LAS VEGAS - In their first game of Vegas Summer League, the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench looks historically normal: Seven men next to each other shouting orders and encouragement towards the court.
The minority in the group is Lindsay Gottlieb, who the Cavaliers hired a month ago after presiding over a Cal Women's Basketball program where she led the Bears to seven NCAA tournament appearances. As of July, Gottlieb is one of just eight women to hold a coaching position in the NBA, prompting a familiar sight on most days.
"There's many rooms now where I'm the only female in the room," Gottlieb says. "It's crazy. I don't know, it feels more natural than you would think."
Gottlieb's addition to the Cavaliers staff capped a month stretch that saw former WNBA players Kara Lawson (hired as an assistant with the Boston Celtics) and Swin Cash (hired Vice President of Basketball Operations and Team Development with the New Orleans Pelicans) joining a male-driven league.
Seeds of Gottlieb's NBA arrival were planted in 2014, when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hired Becky Hammon -- who played eight seasons for the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars -- as an assistant coach. The move made Hammon the first female coach in any of the four major sports.
Five years later, eight women now hold coaching roles. In addition, 18 have been hired in basketball operations positions in front offices with six women hold controlling or significant ownership stakes in teams. For most, Hammon's hiring opened more doors for hope for those coming after her.
"It happened for Becky," Lawson said. "Then it starts to be like, "Okay, maybe it's not that farfetched; maybe it could happen for other people."
As Gottlieb and the rest of the league's female representation grows, a conundrum exists for those currently in place: Succeeding in high-pressure jobs while carrying the pressure that comes with being one of the firsts in a job.
"Any time you're in a situation where you're representing more than just yourselves, you have to be good at what you do, and it has to be about focusing on doing the job each day," Gottlieb said. "So that ultimately, you aren't the only one, or one of only a few.
"It's more like, with each decision, is this going to advance the goals and purpose of our organization? Which is what I'm hired to do," Gottlieb added. "I think if I do that, and kind of keep that mindset all the time, then I do hope that that reflects upon more than just myself, individually. But you have to just think about staying in your lane, and doing a great job, so that ultimately the impact can be greater."
Of the female coaches hired since 2014, Gottlieb holds the distinction of being a head coach in the college ranks. Following stints as an assistant at Syracuse, New Hampshire, Richmond and Cal, she was hired as head coach for UC Santa Barbara, leading the Gauchos to two Big West Conference titles in three seasons, including a 22-10 record in her debut season.
After her mentor, Joanne Boyle, left Cal for the head coaching job at Virginia, Gottlieb returned to Berkeley. Over the next eight seasons, she compiled a 179–89 record, including seven NCAA tournament appearances. In 2013, she led the Golden Bears to the Final Four, marking the school's first appearance.
Perhaps her entry into the NBA was prophetic. During her tenure at Cal, she developed a reputation as an avid watcher of the men's game. On most nights, following late practices, a text from Gottlieb -- entrenched in an NBA game -- to one of her assistants or team manager was not uncommon. On off days, she was an occasional guest of Steve Kerr at Golden State Warriors' practice, a time that yielded an opportunity for her pupil, Recee Caldwell, to intern with the Warriors.
"Lindsay is definitely a basketball junkie," said Layshia Clarendon, a member of the 2013 Final Four team and now a guard for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. "She's constantly watching the pro-game on the men's and the women's sides."
In a league where male counterparts would garner a bevy of NBA head coaching jobs with Gottlieb's resume, the coach is finding her way to the league in a different way. Cleveland's courtship of Gottlieb came months ago, when a mutual friend urged her to reach out to Cavaliers general manager Coby Altman. Gottlieb agreed, believing the meeting would be a networking opportunity, but Altman had other ideas and offered her a coaching role. While former college coaches like Billy Donovan, Fred Hoiberg and Brad Stevens got their first pro job leading the bench, Gottlieb will start her journey in a supporting role.
"It's different," Gottlieb admits. "I'm an incredibly analytical person. When I thought about this whole decision, I thought about everything. I thought about that. I've worked my way to the top of what was my profession, in terms of being in charge, and it will be very different. But I've loved it. There aren't that many times, in the course of someone's career, where they can pivot, and just learn."
The literal move is also an adjustment for Gottlieb. For the more than a decade, Gottlieb has been on the West Coast. It was the region she set down roots with her husband, finance entrepreneur Patrick Martin, who proposed to her on the eve of Selection Monday in 2017.
Less than two months later, she gave birth to her first child, Jordan. When the opportunity to join the Cavaliers staff came up, Martin told his undecided wife "You can't turn this down."
"If there is a story, I think it's a story of my husband being ridiculously supportive," Gottlieb said. "Essentially placing my career first. I mean, it's a family move, he's successful. He's not just a stay at home dad, he's got his own stuff going on."
The influx of women into a male-dominated sport certainly will bring the expected questions. Can a woman make the adjustment to a new game? And, a question that causes the most ire, how will a women's basketball coach have to adjust to coaching men?
"I'm real careful with that," says Charmin Smith, Gottlieb's former lead assistant and current head coach at Cal. "Because I don't know that many people ask why men can be successful in coaching women. It's basketball, and she's coaching basketball."
"I think we don't expect women to be leaders," Clarendon added. "We don't expect them to command a room, to be able to be in positions of power over men. I think it's a total systematic issue. We've only ever seen men be leaders. But, think about the ways we expect... You know, who are doctors, who are pilots, who are the president, who are the people who lead in most positions that we see in media, that we see in coaching... it's oftentimes these men...
"Even on the women's side, we see, so often, male leaders at the forefront. So, I think some of it is this stereotyping that women can't be strong and leaders, they can't be composed. That narrative is starting to change, but it takes a lot of work to breakdown and shout out to the people blazing the trail, like Kara and Lindsay because they're leading the way for us."
Still, if recent history is any indication, a woman could lead her own staff in the future. Following last season, Hammon interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching vacancy. But for women the goal is bigger: To get to a place where a woman's hire isn't big news anymore.
"What I want to see in women in the NBA in 10 years, is that we stopped having the first, the second, the third, the fourth, and people just start realizing that this is a very inclusive, dynamic league that, women can be coaches, can be in the front office, can be referees, can do all the different things," Cash said. "And people not turn their heads and think that it's an anomaly. Like it just needs to be normal."
Publically, the league seems to onboard with Cash's vision.
“I have a very high expectation that it will happen — it’s not an expectation. I know it will happen at some point,” Oris Stuart, the NBA’s executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, told the Washington Post this week. “There are women who have the ability and the interest to contribute to this game at the highest level. If that ability is there, it’s going to be recognized, and if that interest is there, it’s going to be responded to.”
In the meantime, Gottlieb's focus this summer is a friendly competition with the small number of female assistants around the league. Currently, she has a running bet with Lawson where the loser pays for dinner. This year Gottlieb's Cavaliers were blown out 89-72 by Lawson's Celtics, providing yet another motivation on a quest to make sure she's not the glaring gender minority on the bench in the years to come.
"I mean, this week for me was scary," Gottlieb said. "I would be lying if I didn't say it was real scary, but I think that's part of the reason that I knew I had to do it. That's what life is about, taking some risks."