Her Hoop Dreams

by Melanie Brooks

As the only female assistant coach in all of NCAA Division I men’s college basketball, Edniesha Curry is a trailblazer at the University of Maine and well beyond.

Edniesha Curry doesn’t care what people think of her.

When she walks onto a basketball court, she knows she belongs there. But when it comes to coaching a men’s team, she stands out, whether she wants to or not.

“There are thousands of male coaches and only one of me,” says Curry, an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at the University of Maine. She’s the only female assistant coach in all of NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball. She’s not the first-ever but she’s the only woman filling that role currently. And they’ve been few and far between since the first, Bernadette Mattox, coached men at the University of Kentucky from 1990 to 1995; Curry is only the fourth. But she doesn’t dwell on that.

“It’s not discouraging,” she says. “It gives me a sense of power. All the gender issues that people feel, I don’t feel. Those issues will always be there. I don’t spend time thinking about them.”

Coach Eddie, as she’s known around the globe, has worked hard for every opportunity she’s been given. That includes playing and coaching with the Women’s National Basketball Association, several international teams, including in Israel, and her latest achievement this past summer, serving as a guest assistant coach on the San Antonio Spurs’ National Basketball Association Summer League teams in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. The Summer League is a golden opportunity to work with young players, since many of the participants are rookies looking to land spots on NBA teams. Curry has dreams of the big time too, hoping to eventually coach in the NBA.

Her coaching career at UMaine started with an opportunity on the women’s team. In 2015, Richard Barron was the head coach of the Maine Black Bears women’s basketball team. He was looking to hire an assistant coach to round out his squad. Curry was coaching elite athletes in Vietnam when a mutual friend of Barron’s, well-known skills instructor Ganon Baker, gave her a call. “Ganon asked me if I was interested in the role at UMaine for the women’s team,” Curry says. She spoke with Barron via Skype, “and the next day I was offered the position.” It was the job Curry had been waiting for—coaching college hoops.

Basketball, for Curry, is business. The southern California native, who turned 40 in July, started playing, as many kids do, simply because it was fun. It wasn’t until she saw the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team win gold that she started thinking seriously about where basketball could take her. She earned a scholarship to Cal State Northridge. She’s still the school’s record holder for sinking 3-pointers (168 of them).

But she wanted a better shot at playing professionally after college, so she transferred to the University of Oregon for her senior year. “Perception is powerful and brands are important,” Curry says. “I felt like if I wanted to go pro, I had to make a business decision about my life. I knew winning and competing at a higher level in college would wipe out the stigma of being an elite player at a small school.” She helped her team win the Women’s National Invitation Tournament in 2002, earning an All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention along the way.

“GO AFTER THAT GOAL UNAPOLOGETICALLY, DESPITE WHERE THE WORLD AND OTHERS FEEL YOU SHOULD BE. STOP ASKING PERMISSION TO BE WHO YOU WANT TO BE.”

For the next decade, Curry dedicated her life to playing at the elite level. For four years she played in the WNBA, suiting up for the Charlotte Sting, which had grabbed her in the 2002 draft, Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks. She went on to play on professional teams in Greece, Poland, Israel and Hungary. It was a grueling schedule.

“Playing at the elite level is a constant commitment and sacrifice,” she says. “Records and successes don’t show how many birthdays, holidays and graduations I missed. It weighed on me. I ask younger players today, ‘Are you willing to lose a whole lot to pursue your dream?’” Fortunately, Curry has a strong support system that helped her while she was on the road. Her parents have been there for every step of her journey. The oldest of six, she is her family’s only athlete.

As a young player, coaching professionally was never on her radar. In fact, it’s a role she fought against for years. In her off-seasons, Curry would head back to the West Coast and work under the tutelage of her former Cal State Northridge coach, Michael Abraham. Coaching kids was fun for Curry and a way to give back to her community but she didn’t see it as a serious career prospect. “I think I was 25 years old when Coach Abraham told me that I was born to coach,” she says. “I started to notice that when I would head back West in my off-season, more kids and more parents were specifically asking for me.” Until then she merely saw coaching as a way to give back to the community. Her love for it grew organically. She started to fall in love with basketball all over again. “Coach Barron always asks, ‘Are you waiting or are your preparing for your opportunity?’ All those years I was unconsciously preparing to be a coach.”

