Documentary

Molly Sullivan: Path to making it as a woman in male-dominated NBA

“I’d like to invite you to take part in a project called TOMBOY… CSN will present a unique look at the challenges girls and women face in sports in the documentary.”

Five minutes before I received the email message above, Adam on Twitter apologized for calling my then 7-month-old daughter, Isabella, a boy after viewing a photo of Joel Embiid holding her. I replied: “No harm, no foul ... Isabella is a tomboy just like her mom.” Timing: It’s a beautiful thing. 

“A multiplatform project ... our talent will write blogs about their experiences as women in sports.”

That was the direction I received for this, my very first blog post. Here’s the thing: My entire life has revolved around sports, so I called an audible. I decided to roll with the path that led me to Philly, reflecting on the power of hard work, staying true to oneself, surrounding yourself with good people, continuously learning, playing nice and dreaming big. My mom is the strongest, smartest and most beautiful woman I know, and now as a new mom myself, I hope my own daughter will grow up knowing the value of a life that includes participating in sports and learning its lifelong lessons.

“We’ll produce podcasts with each of our female talent and a guest who’s had a prominent impact on her life.”

Onward to introspection and the next part of the TOMBOY project. I caught up with fellow swimmer Summer Sanders. Beginning in seventh grade, I became a fan of NBA Inside Stuff and could hardly wait for Saturday mornings after swim team practice in Las Vegas so that I would be "in the know" about everything basketball. Summer hosted the show for eight years with Ahmad Rashad. I remember thinking that she had the best job ever — always smiling, having fun, talking hoops. 

In my world, Summer was the epitome of class and cool. She connected with people in a way that helped me fall in love with the art of storytelling. Summer was often the only girl on the show, and it was evident that all of the coaches, players, front office and people within the Association clearly respected her. Looking back, I now realize why that was normal to me. I, too, am an athlete — training with the boys throughout my career as a distance swimmer was a key to my success and prepared me for my current life’s work. 

The NBA is my first love. But it took me a few years to find my niche.

For 14 years, I swam competitively. I chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over UCLA because, well, for starters, the Dean Dome is connected to the pool and on my recruiting trip they took me to a Carolina basketball game. (OK, there was a little more to my decision, but that certainly helped show I was born to be a Tar Heel.)

With wet hair and wide eyes, I would watch the TV broadcasters prepare for every UNC home game, and to help with the transition after graduation, my coach introduced me to UNC alumni that were leaders in the field of sports broadcasting. I can recall one such conversation with my coach where I shared with him that I felt in one of the alumni meetings this particular alum was bothered by my approach, to which he responded, “She thinks you want her job.” Truth was, I did, but there’s enough room for both of us, right? In my mind, we were still on the same team, not only because of our Carolina connection but also as women in sports.

That’s when my mom told me, “Remember this moment and how she made you feel. You'll be in her position one day with the ability to pay it forward.” Every time someone (male or female) asks for help or feedback, I always think back to how disappointed I was with that interaction and, to this day, I never let competition get in the way of doing what’s right.

Because I was on a full-ride athletic scholarship, my focus was on time spent in the pool, leaving very few discretionary hours for a broadcasting internship until my four years of eligibility were met. Following that internship at the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, my first paying job out of college was actually a double. From 9 to 5, I was a publicist for a public relations company specializing in the hotel-casino industry, where I learned the other side of reporting with a focus on writing and effective communication from a media perspective. 

At 5 p.m., I would book it to my second job as a news production assistant, where I edited packages, ran audio, wrote scripts and field produced for nightly newscasts. Those 15-hour days launched me into a producer gig until my reporter missed an assignment and the “suits” told me to step in. Yes, my first on-air gig happened because I was the only one at the shoot. Lesson: Always be prepared. I was moved from reporting on a weekly segment to hosting and producing my own weekly show, which eventually led to hosting my own daily half-hour show. In my spare time, I even wrote and published a book.

My hometown of Las Vegas is one of the few cities where sports and entertainment are intertwined, so while my first year in front of the camera was as an entertainment reporter, I often found myself covering the sporting events that were in town — such as the NBA Summer League. I can hear you: This was my shot! Not exactly. 

While I have tape of me interviewing LeBron James in 2008, I wasn’t being true to myself with long platinum blonde hair and questionable wardrobe choices while trying to emulate the professionalism of Doris Burke. I found that it was important to return to the kid that grew up watching the NBA with her parents, was obsessed with Jordan and Bird and would practice sideline reports during commercials while craving feedback from my father. Many times it would be a walk-and-talk interview at the half as I followed him as he went to the kitchen to get food. It was during this time when I watched my father mute several (unnamed) sideline reporters. To this day, I work hard so viewers don’t hit the mute button. Seriously.  

Thankfully, in the fall of 2007, I found a way to return to my athletic roots as a sideline and field reporter for college football and college basketball for a regional sports network that was owned by Comcast.

