When Lindsay Gottlieb was a senior at Scarsdale High School in the winter of 1994-95, varsity girls basketball coach Paul Celentano handed her a whistle and a shirt that said “Coach.”
A surefire starter, Gottlieb had torn her ACL in a pre-season scrimmage against Christ the King High School and while she was never the same athletically after the injury, she began an unforeseen journey into the coaching world.
“[Celentano] made me feel valued and that was really the first time I started to see the game differently,” Gottlieb said in an exclusive interview with the Inquirer.
Celentano said Gottlieb “didn’t hesitate to give her opinion at all.”
“She’s a real good student and she told me exactly what she thought at all times [during] her senior year. That was the beginning of her coaching career, I guess,” he said.
Though Gottlieb continued her playing career at Brown University, it was again her senior year, this time in college, where she took on the role of student assistant coach, this time as a healthy player, too.
Then, from the day she graduated Brown in 1999 — and every day for the 20 years that followed — Gottlieb has been a Division I college basketball coach, spending eight years as an assistant coach between Syracuse, New Hampshire, Richmond and Cal, one year as associate head coach at Cal, three years as head coach at UC Santa Barbara and eight years as head coach at Cal.
That all changed Wednesday, June 12, when Gottlieb made history. She became the first female college head coach to make a direct jump to the National Basketball Association, joining the new regime as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which showed a major commitment by signing Gottlieb to a four-year deal.
Second-year general manager Koby Altman, 36 years old, hired 12-year Michigan coach John Beilein, 66, to be the head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, 40, as associate head coach and now Gottlieb, 41, as assistant coach this offseason as the Cavs look to rebuild in their 50th season following a 19-63 finish last winter.
When Altman first asked to meet with Gottlieb she figured it was a friendly meeting about the direction of the NBA and perhaps the role of women and maybe he was looking to her for some recommendations. Altman didn’t need any recommendations — he had his candidate sitting in front of him.
“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re so excited about Coach Beilein and the way we’re going to be successful here is through culture-building and player development and we want to put the best staff around him. We want you on it,’” Gottlieb said. “He said, ‘This is not checking a box; this is adding value to the staff with your background and your different perspective.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
If ever a person could be blindsided in the most flattering way, Altman had found a way to do it. After all, Gottlieb was never on the market. She was still under a lucrative contract at Cal, had never applied for another job and any time an unsolicited offer came her way it was, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but no thanks.”
This was different. “This is the NBA and I had to think about it,” Gottlieb said.
Meetings and phone calls with Altman, Beilein and Bickerstaff followed. The more Gottlieb listened, the more she saw the operation in Cleveland and the more she asked her own questions, which greatly differed from the men who came before her, the more everyone was in agreement that Gottlieb would soon be heading to Cleveland for good.
“I was really drawn not just to, ‘Hey, it’s the NBA,’ but to their vision and how they saw my role in it,” Gottlieb said. “It was also what I want for my future and my family’s future. That’s when it got really hard. I love my job and this is my home, but it became clear that was an opportunity that’s once in a lifetime and I was really drawn to it.”
Once the coaching staff is fully rounded out the last thing to be determined is where Gottlieb will sit on the bench during games.
“The main thing to me was that I was going to be able to add value on the coaching staff, be doing things on the court, scouting reports, kind of craft it so I can do some other things I’m interested in like get with the salary cap guy and the analytics people,” Gottlieb said. “We’re still shaping some of it because Coach Beilein’s new, but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel like it was an opportunity to learn and grow, but also add value.”
Altman said in a statement released on the team’s website, “Lindsay Gottlieb will be a great addition to Coach Beilein’s and Coach Bickerstaff’s group. She has an extensive track record of success and growth with her teams and players and has also been a strong culture-driver as a core part of that. The more we researched and got to know Lindsay, the more we came to understand that she would be an impactful part of where we want to go as a team. Coach Gottlieb brings a depth of basketball knowledge, leadership, perspective and approach to her craft that will fit very well with our team and staff alike. We’re fortunate that she was willing to leave her role as head coach at such a solid and successful program at Cal.”
Beilein said, “I am excited to have a coach with Lindsay’s experience as a part of the new coaching staff with the Cavaliers. Lindsay truly values and embraces player development and a culture of winning basketball habits. Her success at Cal Berkeley speaks for itself and her insight in our meetings, practices and games will hold tremendous value. After sitting with her, it was easy to see how she will connect quickly with our staff and our players, and we all benefit because of that connection. I’m looking forward to merging all of her years of experience and vision for the game with our current and future coaching staff.”
Gottlieb joins the likes of Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks assistant coach), Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs assistant coach), Lindsey Harding (Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach), Kelly Krauskopf (Indiana Pacers first female assistant general manager), Natalie Nakase (Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach), Karen Stack-Umlauf (Chicago Bulls assistant coach) and Kristi Toliver (Washington Wizards assistant coach) as a female with a key role with an NBA team.
Some league professionals Gottlieb knows, others she looks forward to getting to know.
