By Brad Townsend
The Dallas Morning News
On the far end of the Mavericks’ practice court, out of reporters’ hearing range, assistant coach Jenny Boucek is casually monitoring the free-throw routine of 6-foot-11, 265-pound DeAndre Jordan, by percentage the fourth-worst marksman from the so-called charity stripe in NBA history.
Two dribbles. Fluid follow-through. Swish.
Two afternoons later, in her townhome barely a mile from the Mavericks’ practice facility, Boucek is on her knees on an interactive play mat, gently guiding 4-month-old daughter Rylie.
“Tell me where you want to go. See the apple tree? See the bird?”
Which is more wondrous? Rylie pushing herself up on hands and knees months ahead of most babies? Jordan’s free-throw percentage rising from a career 44.6 to 73.5 this season? Or single-mom Boucek’s multitasking?
On July 18, she was hired as the first female coach in Mavericks history. Twelve days later, she gave birth to Rylie. It’s not unusual for new mothers to play (Serena Williams) or coach women’s sports, but so far as anyone knows, Boucek’s juggle is a men’s pro sports first.
When she gave in vitro fertilization one last try last November, after multiple heartbreaking and expensive attempts, Boucek accepted that she might be forsaking the NBA coaching career she’d began a month earlier with the Sacramento Kings.
Now, instead, she savors her first Christmas with Rylie, turning 45 on Thursday, and the collective embrace she has felt from a new city and the Mavericks organization.
“There’s a lot of things that came together that helped me find peace with doing this,” she says. “As nervous as I was about it, now I can’t imagine a bigger regret than the one I would have had. I can’t imagine life without my daughter.”
When the Kings hired longtime WNBA coach Boucek (pronounced Boo-sik) last season, she joined close friends Becky Hammon (Spurs) and longtime North Texan Nancy Lieberman (Kings) as the only women to coach in the NBA.
This season, the Washington Wizards hired current WNBA player Kristi Toliver as an assistant coach. Multiple NBA teams have hired women to their player-development staffs and, just this week, Indiana hired longtime WNBA executive Kelly Krauskopf as the first female assistant general manager in NBA history.
All are pioneers in male-dominated territory, but no others are quite like Boucek, who is blazing dual trails.
“A lot of us on this team have been raised by single mothers,” Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes says. “So there’s a connection there.
“We obviously empathize with that and are supportive of that, but from a basketball perspective, us as players have respect for her, for her knowledge on the court and how she conducts herself. I think it’s pretty cool that this is happening in a trailblazing sense, but in a basketball sense it’s not like we have to compensate.
“No, she’s a normal coach just like anybody else.”
The path to Dallas
Sacramento coach Dave Joerger told Boucek he wanted to retain her, even though she had told the Kings and another interested NBA team that she had resolved to not travel this season until her baby was at least six months old.
Along with her desire to have as much mothering time as possible, Boucek planned to breastfeed, which made road trips unfeasible.
A third NBA team expressed interest, and it mattered little to Boucek that the team, Dallas, was in the midst of a seven-month investigation into sexual harassment and workplace misconduct allegations on the business side of the organization.
Boucek had long been friends with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and regarded him as a mentor. Both were standout basketball players at Virginia: Carlisle co-captaining the Cavaliers to the 1984 Final Four; Boucek helping lead the women’s team to four ACC titles and the 1993, 1995 and 1996 Elite Eights.
Carlisle had followed Boucek’s rise through the WNBA coaching ranks, including as Sacramento’s head coach from 2007-09. He invited her to spend time with his Mavericks staff in 2011 and for a month of 2014’s training camp.
“She’s a pure student who loves and respects the game — and has devoted her life to it,” Carlisle says.
Carlisle, in fact, publicly championed Boucek as a potential NBA coach prior to the Spurs’ historic August 2014 hiring of Hammon as the league’s first female assistant.
Last Feb. 3, barely two months into Boucek’s pregnancy, the Kings and Mavericks played in Sacramento. Boucek, who had only told Joerger and select friends and relatives about her pregnancy, broke the news to Carlisle during pregame warmups.
