Lindsay Gottlieb’s mind was dribbling as she boarded the plane.
In May 2019, the California Golden Bears women’s basketball head coach had to prep for the junior NBA conference in Chicago. Her attention was also on her team, who’d lost in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament in March. Three of their top scorers had graduated and critics were calling the 2019-2020 season a rebuilding year.
But she was still thinking about a text she received a few days before.
“Would you be able to do a call on Monday?” wrote Koby Altman, the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager. “I’m going to Chicago for a predraft camp. Once we get through that, I’d love to chat.”
Just days before, the Cavs hired University of Michigan’s John Beilein as their new head coach. Intrigued, Gottlieb agreed to meet with Altman that weekend over breakfast in a downtown Chicago hotel.
With the departure of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and all eyes on young, rising stars like point guard Collin Sexton, point guard Darius Garland, shooting guard Dylan Windler and shooting guard Kevin Porter Jr., it’s a new era for the Cavs — and they needed someone to help shape the team’s future.
During the meeting, Altman told Gottlieb that Cavs management was excited about what she could bring to an NBA team. Then he asked if she would be interested in joining the staff.
It was an offer that made Gottlieb’s head spin. She would be the first women’s collegiate head coach recruited to an NBA staff.
“I was completely blown away,” she says. “That’s not what I was expecting him to say at all.”
But Gottlieb had a good thing going with the California Golden Bears. She had a record of seven NCAA Tournament appearances during her eight years of coaching. She was beloved on campus, having taken the team to its only Final Four game in the school’s history in 2012-2013. And while it’s cliche to say that a team functions as a family, for Gottlieb, it was actually true.
The 41-year-old spent holidays with her team and sat with them at funerals. Before her husband Patrick proposed to her, he asked Kristine Anigwe, Cal’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, for her blessing and permission. When Gottlieb found out she was pregnant, she told the team they’d be gaining a sibling. The close-knit relationship she had with her players was one of the reasons why she was so successful as a coach.
Indeed, one of the first things she thought when she got the offer was: What about McKenzie Forbes? And Mi’Cole Cayton? Or any of the 14 players?
Forbes was a 2018 McDonald’s All-American who’d connected with Gottlieb during her freshman year of high school and had specifically come to Cal to play for Gottlieb. And Cayton was an espnW HoopGurlz Top 100-ranked player in high school, who spent much of the past two seasons injured. Gottlieb made it clear to them and the other players on the team that she was invested in their growth.
What would her word mean if she left?
“There are so many things I love about coaching: the strategy, watching the film, finding ways to win,” says Gottlieb. “But if you strip all that away, I would still love the impact I know I can have on young women.”
She was also comfortable at Cal. According to a University of California compensation report, her gross pay in 2018 was $737,900. As the head coach, she had flexibility to run the program according to her own values. She went into every contract negotiation at the school thinking of time spent in the position over how much money was on the table. She’d imagined she would stay at Cal.
But she’d also imagined a different future, too, one in which she took on a leadership role in the NBA. She knew the game and the X’s and O’s as well as anyone. She’d been attending NBA camps and making connections. In her last contract negotiation with Cal, she’d even written in an out-clause if the NBA ever came calling.
She knew what an opportunity like this meant for the future of other girls and young women across the country, but she also knew everyone would be watching her closely, using her success or failure as a yardstick for future hiring decisions. Luckily, she’d spent her whole life turning others into believers.
“People can’t believe things are possible unless they physically see them,” she says.