For Swin Cash, gender never really mattered on the playing fields of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. "When I first started playing -- baseball, basketball -- everything was against the guys," Cash says. "Seventh, eighth grade, that's when the institutionalized stuff -- this is girls' basketball, this is boys' basketball -- that's when it kicked in."
Cash thrived within those "institutionalized" boundaries, winning two NCAA titles at UConn, two Olympic gold medals and three WNBA championships. She's one of the most decorated female players of her generation.
But now, she's ready to help break down other the traditional gender boundaries.
Cash will work this season as an analyst for Knicks telecasts on MSG Networks. She's believed to be the first woman to serve as a studio television analyst for an NBA club.
"I think it's great," Knicks coach Derek Fisher says. "It's probably long overdue because analyzing a game is not based in gender."
In the not-so-distant past, networks exclusively hired men to analyze men's games. Period. The thought of a woman breaking down the intricacies of a men's game was completely foreign. Women were hired to cover games from the sideline, not the television studio.
But things have changed over time.
ESPN has led that charge with Doris Burke as a game analyst, commentator, studio host and sideline reporter for NBA and WNBA basketball and men's college basketball. Sage Steele is an ESPN studio host for the weekend edition of NBA Countdown. Jessica Mendoza made history two months ago on ESPN when she became the first woman to call a nationally televised MLB playoff game. Lisa Leslie is now appearing on TNT's NBA broadcasts. The gender-associated restrictions in sports media are eroding.
Suzyn Waldman, the New York Yankees' color commentator and a barrier breaker in the industry, wishes the issue of gender in media would go away altogether.
"Why are we still having this discussion?" says Waldman, who is the first woman to provide play-by-play for a major league team. "It if were a guy, no one would discuss this. I'm stunned that this is still being discussed. As long as we are, Swin is perfect, and I hope that she does this for the next 20 years. All you need is credibility. She's a champion. So there's your credibility."
Old-school still persists
Late last month, Cash was standing on the sideline at Madison Square Garden. It was a few hours before tipoff, and days after she'd been announced as a studio analyst for the Knicks. Over the course of a 10-minute conversation, three members of the Charlotte Hornets stopped by to say hello. The 13-year veteran has many friends in the men's game and says "they think nothing of it when a woman's in basketball -- they know it's just basketball."
"Swin is perfect, and I hope that she does this for the next 20 years. All you need is credibility. She's a champion. So there's your credibility." Suzyn Waldman, Yankees broadcaster
In this setting, among her male counterparts, Cash oozes credibility and professionalism. However, sometimes even unimpeachable knowledge isn't enough to keep others from passing judgment based on gender.
Cash has analyzed men's college basketball as a guest analyst for CBS Sports Network, ESPN and NBA TV, among others. Cash, who is African-American, says she has run into instances of being treated differently because of race or gender.
"I've gotten nothing but positive feedback with MSG Network," Cash says. "But I've seen the good and the bad with a lot of different people.
"You're going to run into people -- whether they're male or female -- they can be jealous. It can be because I'm a woman. It can be because I'm African-American, you don't know. I just try to do the best that I can do and make sure that I do my research and that I speak about the things that I know."
Stephanie Ready, the first female full-time local television game analyst and color commentator, knows this all too well. Ready, who is an analyst on Charlotte Hornets broadcasts, says she has received overwhelming support from members of the Hornets organization, their fans and people around the NBA. But there are unfortunate occasions such as when an angry, anonymous social media user made what Ready calls "very crass" comments.
"I cannot believe that in 2015 someone just told me to go back to the kitchen," Ready says. "To me, it's unbelievable that would even occur, let alone that you would press 'send.' It's ignorant, and it's beyond political incorrectness. I've got two kids, and there's no way that I would ever want my daughter to think that she's limited in any way, in any part of her life, just because she's a girl."
It's the same game
Ready's daughters might not have to encounter such limitations. The gender barrier is being broken all across basketball. Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs last season as a full-time assistant coach. She was the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position on an NBA staff. Nancy Lieberman now has a similar position with the Sacramento Kings.
"[Basketball] is the one game in the world where it doesn't matter what your gender is," Ready says. "The rules are the same. You play the same way."
That's one reason Cash brushes off any question about the challenge of analyzing the men's game.
"If I go sit down right now and talk to Coach [Derek] Fisher about the triangle, nothing is going to change about what we're talking about if it was the Liberty or the Knicks," she says.
"If I go sit down right now and talk to Coach [Derek] Fisher about the triangle, nothing is going to change about what we're talking about if it was the Liberty or the Knicks." Swin Cash
Cash played last season for the Liberty. She says the organization -- including team president Isiah Thomas and senior vice president Kristin Bernert -- was extremely supportive of her seeking the job with MSG.
"In our exit meetings, they asked me, 'What do you want to do? What are you looking to do?" Cash said. "They've been supportive since day one."
Cash says that Thomas is one of many people from whom she sought advice for her new role. When Thomas' hire as Liberty president was met with negative reaction because of his role in a sexual harassment case, Cash was one of the public voices for the Liberty. She appreciated Thomas' "open" conversation with players at the time, and the team thrived with Thomas as president last season.
"The organization was supportive at the top -- not just for me but for all of us," Cash said.
Clearing the way for others
Cash will begin her career as a studio analyst later this season. She already has started working with Fisher on the coach's "Nothing but Knicks" show.
Fisher has two daughters at home. They are 9 and 13. The coach hopes Cash's presence can further erode or even eliminate gender-associated boundaries before they ever enter the workforce.
"I would like to think that there would be more opportunity for young girls and women to do more things in sports or business or wherever they want to do it," Fisher says. "I hope that their abilities and talents and skills are the decision-makers on whether they get opportunities, as opposed to their genders or race."
As long as women such as Cash, Mendoza, Burke and Waldman continue to break barriers, there's hope for the Fisher girls -- and for young women everywhere.