It’s a powerful image.
On the night of the 2022 WNBA draft, the Las Vegas Aces shared a photo from inside their war room as their front office prepared to make their team selections. In the picture, two Black women, Aces team president Nikki Fargas and general manager Natalie Williams, stand against chairs as they assess their draft board peppered with potential prospects.
On that night, their voices were the most important in the room. The decisions about who would join their organization, ultimately, was theirs to make. The makeup of the Aces war room that night would be unlike any of the other 11 teams in the WNBA.
To have two Black female executives in a single front office is a disappointingly rare reality in professional sports – one that assuredly reflects more on hiring practices than the proficiency of the executives waiting for their opportunities to lead.
With a 2-0 lead over the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Finals, the Aces are one victory away from a championship. Should Las Vegas win on Thursday in Game 3 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), it would mark the first title in the franchise’s 25-year history.
Fargas and Williams, at the forefront of the organization, will play a sizable role in the construction of the organization’s future. Fargas was responsible for grounding the organization in a time of flux, while Williams is in charge of ensuring the franchise maintains a promising on-court future.
For a team whose starting core is built for long-term success, Fargas and Williams’ presence as the daily faces of the franchise and the levels of potential impact they can bring to the league is significant. They’re ready to step into the moment.
“When you have two Black women in executive roles, you always talk about, they will be what they see,” Fargas said. “When you think about this game being heavily populated by Black and brown faces, but then there’s not the representation of what the league looks like and there’s not that representation outside of you just being a player.
“We have to change that narrative.”
After the 2021 season, the Aces found themselves in the middle of an organizational transition. Bill Laimbeer, who had served as the team’s head coach since the franchise relocated from San Antonio to Las Vegas, and led the Aces to a Finals appearance in 2020, was stepping down. Dan Padover, who had served as the Aces general manager from 2019 to 2021, was hired away by the Atlanta Dream. The executive charged with filling those openings was Fargas, who had been hired as team president in May 2021 after spending 10 seasons as the head coach at LSU.
Fargas, alongside owner Mark Davis, delved into the organization’s past.
During the 2021 season, Davis had the idea for an alumni initiative in which any player who had played for either version of the franchise’s previous teams, the San Antonio Silver Stars or Utah Starzz, were invited to attend an Aces game. Those who attended did so on an all-expenses paid trip that included a private dinner with team ownership. It was from those exchanges with alumni that Fargas began to envision certain past franchise players in different roles.
“It started there,” Fargas said.
When Jennifer Azzi came to Las Vegas, Fargas made a mental note to see what the former Starzz player was up to. When Becky Hammon, a former All-Star guard for the Stars, had her jersey retired in mid-September 2021, Fargas thought “we might need to get Becky Hammon” as the team’s next head coach. When Williams attended a game with her family, Fargas made a point to keep up with her.
“I didn’t realize at the time that that was really kind of an interview process,” Williams said jokingly.
Then the dominoes began to fall. In mid-December 2021, Azzi was hired by the Aces as chief business development officer. On Dec. 31, Hammon was announced as the team’s new head coach.
“We’re just building something special here,” Fargas said. “The culture of our front office is a blend of those who have really put their blood, sweat and tears into this game.”
Until the hiring of Williams in April, the team was still without a general manager. As the position sat vacant between Padover’s exit and Williams’ eventual hiring, Fargas stepped in.
“I didn’t have a GM, so I took on that role,” Fargas said.
Fargas read up on the league’s collective bargaining agreement, tapped into her coaching pedigree in which she would negotiate contracts for her staff positions and oversaw the team budget at LSU, and conferred with assistant general manager Tonya Holley. Fargas also had many conversations with Laimbeer, who she said helped to give her the lay of the land.
Fargas ultimately filled out much of the Aces bench during this period. She signed Theresa Plaisance and re-signed Riquna Williams and Kiah Stokes, who has started every game in the playoffs. Most importantly, she re-signed franchise talent A’ja Wilson to a two-year max contract.
“A lot of what I had been exposed to, it was a natural transition,” Fargas said. “But now I’m so glad that we have Natalie.”
Williams joined the Aces after almost 17 years away from the WNBA. She played nine years as a pro after a collegiate career as a two-sport athlete who also led the UCLA volleyball team to two national championships. Williams spent her first three pro seasons in the American Basketball League and the next seven in the WNBA. Four of those seasons were with the Utah Starzz, with whom Williams averaged 15.4 points and 9.7 rebounds and was a three-time All-Star. She also won a gold medal with the 2000 U.S. Olympic basketball team.
When Williams retired in 2005, she struggled with not only the loss of being on the court but being a part of an organization.
“It’s kind of crushing,” said Williams, who said she always had a vision to be back in the league. “When you retire, it’s all gone. It’s just such a big part of your life that is emptied.”
She added: “Being back in it, it’s just incredible.”
Williams has had her hands full as a first-year general manager. Three days after the team’s announcement of her hiring, Williams was in the Las Vegas draft day war room preparing to make selections for the organization’s future. Following the draft, it was all about shifting focus to the Aces’ core group of Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Dearica Hamby and Chelsea Gray, who Williams had to re-sign.
Las Vegas announced they had reached a deal with Young, recently named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, on a contract extension in May. Just over a week later, the Aces announced they had also extended the contract of Gray, their star point guard. Hamby, a two-time All-Star, agreed to a contract extension in June. Plum, who finished third in MVP voting this season, re-signed with the team in July.
“We wanted them all coming back. They’re incredible young ladies and amazing athletes,” said Williams, who will soon shift her focus to the 2022 WNBA MVP. “This next year, I’ve got to get A’ja Wilson re-signed.”
