On Feb. 3 in Sacramento before an otherwise unremarkable Mavericks-Kings game, Jenny Boucek, a Sacramento Kings assistant coach, strode across the court toward Rick Carlisle, the Dallas Mavericks head coach, for what Carlisle assumed would be a typical pregame chat. The two are friends; Boucek, an inaugural WNBA player and longtime assistant and head coach in that league, had spent parts of the 2011 and 2014 WNBA offseasons visiting the Mavericks -- including for a full month of the team's 2014 training camp.
"There's something I've got to tell you," Boucek said. It was something she had told very few people, and almost no one in the NBA.
"I'm pregnant," Boucek, now 44, divulged. She was due in the summer.
Carlisle was thrilled. He and Boucek had talked of how much she wanted to be a mother, even as she prioritized her dream of coaching in the NBA above everything else -- her personal life, the opportunity to meet a spouse or partner, her friendships.
Both understood Boucek would be breaking new ground in the NBA: a pregnant coach, and single mother of a newborn. None of that would be new in women's college basketball, the WNBA, or really any other industry. Maternity leave and other accommodations for mothers are expected, even if the U.S. lags behind the industrialized world in such measures. But within the NBA -- though it rates among the most progressive leagues on social issues -- Boucek's pregnancy represented a unique circumstance.
Boucek was nervous that starting a family on her own would cost her an NBA future. She would want to be home with her baby for at least the first six months, which would mean no traveling at the start of the 2018-19 season.
"What should I do?" she asked Carlisle.
"I knew there was a scenario where this would cost me my dream of coaching in the NBA," Boucek says. "I had to be OK with that. I had to be comfortable with that." She feared taking even a year off.
"Once you're out, it can be hard to get back in," Boucek says. "Especially as a female. I have to prove myself in the NBA, even if this is my 20th year of coaching. I expect to do that. I want to do that. I don't want to be given anything."
Carlisle encouraged her to tell people when she was ready. He was optimistic the Kings would work with her. "I'll be shocked if they aren't as ecstatic for you as I am," he told her.
Boucek's closest friends had been giving her the same pep talk. Some of them had walked alongside her on her path to motherhood since 2010, when Boucek, then 36, decided to have some of her eggs frozen.
She had never considered that an option before. She knew about egg freezing, but thought of it as something women did before undergoing medical procedures that could impact their fertility. A WNBA colleague suggested Boucek try it so that she would have younger eggs ready in the event she wanted to have a child someday.
Boucek did copious research and found Seattle Reproductive Medicine, ranked among the leaders in extracting, freezing and preserving eggs, right in her WNBA backyard as a coach for the Seattle Storm.
"It was supposed to be Plan B," Boucek says. "It was to be used with a partner at an appropriate time. It was to buy me some time to find that relationship. But the years kept going by. Career opportunities kept coming. It took a toll on my personal life. I never found a person to do this with."
Boucek froze the eggs and let them be for almost eight years. In the winter of 2017, she decided it was time to try in earnest to have a child.
Boucek's friends nudged her, assuring her she could bear a child, raise that child alone if need be, and remain a coach.
"She was really nervous about being a single parent, and what that could mean," says Sue Bird, who played several seasons under Boucek in Seattle and became one of her closest friends. "I was like, 'You're crazy. You have to do this.' Having a family is not something that holds you back. These things can coexist."
Boucek wanted to try with her current eggs first, so she underwent several extraction procedures in early 2017. Some fertilized at first, but did not remain viable for implantation, Boucek says. Doctors eventually managed to implant one around March 2017. It worked. Boucek was pregnant.
About seven weeks later, doctors discovered the baby's heart had stopped beating. Boucek confided about the miscarriage with Bird before a Storm practice. That night, Boucek went over to Bird's house for dinner, and broke down crying on the couch, the two recall. Bird tried to lift her spirits.
"I just told her how hard it is for some people to get pregnant," Bird says. "In the movies, they make it seem like you have sex and, boom, you're pregnant. And that is not the reality for so many people. I don't think Jenny fully understood that. I told her it was normal. That a lot of people go through this."
