December 9, 2019

Amy Brooks ('96) - Leading NBA's Innovation Push

Agent of Change: Amy Brooks (’96) Is Leading the NBA's Innovation Push

The NBA has become known as the league most willing to innovate—and top exec Amy Brooks is leading the charge.  Jamie Lisanti, NBA, Nov 2019

If the NFL has developed a reputation for stodgy traditionalism, the NBA has done the exact opposite, innovating—and yes, Tweeting, 'gramming and TikToking—its way to status as the fast-changing league of the future. Chief innovation officer Amy Brooks' job is to lead that push, whether that means changing the shot clock, tweaking the playoff format or, yes, finding new ways to make the NBA and its partners even more money.

"If you're watching a game and you see a player's shoe, why can't you put up your phone and scan a QR code and buy that sneaker instantly?" says Brooks, 45, whose title also includes president of team marketing and business operations.
    Amy Brooks with Kobe Bryant
Her job has two parts: advising teams on ways to innovate and then driving change at the league level. As for part one, she leads an internal consulting group of about 40 people that helps the 93 teams of the NBA, WNBA, G-League and the e-sports NBA 2K League pump up revenue and popularity and develop new ideas. When the former Stanford guard (and Stanford M.B.A.) was promoted to the job in 2017, after 12 years of working in the league office, one of her first tasks was to spearhead the league's new jersey patch ad program.
That particular innovation may have been better loved by owners than fans, but Brooks says that to do her job right, she has to serve the league's faithful first: "Growing the business starts with our buildings being full, but it's also about how we deliver the game to our fans globally, because only 1% of our fans will ever attend a live game.
Which brings up the second part of her job: leading a 10-person, league-focused global strategy and innovation group. The NBA's embrace of, in Brooks' words, its young, diverse and global fan base has allowed her to tinker with tradition and explore novel approaches—as opposed to, say, the NFL, which has limited appeal beyond the U.S. and has been slower to embrace social media.
Chief among those efforts is the NBA 2K League, which was launched 18 months ago, making it the only U.S. pro sports operation to own and operate an e-sports league. Next year the 23-team league will add a franchise in Shanghai, continuing the NBA's (increasingly complicated) push into China. Brooks's group is also aiding the March 2020 launch of the NBA's new Basketball Africa League (BAL), which will feature 12 clubs competing in Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Morocco and Tunisia.
Brooks's team is involved in everything from the schedule changes that reduced the amount of back-to-back games on consecutive days to teams' advanced mobile apps that power the in-arena experience. In Sacramento, fans can crowd-source the temperature in their seating areas to adjust the A/C or heat, while in Milwaukee, jersey patch sponsor Harley-Davidson added a vroom sound within the app for fans to hold up during games.
"Innovation happens everywhere at the NBA—that is the secret to our success," Brooks says. "Our group is trying to inspire and pull it all together."
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the NBA's openness to change is Brooks herself. The Sacramento native is one of the highest-ranking female executives in American sports and, according to the University of Central Florida's 2019 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card, NBA franchises have seven women serving in the role of either chief executive or team president, more than in all other U.S. pro leagues combined.
"I see myself as an example, but my goal is to help others," Brooks says. "It's only a matter of time before we see a female head coach in the NBA."

    November 10, 2019

    Samuelsons: Karlie ('17) EuroCup POW; Bonnie ('15) Focusing on Studies

    Karlie Samuelson (2017) shoots her way to Top Performer status after downtown deluge

    Karlie Samuelson has been awarded EuroCup Top Performer honors for last week after lighting it up from long distance in spectacular fashion for Perfumerias Avenida.  The Great Britain national team competitor and WNBA player showed her devastating offensive capabilities as Avenida soared past Olivais FC by 106-45. Samuelson went off and finished 12-of-14 from the field including 8-of-10 from beyond the perimeter. As well as 33 points, she also had 6 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals.