Curry officially hung up her sneakers as a professional basketball player when she was 35. “I knew it was time,” she says. “My off-seasons became more about hanging out with friends and family and coaching than working out.” Does she miss playing? Not at all. “I gave my all to the game. I won on every level. I didn’t feel like I could give the sport any more at an elite level.”

She had been turned down for several coaching jobs before getting the call from Barron. While she waited for her opportunity, she worked overseas, training elite athletes in China and working with members of national basketball teams in Taiwan and Vietnam. “It was her energy and relentless pursuit of her dreams that impressed me the most,” Barron says. “We Skyped several times with her in Vietnam and you could feel her passion from the other side of the world.”

She worked as an assistant coach alongside Barron for the UMaine women’s team for one season, then left the following year to take a job that would allow for more flexibility to be with her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer. During that time she was a coach and athletic director at a K–12 charter school in Atlanta. In 2017, she joined the National Basketball Association’s assistant coaches program, which was created to help former NBA players learn how to be coaches. She was one of the first women to be accepted into the program.

Curry says that if you love what you do, nothing else matters. She’s never been afraid to pivot her career. It’s this resilience and tenacity that helped usher her into the role she has today: being the only female coach in a country of men.

While Curry was working in Atlanta and caring for her father, Barron had also taken a year off from coaching at UMaine, for medical reasons. When he returned, he joined the men’s team as head coach. And he knew exactly who he wanted on the sideline.

“I wasn’t naive about the interest that it would generate, but hiring Eddie—for the second time—wasn’t for attention or to make a statement,” Barron says. “I simply was hiring the best person for this particular job. She has basketball experience and knowledge, passion for the game, she’s an independent thinker, terrific with technology, and has a relentless attitude of ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’” Curry jumped at the change to gain more experience coaching a men’s team, furthering her chances of being an NBA coach.

Isaiah White joined the UMaine men’s basketball team for the chance to play at a NCAA Division I school. Coach Eddie was more than he was expecting; he’d never had a female coach before. “I was extremely skeptical,” he says. “I had no idea who she was, no idea about her resume or experience. I had this pompous attitude that there was nothing a female coach could tell me about men’s basketball. I was wrong. Completely wrong. Regrettably wrong.” Curry earned White’s respect quickly. He realized that basketball is basketball, the fundamentals and skills the same no matter who’s playing. “She showed me how much I didn’t know, and it completely rearranged everything I have ever thought about women coaching men.”

White says that Curry’s strengths lie in her attention to detail. “Not once will you ever catch her off her game, whether it be with scout preparation, skill development coaching in the off-season, or meticulous coaching during practices and games,” he says. Her willingness to go above and beyond for any one of her players is something else White hadn’t experienced before. “When you feel like your coach cares more about you as a whole individual than just an athlete, it makes it that much easier to be coached.”

Curry loves the challenge of her job—every day is different. As an assistant coach she’s tasked with a lot: recruiting, player development, academic advising, running reports. “It’s a daily chess game,” she says. “I like the ability to learn every day; it’s never boring.” Another perk? “I like the coaching journey a lot better than playing in the sense that my family can be more a part of it.” There’s more free time to see them and a lot more stability to be found in an American coaching gig than dribbling around the world. (leave quote that ends it “That has been very fulfilling to me.”

“I GAVE MY ALL TO THE GAME. I WON ON EVERY LEVEL. I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE I COULD GIVE THE SPORT ANY MORE AT AN ELITE LEVEL.”

For instance, this past year, Curry was inducted into her high school’s athletic hall of fame. She traveled to California for the induction with her 13-year-old brother, Genoah, by her side. While she may be all business about basketball, when it comes to her family, she shows a softer side. Because of their age difference, Genoah had never seen his big sister play basketball, he’d only heard the stories. “When we walked into the gym, he was taken aback,” Curry says. “‘All of those records and championships are yours?’ he asked me. I think he sees me in a different light now.”

Curry’s goals include having an impact on others who need representation. Being a women’s coach on a men’s team helps her to challenge traditional gender stereotypes. “I look to use my platform to empower young girls and women to go for it,” Curry says. “Go after that goal unapologetically, despite where the world and others feel you should be. Stop asking permission to be who you want to be.”

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