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Wumi Agunbiade among several budding young coaches proving themselves in CEBL

Back in 2004, when her coach couldn’t make basketball practice because of a storm, 12-year-old Wumi Agunbiade knew just what to do. She coached.

“I wanted to take over the practice. I was super excited to put my teammates through a workout, almost simulating what my coach had done. That, right there, may have planted the seed.”

The former national team forward from Pickering, Ont., is now an assistant coach with the Guelph Nighthawks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League and one of several up-and-coming coaches in the fledgling professional league.

That day when her coach Connie Joseph (the mother of Sacramento Kings guard Cory Joseph) couldn’t make that Scarborough Lancers (now Blues) practice, Agunbiade knew coaching was in her DNA. Little did she know 16 years later she’d be nearly full circle, coaching in the same league on an opposing bench from David Joseph (Cory’s father), an assistant with the Edmonton Stingers.

“Basketball is a small community. So many connections,” she laughs.

One of those connections along Agunbiade’s path was Charles Kissi, head coach and general manager of the Nighthawks.

Guelph Nighthawks assistant coach Wumi Agunbiade seen during a CEBL Summer Series game. (Canadian Elite Basketball League)

Kissi coached her when she was a teenager and followed the trajectory of her career. He didn’t think twice about bringing her into the Nighthawks’ fold.

“For one, Wumi is an incredible human being. I thought it would be a great opportunity for her to expand her voice and continue to coach at a high level,” he said from St. Catharines, where his team is preparing for their elimination game against the Ottawa BlackJacks Thursday night.

“She has a very calm presence. She’s not always speaking, but when she does, it’s valuable. She’s really thoughtful in her approach to coaching. She’s good with the players. She’s got a good demeanour about her. She’s definitely a good balance for me.”

After a decorated career as a player — which included four years of NCAA ball at Duquesne (she’s the only player to score over 1,700 points and grab 900 rebounds) and pro stops in Germany, Italy and Romania — Agunbiade put in some time on the sidelines. First was a stop as a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and more recently came an opportunity — through Kissi — as a junior coach with the G League’s Raptors 905.

One thing that fuels her life in basketball is wanting people succeed.

“It’s the impact piece,” she said. “As an athlete, that was my M.O. Now, as a coach, that’s also my M.O. Life outside basketball, that’s my M.O. Wanting people to do well. To pour more into other people, to help elevate them and in turn, it does the same for me.”

A foot in the door

Connections and qualifications also led Danielle Boiago to her position as a first-year assistant coach with the Niagara River Lions.

Childhood friend Victor Raso, the team’s head coach and GM, was looking for an up-and-coming coach to add to his staff.

“For Victor, it didn’t matter if it was a female or male coach, he wanted to mentor someone. He knew I had two years of coaching experience in U Sports [Canadian university level], so he thought it could be great for me to learn the game and to coach from a completely different perspective,” she said.

Like Agunbiade, Boiago had a prolific playing career. The McMaster Marauders’ all-time leading scorer was the 2017 U Sports player of the year. After a year playing professionally abroad, the Hamilton native decided to return home, get her teaching degree and coach alongside legendary McMaster coach Theresa Burns.

Danielle Boiago seen during a game with the McMaster Marauders in 2015. (Haddadios/Instagram)

Her main responsibility with the River Lions has been doing film and other team’s scouting reports. She also works out the players, makes sure they’re warmed up for games and whatever else is needed.

“With the Summer Series, everything is so condensed so it’s kind of all hands on deck. It’s definitely been a great learning experience for me. I have nothing but positive things to say.”

No longer a novelty

Long gone is the novelty of having a woman in a significant position on the sidelines or front office of a pro sports team. In the NBA, for example, the conversation around San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammond is no longer ‘can she become a head coach one day’ but ‘when will she become a head coach.’ There are currently 11 female assistant coaches in the NBA, including Brittni Donaldson with the Toronto Raptors.

Here in Canada, Chantal Vallée, the prolific head coach of the University of Windsor Lancers women’s basketball team, broke barriers in 2018 when she was named the head coach and general manager of the CEBL’s Hamilton Honey Badgers — the first woman to hold both titles on a men’s pro basketball team. She’s since stepped back from those roles, but still serves as an assistant.

WATCH | Week 1 of the CEBL Summer Series 2020:

Catch up on some of the best moments from the first week of the CEBL Summer Series from St. Catharines, Ont. 0:53

Two-time Olympian Tamara Tatham was the first Canadian woman on a G League coaching staff when she joined the Raptors 905 as a mentor coach.

“Wumi is as capable as anyone on my staff,” Kissi said. “She’s played at a higher level than just about everyone on our staff, including me. It’s not like she doesn’t know the game. She hasn’t taught it as long, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not capable. How else is she going to teach it, if we don’t give her opportunities to teach it?

“To me, she’s valuable, not because she’s a woman, not because she’s a Black woman; she’s valuable because she’s got a different experience that other people on our staff don’t have. That only makes us better.”

Both Agunbiade and Boiago hope the conversation around a woman coaching a men’s team turns into just that — a normal conversation. One about achievements and game strategy, not gender.

“If a woman is coaching men’s basketball, it is what it is, keep on keeping on. At the end of the day, it’s basketball,” Agunbiade said. “The people who are deserving of the position should be the ones that are given those opportunities. It’s the same thing that reflects in race. If someone is deserving of the position, regardless of the colour of their skin, the way they talk, how big or small they are, they should be there.”

Adds Boiago: “In men’s sports, we may feel like we have to prepare more because someone is going to look at us and say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We have to over-achieve or over-prove ourselves. I think that we bring that extra level of preparation that maybe a male coach wouldn’t necessarily bring because they’ve already had that seat at the table.

Niagara River Lions assistant coach Danielle Boiago greets forward Sam Muldrow as he exits the floor during a CEBL Summer Series game. (Ryan McCullough/CEBL)

“We just bring a different mindset, a different set of experiences. As long as women have the chance to prove that we know what we know, then we’re capable of doing whatever we set our minds to. As long as we get that foot in the door.”

As for what’s next for these two promising coaches, both say the CEBL is a great step in their career paths.

“My ultimate goal is to be a head coach at the university level, but I’m definitely aware that I have so much more to learn,” Boiago said. “I don’t want to move into that role until I feel ready, so that’s why I’m constantly seeking out experiences like this one with the River Lions where I can just continue to learn and expand my basketball knowledge.”

Agunbiade not only has her hands in coaching, she also runs her own business which uses basketball to help young women find post-secondary scholarships and other opportunities.

“I see myself staying within the game. Finding ways to leave a positive footprint. Whatever that is and whatever options come that align with that is what I’ll do.”

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