LINDSAY GOTTLIEB PERCHES on the edge of the charcoal chenille couch, scooching so her Cleveland Cavaliers players can squeeze in their lanky frames. Brandon Knight lowers himself to her left, 7-footer Tristan Thompson nestles in on her right and veteran Kevin Love plops down next to him.
The team has gathered at the Michigan home of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert for a Saturday afternoon visit before jetting off to Boston for an exhibition game with the Boston Celtics.
As they cram into the elegant, well-appointed living room, a big-screen television placed directly in front of them, head coach John Beilein addresses the group with the promise of a film session.
It was a last-minute request by the owner, and Gottlieb was assigned the task. She reviewed her presentation with Beilein on the 45-minute bus ride to the tony suburb of Franklin. Now, in a wing of his mansion, which includes a replica of the court on which the Cavaliers won their one and only title, an attentive Gilbert, still recovering from a stroke, sits less than 10 feet away, waiting expectantly.
“Now we’re going to break down Boston’s offense,” Beilein announces. “It’s your show, Lindsay.”
Gottlieb, 42, springs off the couch and plugs her laptop into the television. Four months earlier, she had been the coach of the California women’s basketball team, a treasured icon with cushy job security, a stately home, a supportive husband and young son. She stunned many when she left those comforts to accept a pay cut and take this leap of faith to become an assistant coach in the world’s premier basketball league, where job security is an illusion.
“So,” Gottlieb begins, smiling as she surveys the room, “this is my first ever NBA ‘scout.’ Nothing like doing it in front of the entire front office and our owner — in his house. No pressure.”
The owner chortles, and Gottlieb exhales. As images of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward flicker onto the screen, Gottlieb breaks down the complexities of a Boston offense that is essentially position-less, a plethora of wings masquerading as forwards, point guards, even centers. She isolates their tendencies, diagrams matchups that would favor the Cavs and introduces ways to disrupt the Celtics’ flow. It is no different than anything she’d executed as the head coach at Cal for her female players; educating athletes on how to stay ahead of the curve.
“Giving them the answers before they take the test,” she’ll later explain.
When Gottlieb finishes and retreats to her tiny piece of real estate on that chenille sofa, Thompson delivers an enthusiastic fist bump.
“She killed it,” declares rookie Darius Garland. “She was on point with every single detail. It’s crazy. I’ve never had a female coach before. I’m so amazed by her.”
In some regards, the NBA is a foreign landscape that Gottlieb is learning to navigate without a compass, fraught with divergent rules, challenges, rhythms and intricacies that she’s never experienced.
But there’s absolutely nothing foreign to Lindsay Gottlieb about what she did in Dan Gilbert’s home on Oct. 12.
“Truthfully?” Gottlieb says. “Of all the things that are new for me, and slightly uncomfortable, running a film session isn’t one of them. I’ve run 9,000 of those in my career. That’s my comfort zone.
“It’s what I do.”
Lindsay Gottlieb comes from a different space. A former Ivy Leaguer who played very little during her college career, she was already steeped in analytically based strategies and was drawing up plays on the whiteboard by the time she was 20. In that regard, she has more in common with Erik Spoelstra and Brad Stevens than she does Hammon or Lawson.
Her lack of name recognition among the discerning NBA brethren could have been a hindrance — except Gottlieb obliterated those doubts with her basketball acumen.
Garland recalls his first practice with the team, when Gottlieb asked what he looked for in a good offensive possession.
“She started rattling off some ball-screen reads and I was like, ‘Wait, what?'” Garland says.
During scrimmages, Garland initially struggled to create open looks for his teammates. Gottlieb quietly called him over to point out something he now admits he hadn’t noticed: On a corner fill (when the ball handler drives baseline, drawing a help defender while a teammate drops into the opposite corner for a shot, making recovery for a defender difficult), the second look should be to the wing.
“She told me, ‘It’s always going to be there,'” Garland recalls. “So, the next time I ran it, I hit the wing and it was a wide-open shot. From that point I said, ‘OK, I understand.'”
Fellow rookie Kevin Porter Jr. says he and Gottlieb are “tied together like a knot.” He bonded with his coach during preseason workouts when he labored to score.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Porter says. “I want to make every shot, do everything right. I was getting frustrated. Lindsay was the one who calmed me down, kept me level-headed.”