    Season highlights

    Bonnie Samuelson (2015), SCCO, ’20: Keeping Her Eye on the Ball and Her Studies  by Pam Martineau, NBKU
    When she is not throwing 3 pointers on the basketball court, Bonnie Samuelson is hitting the books and treating patients as she pursues her dream of becoming an optometrist

    Raised in a Basketball Family

    Raised in Huntington Beach, Samuelson is the eldest of three sisters, all of whom were raised to excel at basketball by their basketball-playing parents. Both parents played ball professionally, but it was Bonnie’s father who regularly took his daughters to the basketball court to teach them to shoot, dribble and shoot again.  “My dad would take us every day to shoot,” says Samuelson. “He said if you want to get good at basketball, you have to practice.”

    His tutelage paid off. Bonnie would go on to play basketball all four years at Stanford University as an undergraduate, where she specialized in three-pointers. Her middle sister plays professional basketball in Belgium and her younger sister plays in the WNBA.

    Shadowed an Optometrist

    As an undergraduate at Stanford, Bonnie was interested in going into a medical profession, because she “really wanted to help people.” She wasn’t sure, however, which medical profession to pursue. She shadowed various medical practitioners and was drawn to optometry after watching an optometrist interact with his patients. “He seemed to have a blast working with patients,” she says. “It seemed like something I wanted to do.”
    Samuelson fell in love with SCCO (Southern California College of Optometry) after visiting the campus. Being a “Southern California girl” also helped her make her choice, she adds. “The school was beautiful,” she says, adding that professors, staff and students are “so welcoming.”
    In her free time, Samuelson loves reading, or going to the movies or beach with her boyfriend, also an SCCO student. She also loves walking her two black Labrador retrievers, Molly and Lucy. And she offers a word of advice to new students at SCCO. “It’s going to be hard work, but so worth it,” she says.

    October 10, 2019

    Mikaela Ruef, Alanna Smith (19') Moving on From Injuries

    Former UC Capitals player Mikaela Ruef (14') back for the 2019-20 season 

    Forward Mikaela Ruef has signed with the University of Canberra Capitals for the upcoming WNBL season.

    Ruef, 191cm tall and 28 years old, played for the UC Capitals during the 2016/17 UC Capitals season before joining Toulouse in France where she unfortunately tore her ACL in the finals. After a year of rehabbing, Ruef recently played for Logan in the QBL where she won the league’s MVP title. “I’ve just finished up my first season back from injury at Logan where I was able to regain confidence in my game and in my knee,” said Ruef.

    She is now already in Canberra training and will play a big part in the UC Capitals pre-season games.
    “I wanted to come back to Canberra because it’s the best club I’ve been a part of in the WNBL, not to mention they won a championship last year and I want to be a part of helping the team win another. “As a team, my expectation for the season is to go back to back and win another WNBL Championship. “As for my personal expectations, I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win, whether that be rebounding, setting good screens and diving on the floor.
    “I’m excited to play with Tolo again, she’s one of my favourite teammates ever, and Kelsey because I’ve heard so many great things about her, plus she’s an amazing player. I hope that I can just fit into the team seamlessly and make everyone better,” said Ruef. 
    Ruef, who is a US citizen, is currently awaiting Australian permanent residency and will not be able to play until then. WNBL rules state that each team may only suit up two international players, which the UC Capitals have in Kia Nurse and Olivia Epoupa.
    “I’ve signed with the Caps contingent on getting permanent residency in Australia. I’ve lodged my application, but it’s a long process that has lots of requirements. I’m waiting on one final police check from Ohio to come back, then I will have everything I need and hopefully it will get approved before the start of the season,” said Ruef.
    Head Coach Paul Goriss said that he is pleased to welcome Ruef back as she’s one of the hardest working players in the game. “The last time Ruef played for us in 2016/17, she led the team in rebounds and formed a strong front court combination with Tolo. “Ruef is always working hard to get better and add to her game.  She brings toughness, competitiveness and WNBL experience to our team. “Her work ethic and skillset will fit perfectly with our team chemistry and was a fan favourite because of her energy and relentlessness on court,” said Goriss.
    When Ruef played for the UC Capitals, the team was still playing out of the Tuggeranong Basketball Stadium. “I’m most looking forward to playing in front of the amazing crowd in Canberra. I saw so many pictures and videos from the Grand Final last season and the number of fans in the stands was incredible. There’s nothing more exciting as a player than playing in front of a sold-out stadium of fans cheering you on,” said Ruef.
    The UC Capitals are now one player away from completing the 2019-20 roster as the team starts to prepare for the season opener at the AIS Arena on October 13.

