Q&A with Pelicans VP of basketball operations, former WNBA champ Swin Cash
The 3-time WNBA champion talks about her role with the Pelicans and the WNBA's role in the social justice movement.
A self-described “Boy Mom” of two sons, Swin Cash beams with pride and gratitude talking about her journey as the NBA’s first Black woman to secure an executive position in basketball operations.
Cash also recognizes the scope of her role expands beyond what transpires on the court.
Hired in 2019 as vice president of basketball operations and team development for the New Orleans Pelicans, Cash entered the organization with incredible pedigree as a three-time WNBA champion (two with the Detroit Shock, one with the Seattle Storm), a four-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“Her legendary experience as a player, champion and winner at every level, on and off the floor, represents everything we want this organization to be about,” said Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, Cash spent some time with NBA.com dishing on her history, her role in New Orleans, childhood acting aspirations, and the WNBA’s stature as leaders at the forefront of the current movement for social justice and equality in this wide-ranging Q&A:
NBA.com: What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
Cash: The way I look at Women’s History Month is just an opportunity to spotlight women just in general. Not only women that are in the workplace, women that are stay-at-home moms, it just doesn’t matter. I think when you have marginalized groups of people who have had to fight for different rights, it feels good to have that month where you can just at least celebrate them. But for me, it’s the same as Black History Month; 365 [days a year] I’m still a woman, I’m still Black in America. We celebrate who we are as a people year-round. For us around the country, for people that just continue on a day-to-day all this time it’s a good opportunity to take a pause, to spotlight and try to honor women.
Before you decided to take on the executive role in New Orleans, you said you had to do your research and homework. You said you reached out to female friends in the NBA and some male allies. Who were some of those calls to, and what were some of your questions and concerns about ultimately making that decision to take the job with the Pelicans?
I prefer not to disclose all of the names. One of the things I did do is I talked to [people], and I didn’t reveal what opportunity it was. It was just more so trying to get their feedback because they either had been in the position or had been asked or interviewed for certain positions to be on a team.
So, one of the people I will reveal was Isiah Thomas because I worked with him in New York. He was the first person that actually hired me right after my retirement to come into the front office and created the first hybrid position with the New York Liberty that I had, which was Director of Franchise Development. So, it gave me an opportunity to work on both our basketball ops side and to work with the business side. Creating that position I think was really instrumental in giving me exposure to the business and the ops side. I really wanted to get his take because he was a team president in both the NBA and the WNBA, which is really unique.
Then, for me, one of my confidantes is [Virginia Cavaliers women’s basketball coach] Tina Thompson. Tina’s a coach now, but she’s a legend in the game and has been like a big sister to me. I just was kind of getting her feedback because I was at the point of being a mom and changing careers and different things. So, talking to her was just from a holistic standpoint of where I was as a wife and as a mother.
One of the funny ones though is I did have a quick conversation with Kenny Smith, just asking him about going to teams and what that kind of looks like. He’s had opportunities in the past and has thought about it. So, I just wanted to pick his brain about what would make you leave the comfort of television and have the autonomy to do other things you want to do. The great advice that Kenny had given me was: ‘You have to look at the opportunity and weigh who you’re working with. Will you have the ability to impact?’ That was some great advice from him because a lot of times, people just look at the opportunity. They don’t necessarily look at [the reality that] you can only create change or be successful in a role, especially as a woman, if we have male allies and people who support women. I had that in [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations [David] Griff[in] right away. So, that was good for me.
You really thought this thing all the way through huh?
Well, yeah, I had a one-and-a-half-year-old [son]. But you’re talking about uprooting my whole family; my husband [Steve Canal], he’s an entrepreneur, has a successful job, has clients and an office in New York. It’s not just me. I think a lot of times, people are like, oh, you just up and go. But I was happily, and still am, married and had a child and thinking are we gonna have No. 2, which I just had. There’s a lot more that goes into just taking an NBA job. I don’t do anything, I don’t work with partners, I don’t do different stuff unless I do my research, unless it’s something I feel strongly about.
You and Sue Bird were roommates in college at UConn, and I’ve heard her on quite a few podcasts recently. She seems like the coolest woman in the world. Is she?
