Women coaching in the NBA? It's here, of course, with Becky Hammon with the Spurs, endorsed for a top job by Gregg Popovich and having been on the interview list this spring with the Milwaukee Bucks. There's Lisa Boyer, who worked for the Cavaliers in the early 2000s, and Nancy Lieberman and Jenny Boucek from the Sacramento Kings. Also mentioned as inaugural candidates have been prominent women players and coaches, like Cheryl Miller, Tina Thompson and Dawn Staley. LeBron James already has endorsed having more women as NBA coaches. So did Pau Gasol in an open letter.
All those women are accomplished and talented, but none perhaps as experienced in the NBA and its minutiae and eminence as Karen Umlauf, the longtime Bulls Senior Director of Basketball Administration. Add Karen to the list, though she's hardly talking about being the next or first NBA female head coach. She's just one of the most qualified.
She will start regular work with the Bulls coaching staff for the first official time at Summer League this week as an associate coach, an additional title and responsibility while still involved in team administration.
Umlauf, whose maiden name is Stack and comes from a talented basketball family that includes her brother, Jim, a former top NBA assistant to Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, will work with the coaching staff and players. She has already been transitioning into the staff basketball operations role with film and draft work with the coaches and in practices this past season.
"We probably have waited too long to give her an opportunity like this," said Bulls Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations John Paxson. "We all think the world of Karen. She's a smart basketball person and this gives her an opportunity. Gar (Forman, general manager) and I talked to her a while back and said we'd like to do something along these lines. She's a talented person, a longtime Chicago Bull.
"She's got a different perspective than maybe any of the other coaches we have," said Paxson. "We all view the game through our own lenses and Karen has looked at the game differently and that can be a good thing; sometimes ideas come from that. Given how she has been traveling and doing things with the coaches this season, this an opportunity to learn even more and we'll see where it leads."
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says he is enthusiastic about having Karen work with his coaching staff.
"Karen has a ton of experience having been in this organization for 33 years, having played professionally and around this organization for the six championships," Hoiberg noted. "I value her opinion as a person who has so much experience in this game going back a long time. She has seen a lot of different coaches do it a lot of different ways here. So to be able to bounce things off her and talk of different experiences is great. There are a lot of things Karen can help provide and offer to our team to help make us better."
It's perhaps an inevitability and a natural step for a woman who was by third grade, in her recounting, watching and charting three basketball games a day following her brother Jim's career. Her father played collegiately as did a sister and a younger brother. One of her nephews is Charlotte Hornets player Frank Kaminsky.
Though Karen's resume is perhaps second to none.
She was a varsity player for Northwestern, an academic all-American finalist and the top rebounder behind Northwestern legend Anucha Browne, playing in the first NCAA women's tournament for the Wildcats. The 6-3 Umlauf set a state tournament rebounding record playing for Oak Forest, where she was honored as a Hall of Famer as well as being enshrined in the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
Umlauf played professionally in France for one season and then with the defunct Chicago Sky of the short-lived Women American Basketball Association. Her team lost in the finals in a league before its time with top women players like Lieberman and Pam and Paula McGee. Umlauf then started a barnstorming women team known as the Chicago Challengers with top women players playing worldwide in tournaments that included in countries like Sweden, Finland, Brazil and Cuba. She also has been a TV analyst for the Chicago Sky and the old Chicago SportsChannel.
She then went to work in a startup job with the Bulls just before the Jerry Reinsdorf group purchased the franchise. With her basketball background, she was lured to basketball operations by Krause. Her varied roles included even working out players, the Bulls on a road trip when they traded for a young guard from the San Antonio Spurs. John Paxson's first practices with the Bulls were run by Umlauf. With Krause, Stack was instrumental in arguably establishing the blueprint for the traditional NBA Basketball Operations department that is common today, but mostly unheard of then.
"You could argue Jerry (Krause) was the person who created the basketball operations department in the NBA," says Umlauf. "It was Kevin Loughery and the coaches and a small office back then. It was Jerry's vision and I was proud to play a part in that. Honestly, people would call us from all around the league and ask how are we doing this and that, who reports to who? He and Jerry Reinsdorf always talked about structure. I was the only other person, working with the coaches, taking the scouting reports on the phone. Jerry created all that and then it started growing all over the NBA. He was a pioneer.
"I know it sounds trite, but I really want to learn," said Umlauf, 56. "I'm not saying I'm looking to be the first head coach or anything like that. I feel I haven't fully tapped into what I'm capable of yet. But I know I want to be involved with coaching and the players, learn how we are doing things and help the coaches and the players and the organization. I can bring a different perspective and feel with my front office experience that also would help in communications."
It's probably a natural evolution for someone like Umlauf with her basketball experience and career.
Born in the south suburbs, she attended Elizabeth Seton High School, which is now Seton Academy. The basketball wasn't particularly sophisticated and she transferred to Oak Forest, which required a family move into the district. She helped lead Oak Forest to fourth at the state tournament and a record 22-rebound game with all-state recognition.
Having moved late to Oak Forest, college recruitment was limited and she started at Loyola. Though having moved to Division I, the program was limited and she transferred to Northwestern, where she was a starter her last two years with teams that averaged 20 wins with two national tournament appearances, including the NCAA first after playing in the old AIWA National Tournament for women.
Umlauf was a speech and language major scheduled for teaching when she failed to find a cure for her basketball fever.
"I did student teaching and realized it wasn't for me," Umlauf recalled, her understated manner belying a fierce competitive heart. "I went to my (Northwestern) coach about playing professionally. I replaced a girl from Ohio State with a team in central France, U.S. Vierzon. I stayed one season. It was a shock. The caliber of play wasn't great (Umlauf averaged about 25 and 15 as the American star of the team). I did get the apartment and car and all that, but it was crazy, everyone smoking; we had a 15-year-old point guard who cried a lot. It just wasn't competitive enough, and then trying to figure out all those coins in the pay phone to even try to call home."
Karen returned, the Spirit didn't last long and it was time to get a real job. David Rosengard had been at Northwestern and had left to go to the Bulls in marketing with this Michael Jordan rookie creating some NBA interest in Chicago for the first time in a decade.
"It was midway through Michael's first season and the Bulls were hiring," Umlauf recalled. "I hadn't followed the Bulls as much, but I wanted to stay involved in basketball."
Could she type, answer the phone, sell tickets?
"It was a great way to start from the bottom," Umlauf says.
Before too long, Krause noticed the tall girl and asked if she'd like to work with him. After all, he really didn't have anyone else. It was her break.
"With Jerry Krause I was very much a part of what was happening," Umlauf said. "We'd speak about personnel, trades. He'd use me as a sounding board. Not that I told him what to do, but he trusted me and asked for evaluations."
Umlauf was one of Krause's closest confidants and when he was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, she was one of the colleagues the family was anxious to have attend the ceremony. Umlauf, working for Krause, became one of the planners for the Berto Center practice facility in Deerfield. She also went on to do basketball budgeting and team travel arrangements as well as administration for the basketball staff. When Paxson replaced Krause, Karen backed off a bit with getting married and giving birth to her two daughters. She returned to the administrative responsibilities under Paxson and began extending into working with the coaches this season, often on the road as well. This week, she goes to Las Vegas with the nascent Bulls in what could start another chapter in a career encyclopedia.
"I'm super excited," Umlauf says. "I'm looking forward to helping."