    Alanna Smith on the road to recovery and the WKBL
    from The Pick and Roll, by Chris Sermeno

    There is a growing list of names that come to mind when asked who’s leading the way for the next generation of budding Australian female basketball stars. Alanna Smith, who has made waves in her collegiate, professional and international career, is just one of those players rising to the occasion.
    The former Stanford alumni played in her maiden WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury and would also be drafted at pick number 2 for the Incheon Shinhan Bank S-Birds in the upcoming WKBL in South Korea.
    Despite an ankle injury cutting short her first WNBA season, Smith is adamant that it has been a timely step for her individual development and career progression. The 23-year-old explained that she was privileged to have trained and played alongside world class talent, and she has no doubts that she has fully grasped the incredible opportunity the WNBA represents.

    “It’s been such a huge experience, it really is a dream turned into reality, said Smith in speaking with The Pick and Roll. “I was lucky to have been drafted into a team with a great bunch of women, I learned so much and when you become part of that kind of setup you want to make an impact.
    “I got injured about three-quarters of the way through the season, but I’m very excited to play with the team again. I’m still growing and learning but I’m always hungry for more.” 
    While the leap from collegiate level to professional basketball may be a challenge for some, it was exactly what Smith craved for in her personal journey. Having played under Mercury coach Sandy Brondello during her time in winning a World Cup silver medal in 2018 with the Opals, Smith heaped praise on her mentor for a smooth transition into the professional life.
    “After I finished my time in college, I was ready for a change and a big challenge, and I embraced every part of it. Having Sandy worked to my advantage as she knows my game very well and does similar things with the Mercury to the Opals, and having her and Leilani [Mitchell] around was like a little slice of home.”
    This past season has provided Smith with insights as to what it takes to be a force in the top echelon of basketball, highlighted by her time off the court with Diana Taurasi. Initially star struck by the 3-time WNBA champion, Smith described Taurasi’s focus, determination and attitude as a class above, and thoroughly admired drawing from her experience.
    “She’s a winner! She’s got a non-stop, killer mentality that’s always pushing forward, and that is absolutely necessary to make it in a league like this. I think I might’ve annoyed her a little with all my questions, but I loved picking apart her brain on plays, drills and learning everything she has to offer. “Once I got over being star struck, I came to realize she’s super easy to talk to, she’s absolutely hilarious and she had me laughing all season.”
    Although she’s extraordinarily grateful for her time in the United States, she fully appreciates the extended time she is spending with family while she nurses her ankle back to full health. “Around the same time last year, I was able to spend some time back home, but it wasn’t very long. This is the longest time we’ve spent together in years. My younger sister is 10 and it’s been really good to see her and be around my family so much more this time.”
    While she is spending extended time in Australia, Smith’s journey in the basketball world will take her to South Korea for the 2019/20 season. The lure of exploring the basketball landscape proved to be more than enough to tempt her away from the Australian WNBL for the immediate future.
     “Personally, being away has been the most challenging but most rewarding experience of my life and I want to make the most of playing overseas while I can. “Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Australia, it’ll always be home and I’d love to play WNBL one day. But Korea has a great reputation as a tough league and I’m really excited to see what the season holds.”
    Following her successful surgery five weeks ago, Smith started walking within the past week and is sticking to her strict rehab regime as she looks to return to top shape ahead of the WKBL season opener on November 24.
    “Rehab is a strict process. I’m taking things slowly and training lightly on things like stationary shooting, one footed shooting and upper body work, but I’m definitely happy to be moving again.”
    Undeterred by her draft pick status in the US and Korea, Smith insisted her own expectations of herself are high, yet crucial for developing her own game. Having fought hard for the opportunities she has enjoyed to date, Smith doesn’t take things lightly as she continues to grind hard, play hard and be a shining example for younger basketballers.
    “I’ll always be hungry for success. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and my expectations can be a blessing and a curse. Falling short can be heartbreaking, but it’s important to have those expectations and both the positive and negative experiences that come with it. I’m going to continue fighting because it’s got me to where I am today.”
    You don’t have to look far to see that Australian basketball is on an upward trajectory. With athletes like Alanna Smith leading the way, the future success of Australian women’s basketball on the world stage is set to continue.

