NEW ORLEANS — Moments after Zion Williamson’s exhilarating debut against the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 22, the back hallway of the Smoothie King Center is wall to wall with basketball types.
Among the forest, the players all seem to make their way toward one person in particular with a fist bump or high-five on their way to the locker room: New Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations/team development Swin Cash.
Cash was a multiple-time WNBA All-Star, a champion and Olympian following a historic career at the University of Connecticut.
And now, she’s the highest-ranking woman in basketball operations in the NBA after joining the Pelicans last June.
It isn’t just the players who make their way toward Cash. Nearly everyone who’s anyone greets her warmly, because her winding road through so many avenues in basketball has made her a familiar figure to so many even before jumping from the television side to the executive side in the NBA.
Her charisma is evident and her energy, even in the late evening of a long, much-anticipated night, was still present.
“It’s a relationship business,” she said many times. “I didn’t fall out of the sky, and I’m definitely not some rah-rah, happy-to-be-here type, either.”
She’s certainly not the only woman making her mark in the NBA. Becky Hammon is a key figure on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio, the first woman to be on a bench.
Jenny Boucek (Dallas), Karen Stack Umlauf (Chicago), Kristi Tolliver (Washington), Lindsay Gottlieb (Cleveland), Lindsey Harding (Sacramento), Niele Ivey (Memphis), Brittni Donaldson (Toronto), Teresa Weatherspoon (New Orleans) and Natalie Nakase (L.A. Clippers) are all in the coaching ranks.
“I think when I hear it, it’s funny,” Cash said of her trailblazing status. “I’m never really shy about a bunch of things. But it’s a great accomplishment, I’m humbled. It lets me know it’s a lot of responsibility that comes with this as well.”
Cash, though, is in the boardroom where decisions are made at the executive level, which is a huge step in professional sports. It’s not lost on her, that she’s not just a woman in this position, but a black woman.
“What I’m getting sick of people saying, diversity and inclusion, they just think of it as a woman,” Cash said. “Let’s take it a step further. We have to be authentic and truthful. Because the conversation is getting away from where it started. Women of color [count].”
For the players on the Pelicans, it’s layered. They see an executive, yes, but they also see a mythical figure of sorts in the basketball culture. When she won her first NCAA championship as a sophomore in 2000, Williamson wasn’t even born yet.
“And then Nickeil [Alexander-Walker, Pelicans rookie guard] will come to me and tell me about some sneakerhead in Las Vegas having a pair of my Nike player exclusive shoes,” she jokes. “It lets me know I’m still relevant in the culture. They see that part of it.”
The balance between being a former player, working in media and also being removed enough from her playing days gives her a perspective not many have, regardless of gender. She’s often a sounding board. But when she sees players after a tough game, she knows from experience how to approach them.
“I’m not beating them down about basketball every day,” Cash said. “We have a million coaches. They know if I’ll say something about basketball, they see someone who cares. I’m trying to drive culture, drive experiences. They respect that. My only thought is not about the game.”
But her presence in the game has been obvious for over two decades, most recently at Turner sports, where she was a studio analyst.
Those back rooms feature some of the best basketball discussions around. The former players and personalities gather in a green room of sorts, watching the night’s selection of games on multiple TVs. It sparks all types of conversations, and every voice is respected.
It was there Cash’s basketball acumen was on display, noted by a man in between basketball jobs: former Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin. One night, as Cash was leaving and Griffin was headed to the set, he pulled her aside.
“He said, ‘I’m having conversations. If I get one of these jobs, I’ll reach out to you,’” Cash said. “‘I’m thinking about having you come with me.’ I was like, ‘OK, cool. Good luck.’ I didn’t think too much about it.”
Griffin wasn’t close to getting the Pelicans job at that point, but was impressed with Cash’s perspectives.
“We were talking about the game, and players and coaches,” Griffin said. “Some of her observations really struck me. She has really keen insight. She has a humanity to her that’s really unique.”
They continued to work together, talking basketball through the NCAA tournament and the finish of the last NBA regular season.
Then Cash’s phone pinged.
“It might’ve been a week or two weeks later,” Cash said. “‘David Griffin has been hired to run the New Orleans Pelicans.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, are you serious?’ I texted him to say congratulations and he said, ‘I’ll be in touch.’ I was like, ‘He’s serious.’”
Griffin was, and the two began talking about what a position would look like. Griffin wanted someone valuable. Cash wanted to be valued.
“He said, ‘I trust you, I don’t want you to be anybody else but yourself. I see the way you operate, the way people respond to you. I want you to do what you do,’” Cash said.
The Pelicans were at a crossroads, embarking on a rebuild after a drama-filled season because of Anthony Davis’ trade request. Griffin wasn’t in a position to make a token hire.
“I didn’t want to check a box with the people we hire,” Griffin said. “I think very often people hire people from diverse backgrounds because they feel they’re supposed to. For us, diversity of thought will help us arrive to better conclusions.
“We talk about diversity, but the process was sort of flawed. Typically male, typically white and even former players, those of us who grew up in the business for 20-something years, you tend to surround yourself with people you’ve been in that environment with.
“If you’re asking the same types of questions, how far are we really getting?”
It was the kind of opportunity Cash craved, and she heard the right things. Her voice wouldn’t be muted because she played in the WNBA, and she’d be in a great position to learn from people with different backgrounds.
She recalls being a studio analyst at ESPN, doing a Lakers game when Kobe Bryant was still playing and spoke from her perspectives and relationships with players.
“I remember getting off the set and someone said it’s great to have your opinion, but let’s try to stick to giving your opinion about what you see and maybe not what someone is thinking,” Cash said. “Well, not necessarily, because I can text Kobe and call Kobe and I can speak to that. When I’m up there talking, you know people, guys will text me and say you need to say such and such. They don’t understand all the types of relationships you’ve built.”
Behind that smile and charming demeanor is a fighter, and she’s used her powers depending on the circumstance. She wore a “Black Lives Matter” warmup shirt in 2016 as a member of the New York Liberty. As an Olympian, when the men’s national team was flying international first class but the women’s team was flying in coach, Cash and teammate Tina Thompson purchased first-class tickets for themselves and teammates to prove a point.
“I’m like, this ain’t cool. We have young girls, like 6-foot-7, fighting over exit rows,” Cash said. “From there, we had conversations with the executives, they didn’t know. If you don’t speak up, it don’t change. From that point on, USA basketball, you fly international, you fly first class.”
When she got the position with the Pelicans, she had an influence in helping Weatherspoon, a former WNBA player, get an opportunity on the bench.
“I saw how male players responded to her,” Cash said. “We need someone who can touch people in a different way, not necessarily guy-to-guy interactions. My thought process is long term. It wasn’t that we hired a female, we hired for a position.
“For women, we need people in the room to present those candidates because you just don’t know. sports is relationship-based. Until you know, people are always networking around. We don’t get that same courtesy. We don’t have those conversations.”
Having so many different experiences, one would think Cash has lofty goals. Perhaps being a team president or GM someday?
She won’t rule it out, but she wants to make sure she isn’t a novelty, some trivia answer for down the road.
“I’m still figuring that out. I told Griff when I took this job was that I want to learn everything I want to learn from you,” she said. “You can’t just be happy being the first in the door. You have to make sure you’re not the last. That’s how I approach life. Look at everybody else who’s gonna have that opportunity because people have faith in me to do my job. There will be women just like me, but do it at a higher level.”