There are so many different stories. We just pick and choose what we share. The thing I’m most impressed with is that from where we were when we were younger to see where she is now, and how she is happy in walking in her truth and being an ally and a force in this from a social justice and equality standpoint, it just makes me smile. I think one day we’ll all have to sit down and talk about it. I would like for her to even share more about how she’s gotten to that point. She’s done a good job of communicating. But Sue wasn’t always like that. Not saying she wasn’t supportive, but it’s hard to kind of walk in a truth whenever confrontation comes and people push back. To see her strength, her growth and us as sisters, that to me … I’m just so proud of her. And the fact that she’s still playing [is amazing]. I told her, ‘Your knees and whatever Keto diet you’re on, you just keep doing that.’ People are starting to see the personality that she has and using her platform. I’ve just been so genuinely proud, and happy about that.
The one thing that is funny about Birdie is the fact that she’s definitely always one to clown about some stuff. She’s clowning me. Maybe like six or seven years ago, she’s clowning me like, ‘Why are you wearing glasses that don’t have the prescription in them?’ Or, ‘Why are you wearing glasses that don’t have the lenses in them?’ I had played in China. So, a lot of my teammates over there were wearing glasses and taking the whole lens out. So, I thought I was cool and doing it. Birdie’s like clowning me, right? Fast forward to maybe like a year or two ago, I see her with these glasses on, and people are like, ‘Oh, she’s fashion. She’s killin’ it.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, so now you’re the cool chick with the glasses on with no prescription? Oh, OK. I got you. But you didn’t want to respect over here when I was doing it back in the day.’ That’s the type of stuff that we get on each other for. We love chopping it up. But Sue is really, really funny.
You’ve won on virtually every level. Are there certain themes, characteristics or habits that you see as just synonymous to success on and off the court?
I would say part of my mentality and upbringing … basketball was always an outlet for me. People ask me all the time: ‘When did you start preparing for life after basketball?’ I’m like, ‘Yo, the day they said I was the No. 2 pick and I got drafted.’ My brain just went into ‘What’s the next in my survival mode after that?’ And a lot of that is my upbringing. Whenever Kobe [Bryant] came out and was talking about this Mamba mentality and the ability to lock in, everything he talked about, people always think it applies to the court. To me, it was like having that type of mentality applies to life, especially when you come from humble beginnings, and you know this is your way out. This is your way to have success, get the things you want and have the life you want. So, I approached the game and I’ve approached my career the same way.
— WNBA (@WNBA) March 11, 2021
One of your main responsibilities as a leader within the Pelicans organization is to help that franchise establish a certain type of culture. What does that look like to you?
That looks like everything. Our culture, people use it and sometimes it’s one of those catchy, cliché words. But it’s just literally how you do business. How do we do business here in New Orleans? How do we take care of our players? How do we take care of our staff? When people come here, what are their expectations that are set? Is this department or that department operating in lockstep with the other one? Being a part of other winning organizations has helped me see how things kind of operate together. Being here and being able to apply different strategies, being able to streamline things, that’s what you look for. How we do business is how we create culture.
When you were working with Griffin at NBA TV, you engaged in plenty of conversations about the game and the players. Some of those conversations had to have gotten intense, right?
Well, it was never just Griff and I getting intense. You know everybody else is in there, too. I think the greatest thing about Turner is we all could sit there in a space and have conversations, whether it’s about the games going on, pop culture, things that are happening, all of that. It doesn’t matter if you’re on NBA TV or the guys on Inside, everybody’s still there. That is what created where Candace [Parker] is right now, where Allie [LaForce] is and Stephanie [Ready]. Those are my girls. Working with them and being in that same space, it never was the guys saying, ‘Oh, that’s the female over there.’ We were all talking hoops. I think that level of respect is something that was appreciated. With Griff coming from winning championships, having his success and coming up through the ranks of the NBA, I think he was probably evaluating me at the time, and I had no clue.
You think your honesty in those basketball conversations resonated with Griff?
Yeah, I think you just win people over when you’re yourself. I don’t expect everybody to love everything about me, but where’s our common thread? Then, let me be very, very clear: I’m here also learning things. I can help, and I’m applying and I’m doing my job. But I’m also learning. I’m learning from Griff. There are certain things I’ve taken and learned from [Pelican GM] Trajan [Langdon]. This isn’t the Swin Cash show. But it is being with a collective of like-minded people that are trying to get a job done. That, to me, is the fun part. That’s why I enjoy going to work. Yes, I need to figure out how we’re doing X, Y, and Z. But at the same time, I’m learning a part of the business that I need to sharpen my tools with if I want to continue to grow. This isn’t an end stop for me. We all have different goals that we want to achieve. But I think you have to master one thing before you can move on to the next.
Everybody knows your background as a basketball player, but you are also really into entertainment and performance art. What was the experience like for you as an actress on the sequel of the movie Bring It On?