      September 18, 2019

      NNeka Ogwumike, Madame President

      How Nneka Ogwumike Became Madame President, the Face of WNBA Players  by Sean Hurd from The Undefeated

      It doesn’t help that her game isn’t flashy — it’s all about efficiency. Of the 144 players in the WNBA, Ogwumike ranks second behind Elena Delle Donne in career player efficiency rating (25.83). And she ranks fifth all-time in WNBA history. But the Los Angeles Sparks forward offers another explanation for her lack of mentions: It’s hard to talk about someone if you can’t pronounce her name.
      “My name is not easy to say,” Ogwumike, 29, said. “A lot of people recognize that it’s not an easy name or it’s maybe a name from a different place. I think I have an easily stereotypical name. That’s fine, I really don’t care.” Nnemkadi “Nneka” Ogwumike (pronounced NEH-kuh Oh-gwoo-MIH-kay) doesn’t roll off American tongues with the same ease as, say, Sue Bird, Maya Moore or Tina Charles. Perhaps it’s why the names of big-time talents such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Hakeem Olajuwon are often interchanged with monikers such as “The Greek Freak” and “Hakeem the Dream.”
      She wasn’t the kid who dribbled a basketball in the halls. She didn’t grow up watching the game, although she went to Houston Comets games growing up when her mom, who is an educator, received tickets through the school. And she didn’t attend a collegiate program rife with NCAA championships. She reps Stanford’s “Nerd Nation” with pride.
      The idea of being overlooked is not a new concept for Ogwumike. It’s something she said she got a taste of in high school but truly recognized while playing at Stanford. “There were times when I would perform better than other players that were playing college basketball and nothing would be said,” she recalled. “It didn’t matter to me, but I heard it enough to realize I’m just one of those players where I just have to work hard no matter what.”
      While she may not receive the level of recognition her resume warrants, her hard work is certainly paying off in the WNBA: She will lead the Sparks into the WNBA playoffs as the No. 3 seed on Sunday. Then, as president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), Ogwumike and her executive committee will represent all 144 players as they, along with WNBPA director of operations Terri Jackson, negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league after the season.
       The agreement is undoubtedly one of the WNBA’s most important steppingstones in its 23-year history, the next chapter in the fight for pay equity in women’s sports. And Ogwumike is the person the players have chosen to be the face of the fight.
      Watch. Learn. Lead.
      That’s the formula Ogwumike has used to topple obstacles, according to her sister and Sparks teammate Chiney Ogwumike. It’s the blueprint she has leaned on during her playing career dating to her days at Stanford.
      When Ogwumike arrived on “The Farm” as a freshman, she entered the Cardinal program as one of the top recruits in the country. But when she stepped on the floor at Maples Pavilion, adjusting to the style of collegiate play didn’t come naturally. Ogwumike relied on her athleticism in high school against inferior competition. Against college-level players, though, athleticism alone wouldn’t be enough.
      “At the beginning, working with her in practice, I’d be like, ‘Nneka, what’s your go-to move?’ ” said Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye, who recruited Ogwumike to Palo Alto. “And she’d say, ‘I don’t know, they would throw it up to me and I just put it in the basket.’ ” Whether it was adjusting to a new system, new teammates or the rigor of a Stanford education, Ogwumike struggled.
      As her freshman season continued, Ogwumike began asking questions — a lot of questions. Her raised index finger became a frequent sight on the Stanford practice floor, so much so that Ogwumike earned the nickname “Question Queen.” Ogwumike wasn’t satisfied with understanding only what she was doing on the floor, she wanted to know why she was doing it. “Nneka was not the first Stanford player to ask a lot of questions, but she might have asked the most. It was pretty funny,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, who coached Ogwumike from 2008 to 2012. “They were always good questions.”
      Ogwumike would finish her Stanford career as a three-time All-American and the second all-time leading scorer in program history. In 2012, the Sparks drafted her with the No. 1 overall pick.
      “Nneka has always been a learner,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “When she is involved with the game, she wants to know everything about it. That’s how it’s always been since she fell in love with the game. That’s just the type of thinker that she is.”
      It’s no wonder, then, that the players of the WNBA turned to the “league nerd” to lead them into the future.
      In recent years, the WNBA has watched as other female pro sports have commanded the pay equity conversation. The U.S. women’s national hockey team and, more recently, the women’s national soccer team have both challenged their respective governing bodies as they fight for pay equality.
      WNBA players have been unafraid to shine a light on the conditions they face while playing in the league, setting the tone for these upcoming negotiations. Ogwumike, however, didn’t exactly plan to be in this spot as the face of the league at its most integral inflection point to date. “To be very honest, I wasn’t really going for [president],” Ogwumike said.
      In 2016, as a vice president of the executive committee, Ogwumike said she was still learning about unions and their impact. She credits WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, who led the negotiation of the 2016 CBA as president of the WNBPA, for persuading her to run for the position.
      “Tamika pulled me aside and said that I should,” said Ogwumike, who was the only remaining active player on the executive committee at the time. “It was befitting of me to step into that role.”
      She began to do research, gather different perspectives, learn about negotiations from other sports leagues as well as further her knowledge of the WNBA’s business model, all the while looking to Jackson, whom Ogwumike described as the Players Association’s “eyes and ears, everything.” “That’s the Stanford student in her. She does her homework,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “Even at practice now, everyone calls her ‘Madam President’ because she is that efficient in what she does.”
      Ogwumike has advocated for increased participation in the months leading up to negotiations. As the executive committee begins preparing proposals and counterproposals, she is encouraging all players to read the current CBA to better inform themselves about the changes they want to see. “[Nneka] definitely offers a lot of information: perspectives, talking points, viewpoints,” said Chelsea Gray, Ogwumike’s teammate and a player rep on the WNBPA. “It’s kind of like a one band, one sound type of deal. She really plays into that and really speaks to us.”
      “We’re really trying to get player engagement as much as we can, because obviously it involves us,” Ogwumike said. “It affects us. Everyone wants to see great change that will lead to the progression of the league.”