“It’s exciting to come in on the front end of it,” Gottlieb said. “This is the first time it’s a sitting college head coach being hired. Hopefully that opens doors for other people. I’ll certainly lean on the other women in the league for advice.”
Former WNBA star Hammon was a true pioneer, becoming the first female full-time assistant coach in the NBA in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. She became Gregg Popovich’s top assistant in 2018.
A tough decision
There was a lot to consider for Gottlieb, No. 1 being her family. Two-year-old son Jordan is quite famous from his mom’s Twitter account as he has been traveling around the country with her and Cal seemingly since birth. In addition, husband Patrick is also career-driven and that was another consideration.
On Tuesday night Gottlieb let Jordan weigh in on the decision before she signed the contract. She said, “Jordan, do you want to go to the NBA?” He said, “Yeah!” and she said, “OK, it’s done.”
Raising Jordan in California and staying at Cal until retirement was a potential reality for Gottlieb, one that seemed OK until recently. “I did feel this was a scary thing I needed to do to fulfill a dream and something that I might regret if I didn’t do,” she said.
One major thing that will be different for Gottlieb is longer, more demanding road trips with the Cavaliers. Though she described the Cavs as a “family-friendly organization,” Jordan will no longer be a mainstay in airports and arenas throughout the country, though she expects some opportunities for him to tag along. The good news is Jordan will be entering preschool, so Mom and Dad will want to get him into a more routine life on the ground in Cleveland.
Once the decision was made, the difficult part came in telling her players she wouldn’t be returning, which she had to do via text message since everyone was gone from campus for the summer. Gottlieb was unwavering in her message to the team: “My hope is that in seeing me do this you’ll believe that you can do something hard that you want to achieve later on like run for President, become a CEO or maybe one of my players becomes the first head coach in the NBA some day,” she said. “I’m hoping this example is one you can draw from, too.”
The support Patrick showed was also an example to the Cal women. “This is how family works, at least our kind of family where we’re pretty ambitious,” Gottlieb said. “I hope all of that is a model for them.”
The young women of Cal had seen their coach become a high-powered working wife and mom firsthand. And now they were seeing her off into uncharted territory in the NBA.
Roots in Scarsdale
Luke Vaccaro coached Gottlieb in Scarsdale rec basketball and later with the AAU Lady Knicks starting when she was 10 years old, the same age as Vaccaro’s daughter, Joy. Gottlieb was part of a Scarsdale core that included future Duke All-American and NCAA finalist Hilary Howard, Kristen Riccio and Carolyn Janiak.
Gottlieb was one of four players always in Vaccaro’s car for out-of-town tournaments — they played at least 50 games each summer — so they got to know each other well. Even at a young age, Gottlieb showed signs that coaching might be in her future.
“Ever since she was in eighth grade she was a basketball coach,” Vaccaro said. “She just knew the game… She was always intrigued with the game and she always watched other games. And she always had something to say. She’d be in the car coming home and she’d be, ‘How come you did this?’ and ‘How come you did that play?’ and stuff like that. I always took it as a compliment.
“I’ll be honest, she was born to coach.”
Vaccaro remembers Gottlieb as a “good” basketball player, “not a great one.” She was part of the Lady Knicks nucleus and was a key starter for the AAU team that fared well at nationals in Ohio in the mid-’90s.
“Lindsay was a big part of that team,” Vaccaro said. “She was the fifth player, but she was the fifth player because of her brains. One thing she knew was her role, which a lot of kids today don’t.”
Vaccaro has forgiven Gottlieb for breaking the one promise she made him when she didn’t put him on staff for her first head coaching job at UCSB in 2008. He’s watched her blossom into a shooting star that has no signs of slowing.
“She’s done a lot to get where she is today,” Vaccaro said. “She took no shortcuts. She earned everything she got and I give her a lot of credit… She worked every facet from video to recruiting to travel. She’s thorough, she’s young and she has a lot of energy still. She’s going to do well.”
The Cavaliers are a perfect fit, according to Vaccaro. “They’re young and they’re only going to go up,” he said. For the Cavaliers “it’s a four- to five-year process… Coach Beilein is giving them a jumpstart. It’s part of the system and it’s good for her to be part of that process.”
Celentano was Gottlieb’s physical education teacher at Scarsdale Middle School and her coach for sophomore and junior years. He became her colleague the day he handed her the title of “assistant coach.” Even as an underclassman he remembers she “always wanted to talk offense and defense.” And she was “always making suggestions.”
“She wasn’t just a kid who was happy to be playing basketball,” Celentano said. “She wanted to learn as much as she could. She understood the game better than most kids her age, I think.”
During summers Gottlieb worked as a coach at UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s camp, among others in the Catskills. Becoming a graduate assistant with Syracuse was the first official step on a long journey to the top.
“That’s what people don’t realize — she paid her dues starting at Syracuse,” Celentano said. “She did everything she needed to do. She always went to clinics, talked to coaches. She’s a coach’s coach. She wants to learn and I’m sure that’s why she’s doing this. It’s going to give her more knowledge and make her a better coach.”
