How Women Became Embedded in the Framework of Raptors 905
Wumi Agunbiade says the highlight of her young coaching career came in the second half of a Raptors 905 game earlier this season. In the opening 24 minutes of the contest, the former Duquesne University star turned 905 junior coach says the team's offense was looking sticky. During the halftime coaches' chat, Agunbiade had an idea for how to grease the wheels.
"I noticed that we were a bit stagnant offensively, and coach [Jama Mahlalela] was looking for suggestions on the offensive end," recounted the 27-year-old assistant. "There was one play that kept popping up in the back of my mind. Eventually... I pitched it to one of the assistants."
"We go into the game, back into the second half, and I'm now sitting there watching and the next thing you know they run the play, and the assistant turns around and looks at me and gives me a wink, and that right there was a nice little pat on the back."
In another organization, a woman offering a piece of game-changing advice from the second row of the bench might stand out as something novel. Inside the Raptors' G League affiliate it's unremarkable, because it's the way things have always been done.
From the coaching staff, to the front office and even into the ranks of media covering the team, Raptors 905 is in many ways defined by how refreshingly normal it is for women's voices to carry weight in the room. While other sports franchises are now beginning to emphasize inclusivity and diversity of thought, the folks within the 905 will tell you they don't think about those things at all; they're just a given, part of the culture the front office has worked to establish since before the team played its first game back in 2015.
In speaking with the women working for the 905 in one capacity or another, Masai Ujiri's name gets tossed around quite a bit. His arrival in Toronto in 2013 didn't only steer the on-court product out of the depths of mediocrity and toward a championship; since taking over, the number of women in the Raptors' employ has leapt from one to 14. You could argue the latter was essential in making the former possible.
Among those 14 women is Shelby Weaver, one of the 905's very first employees, who served as the team's basketball operations manager for two years before making the leap to the big club to take over as its manager of player development. As Weaver details, the shift in thinking under Ujiri was already well underway by the time the Raptors dipped their toes into the G League.
"It certainly wasn't like, "OK! Now we're going to hire more women," or "now we're going to hire a more diverse portfolio of people," says Weaver of the M.O. under Ujiri's direction. "It was never really something that was said or talked about, it was just kind of done."
"These things are obviously purposeful and have to happen. But I think when you have people in your organization at the top levels who value those types of things, and see the value in those types of things, it just kind of happens naturally. You don't really have to mandate it or "make it a thing"... It's kind of just part of the fabric of what we do."
By not "making it a thing" any time a woman breaks new ground within the walls of the team, the 905 have created an environment of comfort. People are given space to do the jobs they were hired to do, free of any mantle-bearing onus.
"For me it kind of was just normal from day one," says Meghan McPeak, who became the first full-time female play-by-play voice in G League history when she took over the 905's top chair in 2015. She'd call games in Mississauga for three seasons before moving to D.C. to become the voice of the G League's Capital City Go-Go and the WNBA's Washington Mystics in 2018.
"I know a big deal was made of it, because it's "the first" and whatnot, but I didn't really look at it like that," McPeak says of the news her hiring made at the time. "Luckily the organization didn't push it and sort of engulf me in it and make it a big thing, to make it seem like it was bigger than it needed to be... I think because of that, it allowed me to be comfortable and it allowed me to do my job to the best of my ability."
"The way I look at it, I'm doing a job. I just happen to be a girl."
According to the women who've gone through or are currently in the 905's talent pipeline, McPeak's seamless experience resembles their own. One of the surface-level concerns that tends to pop up when women enter a historically male-dominated field is whether the gender gap might be a barrier to strong, working relationships between both sides.
As those inside the team will tell you, it's not that complicated.
"I think coming in, you don't really know what to expect because you don't really know how the guys are going to treat you," says former Canadian national teamer Tamara Tatham, who held a junior coach position with the 905 during the 2018-19 season - the first Canadian woman to hold such a position in men's pro basketball. "But there was a respect very early on and almost immediately by coaches and players. You're coming in not as an ex-basketball player or a female, but as somebody who knows basketball."
"Everybody wants to get coached," she continued. "These are basketball players, and as a basketball player you're there, and you know you're getting coached, and it doesn't really matter if it's a male or female."
Weaver expanded on Tatham's sentiment, suggesting that of all the sports industry's many shortcomings when it comes to the inclusion of women, the acceptance and cooperation of players is among the lowest items on her ladder of concern.
"I have to tell you, I've had a lot of different players, from turnover in the G League, to every Summer League team to every Exhibit-10 player we've had - I've worked with all of them, and there's not been a moment in my whole career of working with NBA athletes that I've felt uncomfortable, or that they've made me feel lesser than by being a woman in this industry. It's amazing. It's not something that you have to teach."
It's not only coaches and front office staff who are flourishing inside the 905's supportive ecosystem. Following the same path as McPeak, a pair of women comprise an essential portion of the media contingent covering the team.
Amy Audibert says she spends about 300 days a year in some gym or another. This season, a chunk of those have been with the 905; she's in year one as the team's lead colour analyst after cutting her teeth in the 905 family as a fill-in sideline reporter. Same as McPeak, she says she's at ease in her job. Having other women in the workplace certainly helps.
"Seeing other women in positions, of course it's super empowering," says Audibert, who splits her time between Southern Ontario and Atlanta, where she works the analyst seat on broadcasts for the WNBA's Atlanta Dream. Her hope is that the word gets out about what the Raptors have cooking.