      The primary issue taken up with players is increased pay. In the WNBA, the maximum base salary is $117,500. “Obviously, we want to get paid our value, and that starts with looking to increase the salary now,” Ogwumike said.

      “It’s a structural issue,” she added. “I think that’s something that can easily be resolved by both attending to the mechanisms of the league and then also the suggestions and the contributions of the players. No matter how great the product is, if you don’t have an appropriate business model, the product is never going to thrive as much as you want it to.”
      Across the table from Ogwumike in negotiation will sit recently appointed WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Engelbert, who assumed the league’s top post in July, is the former CEO of Deloitte and was a college basketball player at Lehigh. Ogwumike and the executive committee met with Engelbert at All-Star Weekend, a meeting Ogwumike described as positive.
      Ogwumike and the executive committee have outlined three priorities as they approach the beginning of their negotiation. Besides salary compensation, there is also player experience (i.e., travel and accommodations), and health and safety. Within those priorities lie a handful of line items ranging from domestic violence policies to player marketing.
      There is always the possibility that both sides won’t come to an agreement before the start of the next season. Players such as seven-time All-Star Tina Charles said they’d consider sitting out should the sides fail to reach an agreement. Last July, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said players wouldn’t be able to achieve pay equity without a strike.
      While Ogwumike acknowledged the possibility of a player strike as being a “reality to some degree,” it is not something she, or the executive committee, is hoping for or expecting. “We want to play,” Ogwumike said.
      The reality for Ogwumike is, despite the improvements she hopes to help shepherd into the league, she and many other league vets may not be able to experience the full fruits of their advocacy in the long term. Despite that, the gravity of what’s at stake for future generations of both women’s basketball and women’s sports at large is not lost on her.
      “I think about it impacting all sports, all women in sports,” Ogwumike said. “Not only are we hoping that it inspires other women, we’re hoping that it inspires other people to invest in women’s sports.”
      If there’s any doubt about Ogwumike’s ability to tackle a challenge, her track record speaks for itself. “She’s watched, she’s learned from Tamika Catchings, who was the president before, and now she’s the leader,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “Look at her on the floor. She’s watched, she’s learned, and now she’s an MVP and a champion. That’s just her M.O. She attacks everything to the best of her ability. …
      “I think she’s going to lead us into the best position possible as WNBA players.”