“Really, I was just needing to get his perspective on, ‘How crazy was this idea of maybe wanting to do both? Is it even realistic? Or am I done in the NBA?’ And I knew he would tell me the truth.
“He’s been such an advocate of me coaching in the NBA and finally I was in, so I thought it might disappoint him.”
No, far from it. Carlisle gave Boucek a big hug and assured her that, somehow, some way, motherhood and NBA coaching, simultaneously, were possible.
On June 21, NBA draft day, Boucek learned how serious Carlisle was when she traveled to Dallas, seven months pregnant, to be interviewed by Carlisle and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
“I come from a family of very smart people,” she says. “I appreciate great thinkers. And so I’ve always admired Mark from afar. To get to talk to him was a privilege for me.
“He asked a lot of tough questions and a lot of unique questions. I left there thinking, ‘Man, I wished I’d had a little more time to think about that question; I would have answered it better.'”
Boucek had long before soul-searched and answered the questions that most mattered. She repeatedly posed the first set of questions to herself as years passed and doctors advised her that her child-bearing window was closing.
She says her decision to attempt in vitro for the first time, in 2017, came after much reflection — logistical, emotional, spiritual, moral.
“It was a grieving, almost, of not doing this the way that I planned,” she says. “Which was finding a husband and having a family, with a white picket fence, the way you envision it your whole life.”
The next crucial question came from Joerger moments after she informed him of her pregnancy.
“If it ends up coming down to having a child or an NBA career, which would you choose?”
“Having a baby,” Boucek responded.
“Good,” Joerger said. “Because you need to be clear on that. This has never been done, and there’s no way to know how it’s going to affect your career.”
When worlds merge
Boucek’s Mavericks title is assistant to the basketball staff/special projects, a purposely open-ended description.
The job has morphed into Boucek doing a lot of everything. Her key responsibility is taking turns with fellow assistants preparing scouting reports of opponents.
She culls game tapes, marking points of emphasis to show Mavericks players and coaches. She notes opponent play calls and individual player tendencies.
NBA teams refer to these reports as “scouts.” Each scout requires the coach who compiled the report to sit behind the Mavericks’ bench, shout out opponents’ play calls and help implement the scouting report.
Since Boucek doesn’t travel, all of her scouts have been home games. Barnes says players teasingly point out to Boucek the wide disparity between the team’s home (13-3) and road (2-11) records.
“We joke with her sometimes that the games she’s seen, she’s seen the best side of us,” Barnes says.
Barnes says he and Jordan, in particular, bonded with Boucek when she oversaw their individual workouts in Dallas while the rest of the team spent more than a week in China during the preseason. Barnes was rehabbing a hamstring injury; Jordan didn’t travel due to a death in his family.
During Boucek’s sit-down interview with The News at the Mavericks’ practice facility, Jordan playfully interrupted.
“Are you talking about how great you are? You need some other quotes, come see me. She’s the best at her position. She gets people’s skills right. She does a great job scouting other teams.”
“Has she helped you with your free-throw shooting?” Jordan was asked.
“Ask her,” he said, turning and walking away.
Boucek, however, declines to share specifics about what she and players work on and discuss.
“It’s behind the scenes, something between me and that guy,” she says. “Those moments are special.”
When reporters are allowed in to watch the end of practices and Jordan is seen practicing free throws, without fail Boucek is the coach nearby — but if she is his whisperer, no one’s saying.
Jordan’s improvement seems to be a taboo subject among Mavericks players and coaches. Whatever’s working is, for now, working. Why potentially mess it up?
One of Carlisle’s ex-Boston teammates, Kevin McHale, speculated on NBA TV last month that the Mavericks head coach must have hypnotized Jordan into believing he’s another former Celtic, Larry Bird.
“There’s no possible way that dude could improve that much,” McHale said. “I’ve never seen that.”
Carlisle is mum about Jordan’s free-throw shooting, but he points out that Boucek’s nearly two decades of leading and assisting short-handed WNBA staffs prepared her for this opportunity.
