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UNI grad Brittni Donaldson embraces coaching during Toronto's NBA title defense
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UNI grad Brittni Donaldson embraces coaching during Toronto's NBA title defense

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Brittni Donaldson is a pioneer with an independent spirit. She’s trying to make the best of time alone inside a Toronto apartment on COVID-19 lockdown.

Yoga serves as her only outlet for exercise as even the parks are closed, halting a routine of shooting hoops that she’s known since childhood.

At least once Donaldson turns on the TV she doesn’t have to search long for something good to watch. A local sports channel is showing replays of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship playoff run that she views through a unique lens.

The 2015 University of Northern Iowa graduate has moved from a Raptors front office data analyst role down to the court. She’s now a member of the coaching staff, assisting fellow Iowa native, UNI alum and Toronto head coach Nick Nurse.

“It’s been fun for me to kind of rewatch these playoff games through a different lens and pick up on the nuance and details behind each play and maybe why we did things a certain way,” Donaldson said, during a phone interview from Toronto. “You just have a different perspective as a coach.”

Donaldson’s vantage point has changed frequently during a rapid four-and-a-half-year rise from college onto an NBA bench.

“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but in a good way,” she said. “It happened really fast but I just tried to take something from each phase I was in to the next phase and surround myself with people that were going to support that next step. I’m trying to enjoy the ride, but every day I have to kind of pinch myself.”

Donaldson, who turned 27 earlier this month, is the NBA’s youngest assistant coach. She landed the job last summer following a series of meetings with Raptors team president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and Nurse.

Eric Khoury previously made the jump from front office analytics to coaching before a spot opened up for Donaldson when he decided to take a larger assistant role with the Raptors 905 G League affiliate.

“Timing is a lot of it in this business,” Nurse told The Courier. “There was a spot and she shifted in there pretty seamlessly.

“It never even entered my mind how old she was, to be honest with you. I just thought she could do the job and was hungry and wanted to learn. We had a good relationship so I was ready to go.”

Becoming a complete coach

While Donaldson’s analytics background is unique to the coaching staff, Nurse isn’t the type of leader who pigeonholes his assistants into one responsibility. Donaldson helps with practice planning and has taken on a much larger role in player development.

Working with what she considers a professional, open-minded group of players, Donaldson has always felt comfortable being herself on the court.

“There’s kind of this unspoken understanding that I have been through a similar sort of situation that they’re going through on a day-to-day basis,” Donaldson said. “I’ve done all these drills, I’ve ran all these lines. I’ve lifted all these weights just like they’re doing now. I’ve been injured like a lot of them deal with injuries. It’s this understanding we have that I think enhances the connection I have with the players.

“Growing up and playing basketball pretty much my whole life, more often than not I’d play against and practice with guys more than I would girls. I probably feel more comfortable around guys in a basketball setting because that’s just what I’m used to.”

Similar to what Nurse experienced when he first began working in the NBA, Donaldson spent this current suspended season adjusting to the faster pace and rhythm of an 82-game schedule that sometimes includes back-to-backs in different cities.

“Right now we’re pushing her into the next phase of it which is to really become a next game opponent scout,” Nurse said. “Dive in deep and not only from a numbers standpoint and what they’ve done historically, but just kind of where they are currently — live action stuff away from the analytics — play calls and tendencies that we see from the film and that we see when the advanced scouts go out and scout. She’s collating that information for us.”

Nurse takes pride in challenging his assistants to become complete coaches. He’ll occasionally hand out pop quizzes. When the Raptors scrimmage, Donaldson could find herself holding a clipboard and drawing up the first play.

“We try to keep them on their toes and I certainly have given Brittni a few of those opportunities,” Nurse said. “It’s good for her and she’s done well with them.”

Charting a new path

Donaldson is one of 11 females currently working on an NBA coaching staff. Nurse doesn’t think it will be long before a woman occupies one of the league’s 30 head coaching jobs.

“It should happen anytime soon,” he said.

Becky Hammon is the most likely candidate to break another glass ceiling. She became the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach in 2014 when San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich brought her onto his staff. Hammon has since been promoted to a larger coaching role and front row bench location.

Entering her senior year of college when Hammon was hired, Donaldson hadn’t really considered coaching. A statistics professor helped her realize math could become an opportunity to enter the professional sports arena through the analytics side door.

The statistics and actuarial science major shared an interest for the numbers side of basketball with UNI associate head coach Brad Nelson. They’d go back and forth talking about statistics.

“Once this whole sports analytics revolution started happening, it really opened my eyes to the possibilities out there,” Donaldson said. “That was for me at that point the only entry point I could see into a professional league.

“There weren’t any female coaches or female GMs (general managers) that I could see. I never saw someone like me in a position like this before. … I don’t think I wasn’t interested in it, I just think I didn’t see it as a legitimate possibility because there was no exposure there.”

One of five female assistants hired last summer, Donaldson is a member of a trailblazing group in a league beginning to make progress towards gender equality.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done in that area and I know we have a long ways to go, but I also know that the groundwork has been laid by people before me,” Donaldson said. “Those people are extremely important to me and people that I respect so much.