More seasoned vets such as Thompson and Love were amazed by how easily Gottlieb identified, by name, actions the Cavs had been using for years, along with sets that other NBA teams run. What they didn’t know is that Gottlieb, a basketball junkie, had for years been watching NBA games and duplicating sets for her Cal players.
“None of this should be surprising,” notes Cavs general manager Koby Altman, who hired Gottlieb. “Lindsay has an analytical background. She speaks our language. She’s been at this a while.”
And yet there was a time when she turned to coaching only because there was no other choice.
SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD Lindsay Gottlieb’s headphones were soaked.
It wasn’t perspiration from an arduous workout, but from a torrent of tears. Gottlieb, whose friends marveled at her self-control, assumed she could handle anything.
Anything but this.
She was a high school senior, part of the Fab Five of a Scarsdale, New York, a quintet of basketball kids who were gunning for the state championship. Lindsay and her childhood friend Hilary Heieck (formerly Hilary Howard) had been prepping for this since they were 10, enacting dramatic game-winning shots in the backyard, putting a tick back on an imaginary clock when the shot didn’t fall.
This was their year. Heieck, who had already committed to Duke, and Gottlieb, who was headed to Brown, lined up for their final preseason game against hoops powerhouse Christ the King and supernova Chamique Holdsclaw. On the second play, Gottlieb drove and planted — then felt an eruption of pain in her knee.
“I knew right away it was probably something significant,” she says. But after dutifully icing it and taking the requisite anti-inflammatories, the pain subsided later that night, and the swelling quelled. “I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I dodged a bullet,'” Gottlieb recalls.
The next morning, the orthopedic specialist went to drain her knee and said offhandedly, “Oh, the fluid in here is blood. You probably have a torn ACL.”
Gottlieb was stunned.
“I’m bawling the entire time during the MRI, and the technicians are asking me, ‘What’s wrong? Does it hurt?'” Gottlieb recalls. “I told them, ‘You don’t get it. My ACL is torn.’ I don’t think they realized how much it would crush me.”
Her mom, Carol, always preached to her children that they could do anything. When Lindsay was young, she once watched the NBA draft and declared she would be a general manager someday. “You will,” her mother assured her. When Lindsay wanted to play football, Carol signed her up as the only girl on the field.
But even Carol couldn’t find the words to console her devastated daughter. Heieck called the doctor’s office from school on a pay phone and sank to her knees upon hearing the diagnosis. The Fab Five was down to a Fab Four. Scarsdale coach Paul Celentano gave Gottlieb a whistle and a shirt with “Coach” emblazoned on it. What choice did she have? Gottlieb pulled it on and shelved her dreams of basketball greatness.
“I’ve often wondered, ‘What if Lindsay hadn’t gotten hurt?'” says Heieck. “Who knows how it would be different? The injury accelerated her interest in coaching.”
A year later Gottlieb joined the Brown basketball team, but her injury had changed her trajectory. She played sparingly in her freshman year, lacking the same explosion she once had.
That same season, Gottlieb’s mother fell ill, with an initial diagnosis of a bad ear infection. Lindsay took a road trip with her team to Cornell, where her sister Suzie and former Scarsdale teammate Carolyn Janiak attended. Lindsay had lunch with them, shared some laughs and then went back to the team hotel where a message was waiting.
There was no ear infection; it was cancer, a brain tumor.
“The memory never leaves you,” Janiak says. “We were all in shock. I gave her a hug and told her, ‘It will be all right.’ But, unfortunately, it wasn’t.”
Carol Gottlieb died during Lindsay’s sophomore year of college. Her daughter stumbled through the season in a haze. She still wasn’t playing much, so she threw herself into her studies, looking for a way to distract from the sadness and the gaping hole in her life.
“It’s a weird space when you lose a parent,” Gottlieb says. “Even when something good happens, you don’t totally feel comfortable being happy. Grief has its trajectory. You can’t be sad all the time either.
“After my sophomore year, I told myself, ‘I have to do something different.’ I loved basketball more than anything, but I chose to go abroad.”
She settled on Sydney, traveling to Fiji, Japan and Thailand on her weekends off. A solitary trek in the mountains surrounding the River Kwai remains most memorable, where she came upon a remote hillside village. It was a small community who were citizens of neither Thailand nor Myanmar. “If they went either place, they were arrested,” Gottlieb says. “They were literally in no man’s land.”
