Phoenix Suns Morgan Cato is the first black woman to serve as an NBA assistant general manager

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx shine a light on the diverse journeys of black women in sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, She-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

It’s been a week since the official start of the NBA offseason, and the race to land Kevin Durant is in full swing. Every day brings new rumors that one team or another is offering a royal ransom in exchange for the Brooklyn Nets superstar. What could a potential Phoenix Suns trade package look like? “No comment,” Morgan Cato said with a chuckle. “My official Suns cap is not in place yet.”

Later this month, Cato will join the Suns’ front office as the team’s vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager and become the first woman of color to hold those titles in the NBA. But his historic hire also solves a crisis management problem for Phoenix. Over the past eight months, the NBA has been investigating allegations that team owner Robert Sarver made racist remarks, was verbally abusive towards Suns employees and even sexually harassed some underlings. . Sarver denied the allegations in a statement prior to the publication of a November ESPN article in which a slew of current and former Suns employees told stories about Sarver setting the tone for a hostile workplace. Still, it doesn’t seem like the decision to hire Cato was Sarver’s calling.

Speaking at the Summer League in Las Vegas, Cato said her talks were with general manager James Jones and coach Monte Williams – executives she frequently dealt with while the NBA operated under siege. COVID in Orlando. “I fundamentally believe in their basketball program,” she says of Jones and Williams, “and that’s what brought me to Phoenix overall.”

Cato comes to the Valley after nine years in the NBA’s office of operations, where she was a key figure in the league’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. During last year’s All-Star Game in Cleveland, she spoke at a panel on racial equity in sports. Really, she hasn’t had much offseason. Between playoffs, she jumped from Senegal, Egypt and Rwanda to support the Basketball Africa League, a fledgling joint venture between the NBA and FIBA. “It’s been an exciting journey for me, when I think about the globalization of sports and the NBA,” she says. “More than anything, it impacts the court, but it also impacts revenue. This has an impact on profits.

After the Finals, she was on the combine and the draft and even the WNBA All-Star Game. “It’s hoops 365,” says Cato, who has also worked in recruiting and public relations.

It was much the same story for her growing up in Brooklyn, where she fell in love with basketball in the 90s – the Hoop Dreams era, as she calls it. “You know, just kind of looking at the grain of the game and it’s really a point not only to know how people compete but also to understand what comes next and how it saves lives and how it takes care of families,” Cato says.

His family hosted a basketball tournament in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. His cousin, Jameel Watkins, was a local legend who tangled with Stephon Marbury in high school and played for John Thompson’s Georgetown. “I remember looking up and seeing this Goliath of a person saying to my family, ‘We’re going to take care of Jameel. He’s gonna get a world-class education, he’s gonna be a stand up man and he is going to play basketball. It was in that order. He did not lead with hoops. That’s when I realized it was more than a game.”

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In the league office, she was a right-hand man to President of Operations Byron Spruell and led a host of initiatives intended to grow the game. This included improving development pipelines for coaches and officials. She was also instrumental in launching the Basketball Africa League, while advocating for more women and people in the NBA.

Over the years, she has discovered that her biggest impacts often start with the smallest ones. “Even before Africa, we had our NBA women’s academies which allowed me to work with women from all over Latin America,” she says. “I remember around 2019 I had a wife from Puerto Rico who spoke little English. Her complexion was the same as mine. We were sitting in this room and she asked me, “How does it feel to be a black woman in business? It stung me because I realized in 2019 that there are parts of the world where being a woman of color is still pretty foreign as a leader. And this woman is an American citizen. It hit me hard.

“So when I really think about the impact of the sport – yes, I serve this beautiful product on the pitch, but my part behind the scenes or tangential to the pitch is really how we use this platform to create more awareness and access to anyone who wants to contribute.

Captain of her high school team, Cato considered joining Stony Brook’s women’s team, but her father insisted that she give her full attention to her studies. But even though she was pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies, her inner motivation did not let her sit on the sidelines. “I was RA, I was in student government, I was in the Caribbean Student Organization, and if I wasn’t there, I was in sports,” says Cato, also a graduate of the Harvard Business School. “A lot of that has shaped how I’ve learned to do things now.”

Expect her to hit the ground running in Phoenix. After making the NBA Finals in 2021, the Suns were knocked out of the 2022 conference semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks. Even though the team had no picks in the 2022 draft, Phoenix re-signed former first pick Deandre Ayton and retains one of the best backyards in the league with All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

In addition to pushing for a championship, the Suns pleaded for the return of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February. Although Cato, as a member of the league, was unaware of the behind-the-scenes communication the NBA engaged in on Griner’s behalf, she appreciates the complexity of the situation and the precariousness of the moment. . “Brittney is closely connected to the social justice movements of the past two years,” she says. “There is war in Europe, maybe a recession here. We deal with fertility issues when it comes to women. When you look at the last five to seven years, it’s just weird. I never thought in my lifetime that I would be in the space I am in now.

But she’s here now. By the time she finally dons that official Suns cap, she might find herself swapping it for a few different hats.

Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sport for Black women and girls.

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