“I definitely do carry a responsibility continuing the work that those people started and trying to bring more people on board with the idea that anybody can be a basketball coach — it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you’ve been. You can do it if you’re passionate about it. That applies to every job, every arena, every sport. … It’s something I take a lot of pride in and it’s something that motivates me every single day.”

Shooting her shot

A fundamentally sound jumper was enough for Donaldson to convince Nurse that she could handle player develop work.

“She can really shoot the ball,” Nurse said. “I always say if you’re a really good shooter like that you’ve probably been taught by someone or you’ve learned it and you’ve certainly put in the hours it takes to become that kind of shooter. That’s a key component of player development.”

The daughter of Jeff Donaldson — who earned a place in NAIA Briar Cliff University’s Hall of Fame after a 1,000-plus point basketball career — Brittni has been shooting ever since she was old enough to hold a ball.

Donaldson followed in her father’s footsteps as an all-stater at Sioux City North, prior to a bringing a blend of toughest and basketball knowledge to UNI.

Much of Donaldson’s college career was spent playing hurt. She endured four knee operations — including a microfracture procedure that delayed the start of her junior season. Reconstructive surgery followed prior to her senior year and doctors advised her to step away from the game.

“I don’t think anybody really understands unless you were there what that young lady endured,” UNI coach Tanya Warren said. “She was told by doctors to be done, but she wanted to finish out and she did. I don’t know how she did, but she did.”

One of Donaldson’s most memorable games occurred during a 99-97 overtime road win at Drake when the junior knocked down a school record eight 3-pointers.

“She was a tremendous competitor,” Warren said. “There wasn’t a time that she didn’t give everything she had, and junior and senior year that was very limited in practice. She still had the mindset to be able to watch the game without practicing, and come in and find ways to contribute. That speaks volumes of her basketball IQ.”

As injures piled up and Donaldson’s dreams of playing professional basketball faded, she began to reevaluate her interests and passion.

“As traumatic as it was for me to have to separate myself from Brittni the basketball player, it was equally important for me to do that in that time,” Donaldson recalls. “Once my basketball career was over I could stand on my own two feet and know who I was, what I stood for and what I valued.

“It was a turning point in my personal development of who am I, what do I want? What has basketball given me and how can I take that into the next phase of my life?”

After graduation, Donaldson quickly began taking shots off the court. She even auditioned for the music competition, “The Voice.” (A producer gave her a callback, but ultimately she didn’t make an appearance on the show. For someone who played guitar and sang as a release in her dorm room, the experience of performing in front of judges had its own value.)

“Both my parents are extremely hard workers, so I grew up in a household where I saw rewards that hard work could give you,” said Donaldson, whose mom Carmen is also musically inclined. “If you’re really passionate about something and you chase it, there’s success and there’s failures. But I think you’re your own judge of that, right? Nobody else really has a right to say if you succeed or you fail. It’s really an internal decision you make.”

Frequent rejection preceded Donaldson’s professional rise. She worked for Cedar Falls’ CBE Companies as an internal data analyst in her first job out of college, but was determined to get back into sports.

Donaldson applied for over 50 jobs with college or professional organizations from basketball to baseball to football. She tracked them on a spreadsheet and documented whether or not she had received a response.

“I didn’t hear back from pretty much any of them,” Donaldson said. “If I did hear back, I didn’t hear back after that.”

Eventually Donaldson’s persistence paid off. She got her foot in the door with STATS LLC in Chicago and began working a minimum wage overnight position in quality assurance. Someone in the company eventually recognized her background and helped mentor her as a data analyst. Donaldson provided NBA teams with detailed reports.

Pleased with her work, the Raptors organization ended up bringing her in for an interview and the rest is history. Donaldson’s rise hasn’t included another major job search.

“It was just people taking note of the work I’d done and the way I carried myself and giving me opportunities to continue and pursue things I wanted to pursue,” Donaldson said. “For that I’m extremely thankful.”

Upward trajectory

While she’s traveling a different path, the well-traveled coach Nurse points out Donaldson is capable of ending up in the same place.

“She’s coming from the complete other end of the spectrum that I came from,” Nurse said. “I was head coaching at 23 and in the small colleges and small leagues and summer leagues.

“I was trying to learn how to become a head coach from a young age and at some point I was always under the gun to produce. I think that heightens your level of competitiveness. That heightens your sense of urgency.

“You’ve got be careful sometimes when you’re an assistant. You can be too long in an assistant role and not have that sense of urgency of having to make decisions like calling timeouts, making substitutions, bringing guys in the office, pulling the team together, pulling them out of a slump, whatever it is.

“At some point she could be a head coach in this league. She’s got a lot to learn and a long ways to go. At some point she’s going to have to take over some types of teams like in our minor league system or someone’s minor league system to get that experience.”

Donaldson admits she’s not thinking about where she’ll be 10 to 20 years down the road. There’s enough work to be done in the present.

“I’m not much of a long-term goal setter,” she said. “I’m more of a, ‘Be where your feet are and do the best job you can do in the current job that you’re in.’ Whatever doors that opens up for you, you’ll be able to carry something from that current position you’re in to the next place.

“That’s just how I’ve always lived. I was never the girl at a young age who knew what she wanted to do when she grew up. I just try to do the best job I can while I’m here and try to make the connections and surround myself with the support system. Just learn as much as I can where I’m at and then take that with me to the next step wherever that may lead.”

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