As she has settled into her position, Williams has learned to expect some kind of challenge to present itself every day. At times, she says, she feels like the duck that’s floating in water that appears calm on the surface but is rapidly moving its legs below. Through those challenges have come lessons for Williams that have aided her in the role: know when to take a pause, remain calm and patient in every situation and figure out the best solution that benefits the organization.
“I’ve never been someone who gets nervous,” Williams said. “I just have always been a let’s-find-a-solution kind of person. That’s probably a lot of playing at the highest level that I’ve played at and handled situations like that as an athlete. That’s something I’ve been able to bring to the table from my past experience.”
At the start of the 2022 WNBA season, just three of the general managers in the WNBA were Black. With Los Angeles’ firing of head coach/general manager Derek Fisher in early June, by season’s end, there were just two. Williams is the only Black female general manager in the 12-team WNBA.
“I think it’s important to have roles like that for Black women. We’re working in a league that’s 80-85% all Black women,” Williams said. “I think it’s superimportant to show all of those that are playing in the league, all the young girls growing up, that the color of your skin shouldn’t matter — that you should be able to reach the highest level in sports management or whatever you’d like to do.”
As the general manager of the Aces, Williams’ presence in the Finals makes her the second-consecutive Black general manager to oversee a WNBA Finals team after Chicago Sky head coach and general manager James Wade won a championship in 2021. Such a presence is not common in Finals history.
Over the league’s 26 WNBA Finals series, there have been four instances where consecutive Finals featured at least one team with a Black general manager. Penny Toler made three consecutive appearances from 2001 to 2003, in which the Los Angeles Sparks won two titles. Fred Williams made a Finals appearance with the Atlanta Dream as a head coach and general manager in 2013 and Pokey Chatman followed suit in 2014 with the Chicago Sky as head coach and general manager. Toler again made consecutive appearances with Los Angeles when the Sparks made the Finals in 2016 and 2017.
In total, there have been 10 Finals appearances made by teams with Black general managers. The first appearance was by basketball legend Cheryl Miller, who led the Phoenix Mercury to the Finals as a head coach and general manager in 1998. Toler, the first Black general manager to win a WNBA championship, has the most appearances and wins of any Black general manager with five while winning three titles. Should Vegas secure a Finals victory, it will be the first time in WNBA history that two different Black general managers have won consecutive championships.
It’s common for Black head coaches at the collegiate or professional level to feel pressure in their roles. Often, there’s a sentiment that their success or failure could affect the opportunities for aspiring Black coaches. Williams says that also correlates with her role as a general manager to a degree.
“You always want to set a good example,” Williams said. “I think that for me, you’re never going to go through any job making the right decisions all the time. It’s just learning how to handle things with grace and learning from your mistakes. For me, it’s always just been do the best you can and good things will happen.”
Fargas, meanwhile, is the only Black executive to hold the title of team president in the WNBA. The only other Black women in a similar or higher role in the league are Keia Clarke, who is CEO of the New York Liberty and Natalie White, the senior vice president of the Sparks.
“You are aware of that,” said Fargas, who was the only Black head coach in any sport while at LSU. “We kind of have to succeed.”
As an executive in a position to hire in the front office, and as a Black executive well aware of the lack of diversity in team front offices around the league, Fargas is intent on pushing to change the status quo.
“I think there are so many qualified people out there that may not look like you or just come from a different background,” Fargas said. “You can find them, it’s just, are you looking for them. I’m always looking, but I also believe that we should have diversity within our organization and that’s what we’ve done.”
Fargas added that while she may be pushing for that diversity from her position with the Aces, that mentality must be adopted leaguewide – and that starts with ownership. Fargas credited Davis with not only hiring her as team president but also entrusting her with many of the personnel decisions for the organization.
“I think now it’s time for owners to then say let’s look and see what it should look like,” Fargas said. “I will be glad when we get to the point when it’s not a discussion, that it’s the norm. But we have to continue to have these conversations.”
In a recent news conference before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league has focused on building a pipeline to diversify the coaching and front office levels.
Engelbert applauded owners for “stepping up and making sure that their focus is on diversity.”
“One of the things we do at every Board of Governors meeting that we have with our WNBA ownership groups is talk about the diversity of our front office and our back office,” Engelbert said.
Fargas and Davis have grand visions for the future of the Aces and the foundation of that vision lies in a single word: investment. For Fargas, that’s investment in the Vegas community, her staff and the team on the floor.
“I can’t say enough about Mark’s commitment to showing that when you invest, look what happens. You get the sellouts,” said Fargas as the Aces broke their attendance record twice with back-to-back sellouts of Game 1 and Game 2 of the Finals. “The support is there, the community is there, the eyeballs are there.”
The Aces made headlines when it was announced that Hammon’s five-year contract as the franchise’s head coach would make her the first coach in WNBA history to earn $1 million annually. Next spring, Las Vegas plans to open its 75,000-square-foot training facility in Henderson, Nevada.
“Even though it’s 26 years of this league being in existence, we want to also show what the next 25 years are going to look like,” Fargas said. “I played for Pat Summitt. I understand that we also have got to set the bar really high. We’ve got to be the standard.”
The race to become the standard will only be accelerated should the Aces secure their first championship.
“We’re just really happy to potentially be the first professional team in the city of Las Vegas to bring a championship to our community,” Fargas said. “That’s exciting.”
As Williams has watched her Aces through the playoffs, she’s already trying to think two plays ahead for the upcoming season: which players the team needs, impending contract negotiations, how she can make the roster even stronger. It’s a constant mental static in her head that has her evaluating completed moves or charting out future ones.
But for these Finals, Williams is committed to live in the present. She wants to soak in the full experience of her team’s last series of the year as they stand on the brink of history.
“I have to keep telling myself to enjoy the moment,” Williams said. “I want to make sure I’m still enjoying the moment, because this is an incredible experience. Hopefully we can pull it out.”