into her office just down the hall from Maine’s Memorial Gym.
“I wanted her to know there was someone she could talk to,” said Ready, who works as a basketball analyst on Charlotte Hornets games for Fox Sports Southeast. “Bernadette Mattox sent me a hand-written note when I was hired. I know how important that was for me.”
This is Curry’s second coaching stint at Maine. She spent two seasons on Richard Barron’s staff when he coached the Maine’s women’s basketball program from 2011-17 before taking a medical leave of absence. Barron was named men’s basketball coach at Maine in March, and as he began to build his new staff, he knew he wanted Curry.
The Black Bears, who open their season Tuesday at the University of Denver, haven’t had a winning record since the 2009-10 season. The team hasn’t won an America East tournament game since 2005.
That Curry would be the only woman coaching in Division I basketball didn’t matter to Barron when he hired her this spring.
“Anything like that is worn off pretty quickly,” he said. “Either (players) feel like you’re helping them get better or they don’t. They can make their judgments pretty quickly, and it’s not going to be on gender. It’s going to be on if they feel like they’re getting better.”
A native of Palmdale, California, Curry began her collegiate playing career at Cal State Northridge, where she set a program record with 168 3-pointers in three seasons. In 2000, Curry transferred to the University of Oregon, where she earned Pac-10 honorable mention honors. Curry was drafted by the Charlotte Sting with the 41st pick of the 2002 WNBA draft. She played in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks before basketball allowed Curry to fill her passport with stamps. Curry played for professional teams in Greece, Poland, Israel and Hungary.
As Curry approached her 30th birthday and felt her playing career winding down, she knew she needed a plan for the next stage of her life. Coaching wasn’t immediately at the top of her list.
“Anytime somebody was like, you’re born a coach, I was like, ‘No I’m not’,” Curry said. “When I started traveling abroad, and really coaching, not just doing camps and clinics. I was like, I really like this. It’s fun. I was like, I’m going to stick with it, and here I am now.”
Curry coached basketball across the globe, in Vietnam, China, Israel and in Palestine. Curry joined Barron’s staff with the UMaine women’s basketball team in 2015, staying for two years. Since then, she’s taken part in the NBA Assistant Coaches program, coaching male players at draft combines and the NBA G League Showcase.
With 11 players on the Maine roster from outside the United States, Curry’s experience coaching overseas is a huge asset, Barron said.
“She’s a great basketball mind. She sees and thinks the game very well,” he said. “She’s very well-versed in lots of different philosophies of basketball, styles of offense and defense. She’s excellent in terms of breaking down video and taking something that may seem big and complicated and turning it something that’s really just two different actions,” Barron said.
Basketball players want two basic things from a coach, Ready said. “One, they want to get better. Two, they want to win games. You could be an alien from Mars. It doesn’t matter.”
During a recent practice in Memorial Gym, the Black Bears listened intently to Curry.
“Just seeing the amount of time she puts in with us, even outside of practice, she’s talking to us all the time, always trying to get us better,” said senior guard Celio Araujo. “It helps us trust her that much more, seeing the amount of investment she puts into us. It kind of encourages us to invest that much more in ourselves, and the team and the program.”
Last season, Araujo shot just over 27 percent from the field, and just 4 for 24 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range. Under Curry’s tutelage, Araujo said everything about his shot, from mechanics, to knowing when to shoot and having the confidence to take it, has improved.
“My problem last year was I was never ready to shoot, or wouldn’t know when to shoot. This summer, she really helped me simplify things. Think about working hard, that was already there, but she’s telling me take the game step by step,” Araujo said. “Slow it down. If the shot is there, you always have to be ready. It’s a lot on the mental part. It comes so much easier. It comes so much slower.”
“Because I played at such an elite level,” Curry said. “I’m able to tell the players the daily sacrifices they have to do, both physically and mentally.”
Curry’s background in the sport is not unlike that of many other women over the past two decades. So why aren’t there other women coaching men’s Division I basketball? Why has it been more than 15 years since there’s been one, and why have there only been a handful in the almost 30 years since Mattox broke the glass ceiling at Kentucky?
“In men’s basketball in Division I, it’s been a little slow,” Barron said, “and I think it’s because people tend to hire people they know. Sometimes those things take time. A lot of coaching is who you know. If there aren’t women around, you don’t know them to know to hire them. I think those barriers are slowly starting to break down.”
Larry Krystkowiak is in his eighth season as head men’s basketball coach at the University of Utah. As he prepared his team to host the Black Bears next Thursday, Krystkowiak was surprised to learn Curry is the only woman coaching in Division I men’s basketball. A former NBA player and coach, Krystkowiak pointed at the success women like San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman have had coaching in the NBA. It’s just a matter of time before that happens more in the larger conferences like Utah’s Pac 12, he said.
“How could you say it wouldn’t? There’s great candidates. It hasn’t been the norm, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I think we’re on the brink of some things happening,” Krystkowiak said. “If the substance is solid, there’s no reason it should be dismissed.”
Curry sees the players she coaches make no distinction between men’s and women’s basketball.
“It’s just a different generation with boys basketball and AAU,” she said. “Me being a former WNBA player, a lot of my WNBA sisters have sons and their sons grew up around women who were elite basketball players. So it’s a generation of young guys in basketball who are used to elite women.
“When I’m on the phone talking to recruits, we’re just talking hoops. Maybe a little trash talk. They start talking about their favorite women’s player and men’s player.”
White, who started 22 games for the Black Bears last season, said he was already familiar with Curry.
“I knew her background,” he said. “Male or female, basketball is basketball. I was just excited to have an experienced guard coach come in and help me get better.”
It’s unlikely Orono will be Curry’s final coaching stop, but she loves the University of Maine. Whatever the future brings, she’ll be ready.
“I’m all in. Everyone knows. I love coaching. I don’t know if my long term is going to be on the NBA sidelines or be a Division I men’s head coach,” Curry said. “I just put in the work quietly, and when the opportunity comes I’ll be prepared for it.”