Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Most people are great at one thing. But Swin Cash is amazing at many things. A former WNBA champion and All-Star MVP, Cash is still shining as the Pelicans VP of basketball operations and team development (and a soon-to-be 2022 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee). “I’m a hybrid between what’s happening on our business side and what’s happening on my basketball operations side,” says the former WNBA champion. She’s on board to build the brand, as well as support its athletes. This all culminates in success. Because if she had to choose one thing she is great at, it would be winning.
“When you talk about really trying to cultivate the culture, you have to have your hands in a lot of different things to make sure that everything is steered and flowing in the right direction,” says Cash, who believes in the details of her position by doing everything she can to make team members and players feel valued and appreciated. “I’m not just Swin Cash when we’re in a room and all these discussions are happening outside. I’m interested in their lives. I know about their kids. I know about their wives. I’m seeing them in a carpool line. I am making sure everybody feels great.”
Everything from onboarding of new franchise members to game-day operations and tickets for the players and their families is covered under her umbrella. She’s also engaged with the business side and has hands in pretty much everything that involves the players, from the marketing to the end game. Other days her schedule is filled with agent calls or player-centric activity. “On top of that, one of the things that I would say probably is not easy, but comes natural to me, is my ability to help with assessing our pro-scouting,” she says.
Cash’s voice at the franchise is invaluable. She is always prepared to be the one who brings up challenging topics in a room, and it’s clear she was added to the team because of her passion and outspokenness. As the tried-and-true saying goes, Every great leader has great people around them. The Pelicans’ general manager, Trajan Langdon, and the executive VP of basketball operations, David Griffin, see that greatness in Cash.
“I remember my boss saying that you’re here because I want to hear from you,” she says. “We always can agree to disagree, but I will feel wrong if I don’t say something that I feel is right, wrong or indifferent, that could help you make your decision. Because if I was sitting in that chair, I would want everybody around the table to give me everything so that I can make the best-informed decision. I’m never going to hold something in that I think could help us or to make us pause. I always feel like sometimes I’m the ‘pause girl,’ because women sometimes have a contrasting perspective.”
Cash says that by challenging and pushing back and forth, you get the best out of everybody in the group. “I think my coworkers really appreciate that,” she adds. The 15-year WNBA veteran worked on two CBA negotiations as part of the league’s executive committee, and she brings her teamwork skills from the court to the boardroom.
Now, learning and working alongside Griffin and Langdon allows Cash to have the flexibility to be in other areas and to have an “unapologetic voice.” “I think that’s important because what I bring into a room is different,” Cash says.
Making a difference in the lives of youth is a priority for this executive as well. She has a nonprofit organization, Cash for Kids, that she started in 2005, which is committed to providing the essential tools—on and off the court—for kids to get involved in the game. The organization is focused on motivating, educating and elevating kids through experiences in physical fitness, nutrition and education, like cultural trips and sports camps. Cash is also working on what she calls “a huge passion project” in her hometown of McKeesport, Penn., a suburb of Pittsburgh.
“My husband and I have donated over six figures to get this building for the nonprofit, and to create this safe space,” she says. “It means a lot to me, and for my city that has maybe 20,000 people, and in 2019 was ranked No. 4 in America for crime. Investing in our youth and giving them a space where they can get a meal, engage, have internet, learn, and do after-school work and programming is important.”
Cash understands the value of a space to engage and form a bond with sports. She first fell in love with basketball when she lived in the Harrison Village Projects. She grew up with all of her cousins, and they played in a youth basketball league that is now in a center named after her. “I was the only female that played in the league,” she recalls. “We played in a recreation center that was renamed the Marie Cash recreation center a few years ago, which is beyond my brain to even think about. I fell in love with it because at that point in time it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. Everybody just picked the best player. The gym was just packed. I just loved hooping out there with everyone.”
Supporting other organizations is a priority for Cash and her husband, Steve Canal, as well, especially for two causes close to their heart: cancer research and HBCUs. “I had kidney cancer and I got a tumor removed back in 2007,” says Cash, who has been fundraising for most of her career. “We also try to support HBCUs. It’s a big part of my husband’s job and some of the programs that he works with. So, we try to give back in that area.”
Apart from the mission of helping others is Cash’s ultimate goal: becoming president of an NBA team and president of basketball operations. “That’s where you have the autonomy to build and structure it in a way to have success,” Cash says.
“There’s never been a woman that’s been in that position. The expectation is to have knowledge about the operations of our business and to know the game. I know the game; now I’m learning more about the business. Everything’s coming together. Someday one of these 30 owners hopefully will take a shot on allowing me to be in that chair, and I can have the opportunity to lead.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.