She spent hours watching a man coach a group of girls preparing for a dance performance. He pushed them, encouraged them, challenged them. Their affection for him was clear. Gottlieb was drawn to this man, returning each day to track his interactions with the girls.
“I’m watching him, and I’m thinking, ‘This is what I want,'” Gottlieb says, “‘to have an impact on young people like this.'”
She was so moved, she collected all of her Brown basketball gear and presented it to him. He looked at her quizzically.
“He didn’t speak English,” Gottlieb says. “I’m sure he was thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?'”
DURING HER SENIOR season at Brown, Gottlieb asked to remain on the team to also function as a coaching intern, to learn to draw up practice lessons, break down film and scout the opposition. She became so immersed in that role, her teammates nicknamed her “Coachie”; some 20 years later, her close friend Dr. Julie Amato still lists Gottlieb in her contacts under that moniker.
While her friends sent applications to medical and law school — a path that once seemed reasonable, even likely, for Gottlieb — she mailed résumés to every Division 1 coach in the country. She ended up with an offer from Syracuse after receiving encouragement (but not offers) from Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who penned her a note, “We don’t have an opening, but the game needs you.”
Fifteen years later, Lindsay Gottlieb upended Stanford and VanDerveer on the Cardinal’s home floor as the upstart coach of the Cal Bears.
At each coaching stop in her college journey — Syracuse, New Hampshire, Richmond, UC Santa Barbara and Cal — Gottlieb collected tactics like souvenirs. But while she revered the women’s game, she also became a regular at Golden State Warriors practices.
“I should have hired her,” lamented Golden State general manager Bob Myers, after the Cavs did just that. Two years earlier, she had arranged a sit-down with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to solicit advice for a female hoping to join their ranks.
No wonder, then, that there was a clause in her Cal contract enabling her to opt out if the NBA ever came calling.
Cleveland wasn’t the only team interested. Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Gersson Rosas invited Gottlieb to the team’s free agent mini-camp last June. The camp was designed to evaluate players, but also to check out a handful of coaches as possible candidates for Ryan Saunders’ staff. Brian Randle, a player development coach for the Wolves, was immediately struck by how deftly Gottlieb drew up ATOs (after-timeout plays).
“As soon as she took that board and started to speak, it was unbelievable how she commanded their attention,” Randle says.
Gottlieb drew up seven or eight plays that he had never seen before. “Each of them was unique and special,” he says, “and it was all second nature.”
Gersson was equally impressed with how Gottlieb was confident without being overbearing. “There’s a certain aura connected to a coach,” Rosas explains, “and Lindsay has it.”
Rosas offered Gottlieb the head-coaching job of the Iowa Wolves, the Timberwolves’ G League affiliate.
“We felt Lindsay had a real chance to be a head coach,” Rosas says. “No knock on the Cavs, but we felt that with her breadth and knowledge, being an assistant instead of running her own team would let some of her talent go to waste. But she decided to go in a different direction, which of course I respect.”
Gottlieb’s inaugural season in the NBA will likely be daunting. The Cavaliers are young and rebuilding. Their future lies in their young players, and Gottlieb has spent countless hours with them, prepping them for what lies ahead. They are, she says, learning on the job together.
“With Lindsay, we’re not looking for these ‘high’ moments,” Altman says. “It’s her consistency that stands out. She’s prepared, organized, every day. It’s very evident in our meetings.”
Former Cal star Kristine Anigwe visited Gottlieb in Cleveland and recognized some plays the Stanford women use, which Gottlieb tweaked and offered as part of the Cavs’ arsenal. Anigwe says Gottlieb used to run two-man actions and iso plays at Cal that were straight out of the Milwaukee Bucks‘ playbook for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Basketball is basketball, Anigwe says, and what will set Gottlieb apart is how she treats the players.
“Lindsay comes from a place of honesty,” Anigwe says. “I never once doubted her intentions. She never hides anything.
“That’s very powerful to players. They don’t want to play for someone they don’t trust.”
But will that be enough for this gamble to pay off? The NBA is a ruthless, transient and impatient business, and Gilbert’s track record of extending his coaches and GMs is spotty.
Gottlieb is too busy to worry about any of that. She’s immersed in the Cavs, in the game she loves, in a role that Carol Gottlieb — and that breathless 10-year old forecasting her own triumphs — would have heartily endorsed.