There weren't a lot of eyes on our game broadcasts, which allowed me to really cut my teeth and hone my craft. In fact, there wasn't a budget for a basketball sideline reporter, so I worked games for gratis and for the experience with an eye on my goal of reporting for the NBA. It was a natural transition, from entertainment to sports, as it felt like I was home. 

Just a few months into my new job, Playboy included me in their editorial roundup of the “sexiest sportscasters.” It was a simple poll that apparently turned a few heads. With comments from colleagues, viewers and even some players, I shrugged it off saying I was in great company (which I truly was). Keep in mind, I had only a few reps on the sideline at this point. Trust had been formed through my demonstration of professional work and through the professional relationships I maintained. And because of that, people moved back inside the lines and forgot that someone once thought I was just hot. A good early test. I still hope they don’t press mute.

With several high-profile job interviews that followed, the theme remained the same. I wasn't ready. My words, not theirs. But, if the phone rings early in your sports broadcasting career, how do you not answer? Perhaps they saw something in me that had yet to be tapped. However, this is the part where being a woman in sports came into play. From one network executive telling me that they wouldn’t hire me with blonde hair (to be fair — it wasn’t a good look) and another at the national level asking me to wear something “charming,” there was one job interview that really cut deep, questioning if I would date athletes or anyone associated with the team(s) that I covered.  

For what it’s worth, I set them all straight. I could have probably written the entire TOMBOY post on this topic, but I chose a different approach. Were those challenging situations? You bet, at the time. But it’s just not in my DNA to write a blog devoted to how hard women in sports have it. I like to think I’ve made the most of every challenging situation that has crossed my path. I’ve taken pride in doing things the right way while appreciating the women who helped by paving the way for my next generation.  

And because I’ve been on the other side at an elite-athlete level, there is a level of respect that I’ve experienced from the players and the coaches based on my ability to read a situation and respond as an athlete and in a way that other reporters perhaps could not. Bottom line: Be yourself, fight for what’s right and you will land where you are meant to be. 

April 18, 2012: Philly called. And just like my first on-air gig, I wasn't CSN’s first choice. Opportunity knocked when their first choice was in a mountain bike accident and unable to accept the assignment. (She ultimately recovered from her accident.) I had three days notice to prepare and to show up ready for the Sixers-Pacers game. I started to panic, thinking about how I had fumbled at various job interviews. It had been my dream job since the beginning of dreaming, reporting in the NBA, and I didn’t want to squander my opportunity. I remember trying to make excuses to my agent as I was in full-blown “Irish exit” mode. This was my big shot. My father pulled me aside and he started digging through a box filled with newspaper and magazine clippings from my days as a swimmer — photos, videos, everything but the water from the pools where I had competed. My father said, “You’re ready.” He was right. Everything that I had experienced led me to that moment.  

I’m writing this on the Sixers' flight to Milwaukee as the only girl traveling with the team. From Day 1, it was important to me that I earn respect from the organization. I felt I could best do that by working hard. They trust me. And that means everything. Whether it’s the Sixers or their opponent, it’s important in my role to establish who you are from the jump. For me, it’s the fact that I know the game and they know I’m here to help tell their story. I have cultivated an unspoken understanding that whether I’m tracking a player down on the court after a shootaround or reporting from the locker room after a game, both the players and I have a job to do on behalf of the fans.

Shortly after HBO's Real Sports ran a women-in-sports television piece, I had a mini-debate on Twitter with a self-described feminist. She questioned why I was “sticking up” for a colleague that was featured in the special. Why? Because she is really good at her job. It’s the same reason I didn’t focus on the very few negative experiences along my 10-year journey as a sports reporter. Because then, they win. I would rather share my story and hope that it might inspire someone out there in the same way that Summer Sanders and Doris Burke helped to inspire me. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to readers for me to address my thoughts about social media. During the 2014 NBA playoffs, I worked for TNT and NBA TV. That was my “welcome to social media” moment, even though I had been in the league for three years. All eyes were on the Hawks-Pacers series. I generally don’t take myself too seriously but I take my job extremely seriously. If a viewer doesn’t like the clothes I have chosen, that’s on them and I’m moving on to my next assignment. Other times, there can be a little more substance in the message. To be honest, I do internalize and embrace most feedback. I enjoy that side of the job. It brings me back to my years as a competitive swimmer always looking to tweak my performance to show improvement. Like everyone who engages social media, I’ve come across some beauts on Twitter. The birth of my daughter has opened my eyes to what matters most in life. 

Being a mom is No. 1 and my job is 1a. Reporting on my first love and for the city I love. I have also learned that you're only as good as your teammates, and I have found the best teammates in the NBA. My goal is to show my daughter and all little girls what it takes to be a strong woman in a man’s game.