There are just six female assistant coaches in the NBA, and the Detroit Pistons’ Brittni Donaldson is one of them.
“I feel so grateful and so honored to be in the conversation with those five other women,” Donaldson said. “I look at those names, and they’re women I admire, that I idolize.”
At the same time, she recognizes there’s still progress to be made on that front.
“That means about 3% of all coaching jobs in the NBA are occupied by women. This is something I’ve taken upon myself to make sure that I contribute in a positive way to making that number shift.”
This season, Donaldson was named assistant coach and the director of coaching analytics for the Pistons. Before that, she was an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors during the team’s 2019 NBA championship run. Donaldson credits her underdog mentality and her willingness to embrace her uniqueness in joining that elite group of coaches.
While growing up in Sioux, Iowa, Donaldson dreamed of playing professional basketball. She referred to the basketball court as a “safe haven” where she made some of her most valuable friendships and relationships.
“Basketball has played a pivotal role in making me who I am today. It’s been my life’s greatest teacher. My mission now is to give back to the sports in the way it gave so much to me,” Donaldson said.
Playing point guard on the women’s basketball team at Northern Iowa, the 5-foot-7 Donaldson was often the shortest player on the court. But, she found joy in proving to others that she belonged.
“Whether it was as a kid at recess playing football with the guys or on the court in college, I always found myself in these spaces where I didn’t belong, because I didn’t look like the rest of the people there,” she said. “That would fuel me in a way that was like ‘no, check the ball up! Let me show you why I belong.’ I still carry that with me, and think it’s served me well throughout my life.”
Donaldson was poised to make it as a professional basketball player, but her dream was cut short by a career-ending knee injury.
“It felt like I failed that little girl who dreamed of playing professional basketball. It felt like I failed my support system — my family that invested so much into my basketball career, and it felt like I was failing my teammates, because I could no longer go out there and play and compete with them,” she said.
Impacting the game in a new way
Donaldson got through that period by leaning on her support system. Her friends, family and teammates helped her move on and although it was one of the most difficult times of her life, she reflects on it with thankfulness.
“I had to start peeling away the identity I had at that time as Brittni, the basketball player. I started thinking: who am I beyond just Brittni, the basketball player? What is the impact I want to make on the world?”
Donaldson didn’t initially have an interest in coaching. When Becky Hammon was named the first full-time assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, it opened her mind that there were other roles in basketball that she could explore. When she landed her first opportunity in the NBA as a data analyst for the Raptors, she found herself gravitating towards the conversations coaches were having to help players improve.
“I realized not only can I listen in to these conversations and follow what’s going on, but I also can contribute. I can help make better decisions in this area,” she said.
When Donaldson first started working in the NBA she felt the need to assimilate into her environment and act or talk similarity to her male counterparts. However, she decided quickly this was not how she wanted to be. Instead, she wanted to embrace her uniqueness.
“If everybody in a room is starting from the same vantage point, they’re not getting the whole picture,” Donaldson said. “What I can provide is a different perspective, and use that to my advantage.”
Donaldson said her dual title in Detroit allows her to support the coaching staff on the players’ development and also evaluations from a data perspective — all while lending a caring ear to the players.
“I love working with players to achieve their dreams and goals, and being a sounding board for them,” she said. “I try to hear their perspective on how they see things both on and off the court, and be a person that’s empathetic for them while also getting them where they want to go.”
‘Be fully confident in yourself’
Despite her success as an assistant coach, Donaldson says she still experiences imposter syndrome — a psychological term loosely defined as doubting one’s capabilities or feeling fraudulent in one’s role. ESPN’s Doris Burke mentioned experiencing that feeling often.
She combats this feeling by doing something that served her well as a player.
“When I would be in a shooting slump, and my confidence was a little bit shaken, some advice given to me from a mentor at the time was to go back and watch highlights of yourself making shots,” Donaldson said with a laugh. “It sounds a little corny, but the mind is a really powerful thing. When you reflect on and remind yourself where you’ve come from and what you’ve achieved — you start to eliminate that fear.”
The Raptors title-clinching moment in 2019 is one such achievement for Donaldson. The feeling of seeing Toronto’s players lift championship remains “indescribable” to her even today.
“From the big Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater in the Eastern Conference semifinals to winning the NBA championship at the old Oracle Arena — it still blows my mind that I was a part of that,” she said. “For someone like me who’s just poured so much into basketball throughout my life, it just felt like a release of everything I’ve given to the game.”
Donaldson plans to continue to give back to the game with the hope for more diversity and female representation along the way. For those looking to follow in Donaldson’s footsteps, she offers pointed advice.
“Discover what is unique about you, and how that can be an asset for an organization,” Donaldson said. “We’re starting to catch on to the truth that diversity, and diversity of thought in particular, is a competitive advantage. Don’t try to assimilate. Be you, and be fully confident in yourself.”