Boucek's doctors told her she should take some time to recuperate, and try again -- this time with her frozen eggs.
The younger, frozen eggs fertilized easily. Doctors implanted one in the summer of 2017. It did not lead to a successful pregnancy. Boucek was on the hot seat with the Storm, and wonders if the stress impacted the outcome. She had few frozen eggs left.
"I was devastated," she says. "I felt like it was my last hope."
The Storm fired Boucek on Aug. 10, in the middle of a disappointing sub-.500 season. Meanwhile, she and her doctors put plans in motion to try in vitro fertilization (IVF) again. Her medical team cautioned that this should be her last attempt.
She had gone through a lot, both physically and emotionally, and poured enough money into the process -- tens of thousands of dollars. (Recent studies have found a typical cycle of IVF can cost about $12,000.) Boucek realizes she is fortunate that basketball has provided her the financial wherewithal for a process that is inaccessible to many women. She had saved carefully.
"I knew it would be costly to try this repeatedly," she says, "but my thought process was: What am I saving my money for if not family?"
In October 2017, Boucek's doctor began prepping her for implantation. On Oct. 20, the Kings hired her as an assistant coach.
"It was overwhelming," Boucek says. "My two biggest dreams were happening at the same time."
She told Joerger she had to miss a road trip in mid-November to travel to Seattle for a medical procedure. She wasn't ready to reveal the nature of the procedure, she says. Joerger didn't pry. The players missed her, says Garrett Temple, who played last season in Sacramento. Temple and Boucek regularly talked strategy. He credits Boucek with helping rework his shot mechanics.
"She threw the ball harder than the rest of the coaches," Temple says. "It was like, 'Damn, Jenny, don't take my hand off!' She was awesome." (Zach Randolph has also talked about how much he enjoyed working with Boucek.)
She was gone for nine days. Her doctors extracted more of her current eggs, and tried fertilizing both those and her remaining younger ones. Several fertilized. Boucek asked doctors to implant three.
"If I have triplets, I have triplets," she recalls saying. "I'm a risk-taker."
Two implanted successfully. One embryo survived. Test after test showed happy results. This was happening.
"Now it became: Can I really do both?" Boucek says. "Can it be done? It hadn't been done in the NBA."
That's what she was really asking Carlisle on the court before that February game. It's what she had been asking her family and closest friends in private. They all emboldened her.
"She was going back and forth," says Becky Hammon, a Spurs assistant and another of Boucek's closest friends. "I just told her, 'Jenny, this is something you'll regret [not doing] for the rest of your life. You've given your whole life to basketball. Do this. Basketball will be there when you get back.'"
Boucek told Joerger in late January, about a week before the conversation with Carlisle; she had started bailing on some of their regular tennis sessions, and felt she had to explain why.
"Women get pregnant in every workforce. There are female CEOs who get pregnant. This should be no different."Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon
Joerger was elated. He has two daughters, 15 and 12, and often shows them photos where he is standing with Hammon and Boucek. It's his way of telling them, "You can do anything you want," Joerger says.
They agreed to keep it quiet. Boucek was barely showing. She wasn't struggling with morning sickness or other side effects to the point that they were disrupting her routine. "I didn't want any concessions," she says. "I didn't want the guys to be protective of me, or worried about hurting me." She started wearing slightly looser clothes before she had to, so that if she revamped her wardrobe later, it would not be jarring.
Some players claim now that they had begun to suspect. Buddy Hield interrupted a card game on the team plane to whisper that Boucek seemed to be going to the bathroom more often, Temple recalls. "Coach," Randolph razzed upon learning the news, "I thought you had just put on a few."
After the season, with Boucek most of the way through her pregnancy, the Kings were prepared to bring her back, Joerger and Boucek say. Dallas and a third team expressed interest. Boucek told all three that she was due in midsummer and would not travel during at least the first six months of the baby's life. All three remained interested.