“She’s brought diversity on multiple levels,” he says. “She brings a vast experience as a WNBA head coach. She’s on an accelerated learning path about the NBA. She brings a really great vibe on the floor. She’s got a nice presence. Players have responded very well to her.”
Boucek says there are times when she feels like she’s trying to keep her head above water. She says her daily objective is to stay in the present when at work “with my guys,” and at home with Rylie.
Sometimes, though, her worlds merge. She watches Mavericks road games at home and, while Rylie is sleeping, compiles key observations and sends them to Carlisle.
And during long stretches at the Mavericks’ practice facility, she occasionally has to pump breast milk in the office she shares with lead assistant Stephen Silas.
“Thank God he’s married and has two daughters,” she says with a laugh. “I cover up and, bless his heart, he’s fine with the ‘rrr, rrr, rrr.’
“He closes the door for me and he’s a great teammate. That’s how this has been possible. The players have been great, but so has our coaching staff. A lot of our coaches have daughters. They get it.”
Similarly, in Boucek’s townhome, there is Team Rylie.
It includes her mother, Barbara, who left her home in Nashville before the season and told Jenny she would stay as long as needed.
It also includes a 20-year-old nanny from Iceland, Elfa Falsdottir, a fascinating tie to Boucek’s basketball-playing days, a period that helps illuminate her journey to Dallas.
The “family of smart people” of which she spoke? It includes her maternal grandfather, Robert Galbraith Heath, Nobel Prize-nominated founder of Tulane University’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurology. It includes Barbara, a psychiatrist/social worker.
It includes Jenny’s fraternal grandfather, Mark Boucek, who was involved in the first baboon-to-baby heart transplant that paved the way for baby-to-baby transplants. Jenny’s father, Bob, too, is a noted children’s heart transplant surgeon and leading teacher at Vanderbilt, Washington and South Florida.
“I think the thing I learned a lot from them was to challenge the status quo,” Boucek says. “Not in a disrespectful way, but the way we’ve always done things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to do things.”
While playing guard at Virginia, Boucek created her own double-major, sports medicine and sports management, by going to multiple deans and getting them to sign off on the idea.
On her way to graduating No. 1 at Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, Boucek was bestowed a free fifth year, after her college playing career ended. During that year she had six mini-internships, including in sports medicine, sports information and sports psychology under Bob Rotella.
She planned to enter med school, but word came of the WNBA’s 1997 founding. Boucek spent a month getting back into shape, attended a Cleveland Rockers open tryout of 350 women and was one of two to earn a spot on the roster.
Despite suffering what proved to be a career-ending back fracture that season, she accepted an opportunity to play that winter for a team in Iceland, Keflavik.
After a 30-point defeat to a rival team, led by a WNBA import, business leaders in Keflavik pooled money to fly in Boucek a few days before a rematch against the rival team.
“The guy that picked me up from the airport was basically like, ‘If you don’t win this game, you go home,” Boucek recalls with a laugh.
Keflavik won by 30 and went on to win the league championship, led by Most Outstanding Player Boucek.
She says she fell in love with the town and her teammates, one of whom, Margaret, was pregnant at the time with Elfa.
Twenty years later, Boucek remains a hero in Keflavik, where folks have closely followed her WNBA and NBA coaching careers. And, now, her beginning of motherhood.
In her efforts to stay in the moment, Boucek says she doesn’t think of herself as a pioneer until a fan, or someone in the Mavericks organization like CEO Cynthia Marshall, proudly remind her of the larger context.
“It’s something that hopefully can be used for good for women going forward,” she says. “Women who have a passion for something other than motherhood, which I can’t imagine loving anything more than that now, but I do love my job.
“Not having to choose has been a huge blessing.”
With a small Christmas tree on their townhome’s kitchen table and music softly playing in the background, Barbara Boucek gazes at the scene on the play mat, the pair with the matching radiant blue eyes.
“She’s got a very strong personality, too,” Barbara says, referring to both daughter and granddaughter.
Rylie Hope Boucek.