Being in “Bring it On: All or Nothing” was really fun. I think it’s dope to think about being in “Bring it On.” One day whenever my boys see that movie, I’m gonna let them know I was in a movie that I played myself. For a WNBA player, that to me was the dopest thing at the time because the last time I remember would be like Lisa Leslie and Dawn [Staley] on Martin just being themselves. They say my name in the movie and the guy talks about the Detroit Shock. And even though the Shock aren’t here anymore, that’s history right there. That to me, was really dope. I think every kid has asked me since that movie came out about, ‘Oh my God, you know Rihanna.’ And this was like before Rihanna was Rihanna. That was super, super fun. I will tell you this: I’ve been blessed throughout my career to experience things in different industries that I am very, very grateful for.
What type of character could you see yourself playing? And if you were on the HBO show Insecure, what role would best fit you?
Angela Bassett is like the Don. She’s like the Don Dada. I love her. She is one of the best actresses, I swear. I would think on Insecure, yeah, I definitely would be Molly. I definitely would kill Molly’s role. I would love to play that role.
Throughout the pandemic with this backdrop of everything going on with social justice and equality, if we’re being real about this, the WNBA has been at the forefront of the whole movement. What are your thoughts about the role the WNBA has played in advancing the movement?
I absolutely think the W has been and will continue to be at the forefront when it comes to social justice. What I’m most proud of right now is how united our women are in not only their fight, but the demand for equality, the demand for resources, and to grow the league. I will tell you the very difficult CBA that we had signed before this recent one they did last year was very difficult because we were at a point where it was like this league could either fold, or the women are gonna realize we need to stand up and fight to change it. But timing is everything, and I think our women had recognized as the country is having this reckoning, let’s have one right now about these issues. As we continue to move forward, I think it’s gonna be even more prevalent.
Seeing Renee [Montgomery] do what she did down there in Atlanta in becoming an executive and ownership, let’s flip the script. I’ll tell you right now there were times back when I played when I used to speak up and be so frustrated because we’re the league, and partners of ours would do commercials or shoe companies would do commercials and they would use an actress to play a basketball player. I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re a partner with our league, and you mean to tell me not one of these women are worthy to be in this commercial?’ So, my fight was always deeper than that because I always saw the underlying issues with it. So, now, to see people are being called out and held accountable to invest in women, to bet on women, as our WNBA players say. That, to me, makes me so proud.
OK, this last question is sort of deep. But you retweeted a post from Halle Berry a while back where she said, “It’s still Protect Black Women.” How do you feel about sort of knowing that for the most part throughout history, it seems it has always been Black women stepping up and supporting Black men — women of all nationalities, really — but it seems collectively we haven’t done the same as men? How do we do better?
It’s hard because it’s been so long, and you have so much history, whether it’s your grandma talking to you about it, your mama, your auntie. We’ve had to endure. We’re raised to endure. We’re raised to know that X, Y, and Z is coming. I try to just continue to look forward and understand my history, but not hold people to what’s happened in the past. It’s, ‘What are you doing now? How are you being better now?’ I think the way that people can be better is to acknowledge, first, that there is an issue whether it’s systemic racism, sexism, whatever the case may be. We have to change things whether it’s in our hiring practices, whether it’s in our training, there are spaces.
The reason I retweeted that is I felt it in my spirit. People just assume that as Black women that we’re strong, or when it’s time to step up we’re gonna do it. We’ve shown that we do the right thing. We have a moral compass. We try to vote with the right conscience and all these different things. But what about our mental health? What about having to navigate in spaces where people have stereotypes that are about us? I just felt that in my heart, and I felt like if we don’t speak up about it, if we don’t keep it top of mind in our society, this microwave society right now, something that happens in 10 minutes just goes away five minutes [later] and then we’re onto the next thing. I just don’t want to see that happen.
Because I have a platform, because I have a following, I can use that to empower and make the world better somehow. And that’s not just saying that I feel that way only with Black women. Yes, I’m a Black woman. So, these issues affect me. But I still speak up for all women. I speak up for all races. But I do feel that it is important to speak in your own truth. Do I feel some type of pushback or do I feel that as being an executive, you have to change that? No, I don’t. I don’t. You know why? Because I think as soon as you get into a position where you feel that keeping a job is more important than protecting your rights, your son’s rights or your family’s ability to just exist, then you’ve compromised all of your integrity. I try to pride myself on having integrity. And this fight that we’re in to change not only stereotypes, but the systemic racism and other things we have in our country, it’s important for a mother like me who has two young African-American sons that I want to be raised in a world that is much better and advanced than where I was. So, I guess that’s my long, but short answer.
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