Celentano also has one wish, a bit more realistic than Vaccaro’s, that he’d love to see come to fruition: “I would love to some day go out there and just sit on the sidelines and watch an NBA practice,” Celentano said. “Anybody can watch a game — I’d love to go to the practice. I know she’s a sponge and she’s going to be out there learning. Beilein is a basketball genius, supposedly.”
Gottlieb has consulted both of her former Scarsdale coaches from the beginning of her career to now, so they knew what was developing with the most recent career decision. From behind the scenes, Vaccaro could tell one thing: “They wanted her.”
“She told me, ‘I’m going to another level of basketball and I’m going to learn a lot,’” Vaccaro said. “She’ll get to deal with pros and she has the right personality. They aren’t just hiring her for her basketball stuff. She’s very good with people, a good mentor.”
Celentano said he believes the NBA will add another dimension to Gottlieb, and vice versa.
“She’s going to continue to grow,” Celentano said. “This isn’t the end of her line as far as developing her basketball coaching skills. She’ll be finding anybody she can talk to, watching every practice she has the opportunity to watch and I’m sure [she will] be outstanding at whatever her long-term goal is.
“It’s nice to see someone [who’s] willing to put in the time, effort and risks all around the country be rewarded for that.”
While Celentano and Vaccaro always saw Gottlieb as a cerebral player, her cousin made her realize it might go back even farther. On June 12 her cousin told Gottlieb a story of Gottlieb making her watch the NBA draft lottery when they were very young. “Not the draft, the draft lottery,” Gottlieb said. “She said I said, ‘I’m gonna be a GM one day.’ I don’t remember saying that.”
Another mentor beaming with pride over Gottlieb is Joanne Boyle. She was an assistant at Duke when Howard (now Heieck) played there. After Gottlieb’s year at UNH, Boyle took Gottlieb on staff at Richmond and then took her to Cal with her. After three years at UCSB, Gottlieb replaced Boyle, who took the job at Virginia.
Boyle recalls not only Gottlieb’s passion for the game from Day 1, but also her youthful exuberance for what she and other women could achieve in the game and in life in general.
“Lindsay has always talked about breaking barriers and if she ever went to the men’s side, what would that look like?” Boyle said. “Lindsay talked about this back when we were at Richmond together. What is the ceiling? What are the barriers? What are the opportunities for women down the road?”
Those opportunities are coming to fruition thanks in part to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who is pushing for diversity throughout the league, especially in coaching and officiating.
In a May 9 Associated Press story, Silver, at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C., was quoted as saying, “The goal is: Going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn't be coaching men's basketball.”
“I don’t know why the push and what started it, but it’s awesome,” Boyle said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the opportunity came up. I think she gave a lot of serious thought to it and she wants to make a difference. She made a great difference at Cal and I think she wants to be a trailblazer, wants to be challenged and wants to be part of an organization where she can make an impact.”
It wasn’t easy for Boyle to leave Cal, so she understands how tough the decision-making process was for Gottlieb.
“I think it was the right time, right place, right coach, right organization,” Boyle said. “It’s hard to leave Cal for sure, but she’s one of the first women to do this and that speaks volumes.”
As does the four-year commitment the Cavs made. “She was serious about them because they were serious about her,” Boyle said.
For most of the 20 years of Gottlieb’s career, Boyle has watched her protégé soak up every piece of information and absorb every experience she could with every knowledgeable person she could find — whether it be high school, college, WNBA or NBA. Gottlieb is famous for writing down plays on scraps of paper and napkins at airports.
“She’s kind of a junkie and wants to be better,” Boyle said. “She wants to know all aspects of the game. I think she’s also at a point where she wants to learn about the business side. I think that’s what’s attractive about this job … in addition to the coaching.”
The whole process of making the jump from college to pro — move over Scarsdale resident and former NBA Commissioner David Stern and former NBA pros Bob Kauffman (Scarsdale High School ’64), Butch Graves (SHS ’80) and NBA draft pick John Revelli (SHS ’80) — has made Gottlieb reflect on her lifetime in the game, which started in her hometown of Scarsdale. Her memories range from shooting hoops in the backyard at Howard’s house in Greenacres to her Fox Meadow team taking on Edgewood in rec ball. It continued with her father Stephen’s love of sports, the girls she grew up playing with and then her coaches.
“I think someone like Mr. Vaccaro and then Coach Celentano caring and placing value on girls’ basketball and the excitement around it were key,” Gottlieb said. “We grew up in a time where it was fun to love basketball. To do that with my classmates started a passion in me that never went away.”
A self-proclaimed “basketball nerd” growing up, Gottlieb is now headed to a destination that even she thought she could only dream of as a young coach.
“Of course, it’s scary,” she said. “But that’s a good thing. Your dreams should scare you a little bit.”
She added, “I’ve been fortunate to be a coach every single day since I graduated college. To get to this level doing it is just mind-blowing.”