"I didn't know what to expect," Boucek says. "It was humbling. It was a little surprising."
She interviewed with Carlisle and Mark Cuban, the Mavs' owner, in Dallas on the afternoon of the NBA draft. After the interview, Cuban and Carlisle devised a position for her: assistant to the basketball staff/special projects, a non-traveling coaching position; the Mavs announced her hiring on July 18. (The Mavs and Boucek are open to the possibility that she may begin traveling with the team at some point after those first six months, Carlisle and Boucek say.)
When the Mavs are on the road, Boucek will watch games, scout opponents, and provide feedback to the coaches and the team's analytics department, Carlisle says. When they are at home, she will do all that, plus attend shootarounds, practices, coaches meetings and games. She will not sit behind the bench at first, but that could change if she begins traveling, Carlisle says.
Boucek knew about the ongoing sexual harassment investigation centered around employees on the Mavericks' business side, as revealed in a report by Sports Illustrated. She says she felt "nothing but respect from everybody" while spending time around the Mavericks in 2011 and 2014.
She was sensitive that some might perceive her hiring as a public relations move. She was confident Carlisle, a no-nonsense coach and friend of many years, would never hire her -- or anyone -- for that reason. She had other NBA options.
"If I thought this was a PR move in any way," Boucek says, "I wouldn't do it."
Carlisle has been kicking around the idea of hiring her for years. "I've known for a long time she was qualified to be an NBA coach," he says. "Once you spend time with her, there is no doubt."
Carlisle welcomes the NBA's investigation, he says. He is excited about navigating new territory with Boucek.
"This is an important moment for our league," Carlisle says. "Qualified women are a reality. They are bright. They are ass-kickers. They belong in this league. They should not have to compromise the dream of motherhood for professional success."
Boucek is due soon. Her mother, Barbara, is moving from the Nashville area to live with Boucek in Dallas. Several friends have plans to visit as rotating live-in caregivers.
Boucek is plotting out the day-to-day challenges. She wants to breastfeed. When the Mavs are home, she will probably have to pump at the team's practice facility.
She will spend more money than planned for a place as close as possible to the arena, so that both she and her mother can get back and forth quickly. Her mother may have to pop in, baby in tow, to pick up milk.
Boucek will not be the last pregnant NBA coach, and probably not the last single mother.
"Women get pregnant in every workforce," Hammon says. "There are female CEOs who get pregnant. This should be no different. It speaks to how the NBA is starting to value women in leadership roles. What the Mavs are doing is symbolic of how they see Jenny's value -- that they understand that to get that value, to get the pay out, these first six months are part of the process."
Boucek wants to open discussions about more in-arena daycare for team employees. Perhaps teams could work daycare funding into a coach's contract. Parts of that discussion should apply to male coaches, she says. After all, many of them are parents, too. One idea: This season the Phoenix Mercury created what is believed to be the WNBA's first room dedicated to children of players and staff, which is overseen by a nurse from a local neonatal intensive care unit.
Last season trained a spotlight on the NBA's culture of overwork. Two coaches -- Steve Clifford and Tyronn Lue -- took time off to deal with symptoms related to anxiety, exhaustion and lack of sleep. The NBA Coaches Association -- Carlisle is the president -- has devoted more time and resources to promoting work-life balance.
"Men feel the tension between being a great father and living up to the expectations of coaching in the NBA," Boucek says. "It's this expectation that you work 24/7. And when you try to balance your life, you feel judged. A lot of coaches are trying to change that."
But there is something different about being a mother and primary caregiver, especially in the first year of a baby's life. Boucek's situation is a first for NBA teams. People inside and outside the industry will be watching how the Mavericks handle it.
Boucek is satisfied so far. She knows the challenge ahead will be enormous, and require lots of nimble improvisation from her and the team. She is ready.
"Without this kind of flexibility, most women will get to a crossroads in their careers, and we will lose a lot of talented women from the workforce," say says. "We don't want that."