Working in a man’s league, women are influencing the NBA now more than ever.
In 2014, former WNBA all-star Becky Hammon became the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and worked her way to become Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant.
This season, Hammon is one of 11 women serving as assistant coaches in the NBA, while other females are making names for themselves as front-office executives, like fellow former WNBA star Swin Cash, who was appointed the vice president of basketball operations and team development with the New Orleans Pelicans this past June.
While women’s roles in the NBA are expanding, Chagrin Falls 1999 graduate Amy (Yuratovac) O’Brien was in the business before it became popular.
The former multi-sport athlete for the Lady Tigers has been working in the Denver Nuggets’ front office for about a decade, including the past seven years as the franchise’s director of team operations and player development.
In a nutshell, O’Brien helps players who arrive in Denver, whether by trade, draft or as a free agent, get adjusted to the Nuggets’ organization with all their off-the-court needs, including guidance toward their familial and financial considerations.
Last week, the Nuggets released a feature on her role with the organization to coincide with Women’s History Month.
“To be totally honest, we only have three women in the organization on the basketball side, so they did an article for each of us,” O’Brien said. “I think it was awesome that they’re highlighting women doing these non-traditionally female jobs, mostly so that younger girls can see that you really can do any sort of job in professional sports. It’s not just playing.”
In high school, O’Brien’s athletic background came in volleyball, basketball, swimming and softball, before graduating and going on to earn a business degree from Boston College’s Carroll School of Management in 2003.
While in school, she interned with the Cleveland Cavaliers in their basketball operations department and spent time as an intern in the marketing department for the Boston Celtics.
“My uncle (Harry Weltman) when I was growing up was the general manager of the Cavs, and his son (Jeff Weltman) is the president of the Orlando Magic now,” O’Brien said. “So, we kind of had some family connections in sports. It was kind of more just one of those things when I was getting internships, like, where are your connections for that sort of thing? And mine so happened to be in sports. So, I lucked out.”
After college, O’Brien moved out to the Mile High City with her three best friends from kindergarten: Emily (Weingart) Ferrell, Mandy (Norton) Welgos and Jacque (Podor) Biscotti. The three of them always wanted to live in Denver, and O’Brien, who had never been there, decided to jump on the train.
In 2005, O’Brien began her tenure with Kroenke Sports and Entertainment – the ownership group of the Nuggets – in community relations, before working her way up within the organization and transitioning to the front office as the basketball coordinator in 2010 and before taking on her current position with team operations and player development.
While some people might not even know O’Brien’s job exists in professional sports, she specializes in building relationships with the players in a manner that facilitates her ability to help them make sure that their off-the-court stresses of life don’t hinder their on-the-court performances.
“It could be anything,” O’Brien said. “When they enter the NBA, the players are so much younger than they used to be. So, they may not know anything about living on their own to start with. It can be everything from, you know, budgeting to really just understanding the dynamics of being 20 years old and be given millions of dollars. Those are all hard things to manage in the beginning.
“And then kind of figuring out what family to help, what people not to help. You’re just constantly in a situation where people are asking something of you. So, I kind of just help them to adjust and understand their new world.”
A believer that relationships are what really enrich people’s lives, O’Brien has had the opportunity to help various Nuggets with their off-the-court foundations, including Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups.
One of the most taxing parts of her job comes hand-and-hand with the trade deadline each season. This year, the Nuggets traded three players whom they drafted, brought three new guys in, waived one player and signed another.
“We did have a busy trade deadline, which was really, really hard emotionally for me, because I invest everything in these guys and they’re a part of my family for life,” O’Brien said. “So, it’s always very stressful for me, and it’s super stressful for the players.
“They might say, ‘Oh, no, no. I know how to handle this. I’ve been in the league for this long. It’s part of the business.’ But it’s hard. It weighs on them. It’s like, one day you’re in a place that you called home for X amount of years, and the next day you’re just not. And it’s hard, too, because it doesn’t matter how professional you think you are, at the end of the day you feel like you’re not wanted.”
O’Brien still keeps her doors open and works with former Nuggets, but just in a different capacity, she said.
Now with the NBA shut down from the coronavirus, O’Brien has had to adapt her role and help players adjust to their lives of social distancing.
“This past week we’ve just all been trying to figure out what this is going to look like and how we’re going to do this,” she said. “A lot of our guys are really young, so they don’t know what to get from the grocery store. They don’t know how to cook. So, it just presents different issues that I hadn’t dealt with.
“And maybe some of them aren’t from the United States, and it’s really hard to be away from your family. I mean, some of these guys are social distancing by themselves at 22 years old, and that’s really hard emotionally. So, they probably get sick of me constantly checking in on them and just saying, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ But I do.”
At the end of the day, O’Brien said she doesn’t see her job as working with NBA stars and celebrities but rather just building friendships and relationships with everyday people. Although, she said it’s a cool business to be in, knowing that other people view it that way.
And as a pioneer for women working in NBA front offices, O’Brien said it’s not just her type of role in the NBA that can be managed by aspiring females.
“There’s definitely more women in front offices than there were when I started,” she said. “So, I would definitely say every team has grown in that respect. And I think it’s important that they’re not only doing my kind of job in front offices now. We have women who are analytics people. We have women who are coaches. We have women who are trainers.
“So, I think that’s a whole other piece is that they’re also not in positions that women always traditionally held.”