"There's such a different culture up here with the Raptors, and of course which is directly related to the 905," she notes. "You'd hope that even if there's a guy that comes in and he's just on a quick trade or something with the 905 and he's here for a month, and he leaves and he goes somewhere else, you wonder what conversations he actually tells people about what he's experienced up here."
While Audibert and McPeak might fit under the umbrella of traditional media, Kelsea O'Brien is anything but. Covering most home games for the long-running Raps blog "Raptors Republic," O'Brien's putting a personal spin on the way she interacts with those she covers. O'Brien, who you'll usually find in the seat closest to the players tunnel on the courtside press row, is on a self-proclaimed quest to be known as the 905's Team Mom. She makes a point of remembering the guys' birthdays, and will even bring them comforts from back home whenever she makes a day trip to the States. Bring her up to any 905 team employee, and a smile soon creeps across their face; the tray of cookies she routinely sets out on her desk has made her one of the most popular people in the building.
To a hardened, old-school media type, such a personal connection between reporter and team might cross over some age-old boundaries that journalism schools preach as gospel. But as the media landscape changes, why shouldn't coverage styles evolve, too? O'Brien says her connection with the team helps her forge trust with the 905ers, and ultimately improves her ability to tell their undertold stories.
Is it adversarial coverage in a traditional journalistic sense? No. But same as in front offices and coaching staffs, the rising tide of diverse thought lifts boats in every field. Plenty of folks cover the 905 through a critical lens, augmenting O'Brien's unique work. She says the 905 and head coach Jama Mahlalela have been totally open to indulging her offbeat way of doing the job.
"When I first started going I was worried it would be like, you know, a boys club. And it wasn't like that at all... they don't care if you're a woman, they don't care about your ethnicity, and they just want their stories to be told," says O'Brien. "I remember the one day I had to bring [my son] with me, and everyone was so accommodating. Jama was like holding him during the [pre-game] scrum, asking him questions, and they seem to really value the family aspect of it."
"Jama also makes the point to tell us "Oh, good question," and give us thorough answers, no matter if you've been there for years... or if you've been there for five minutes."
Mahlalela likens the role O'Brien occupies to the one Jack Armstrong and Matt Devlin hold with the NBA club, where their constant presence around the team forms trusting bonds that make storytelling easier.
"I think that's valuable," says Mahlalela. "I think you can do a better job because you do it in a comforting, sort of relaxed setting, versus "I'm trying to get the goods on you and tell it to the world." I think it's a wonderful approach."
Although those working for and with the 905 speak of the club in reverential terms - the Raptors, for example, considered Mahalela's move from Raptors assistant to the top G League job a promotion - the reality remains that it's a developmental league. Same as the stated on-court mission is to move guys into NBA roster spots with NBA paychecks, the topic of advancement is on the minds of the many women getting their reps in with the 905. While Weaver and McPeak are living proof of the springboard the 905 can provide, points of entry remained walled off in parts of the industry.
It's disingenuous to look at arguably the most progressive organization in the most progressive sport and proclaim the issue of gender inequality in sports conquered. As 905 coordinator of team operations Tenneya Martin notes, the Raptors lapped the field with their contingent of women - with more franchise departments represented than anyone else - in attendance at last month's NBA All-Star festivities.
"I think we had the most bodies there from a franchise holistic view. We had a salesperson, a G League person, Raptors staff obviously, and I think we were the only team that represented that fully."
Martin's desk neighbour in the 905 offices, Mélanie Danna, who coordinates player development and community relations for the team, has seen first-hand the male-centric structures still shaping other corners of the sports world.
"I worked for Volleyball Canada, and it was not like this," Danna says. "I guess volleyball and basketball are two totally different worlds... Really white-dominated... and the women were like the secretaries, or they'd always been in the same positions like communications... Everybody else like ops, accountants - the major roles were held by men."
Before moving to Canada five years ago, Danna was a sports reporter for the French publication "La Voix du Nord," which she says was also gripped by gender inequality. There, she was one of only three women on a staff of 30 - though she proudly boasts that the paper's hoops coverage was women-led.
She also points out that when she attends Raptors games, the majority of the faces she sees in the media seats are of men as well. Inertia is powerful, especially when it comes to those occupying cushy gigs with prestige media outlets.
As Audibert notes, even if people are getting wise to the immense value of changing the complexion of the sports workforce, the overdue industrial churn is going to take time.
"There's not a whole lot of movement in pro sports because for the most part, people love it when they get in there. And so I think that's probably some of it, right? It's just not super quick moving in terms of turnover in staff," she says, noting that the networking element of sports employment only amplifies the problem. If there aren't like-minded people holding jobs for up-and-comers to connect with, then how do you break the wheel?
Progress doesn't unfold overnight, and even within the notably ahead-of-the-curve Raptors, there's plenty of room to grow as the business catches up on decades of foot-dragging. It's worth noting that neither the big club nor the 905 have a woman in a front-bench assistant or full-time broadcast position - yet.
Weaver thinks that as other franchises look to the Raptors and their championship formula (she's sure to remind you that she's got two rings, one for each team), a feedback loop of diversity will begin to take shape.
"I don't always see it as this sort of deliberate attempt to keep women or keep diversity out of the NBA, it's just unconscious bias that we all have," says Weaver. "I think the more diversity this league has, the more it's going to snowball into more because now the people who are hiring are women, and LGBTQ, and of every different race and culture and background, and that's going to ultimately open us up to way more diversity."
"Change is hard, but I think we're well on our way."
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