From corporate lawyer to MIT to the NBA

·13 min read
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The most improbable job offer of the NBA offseason even surprised its recipient.

Sonia Raman never thought an NBA franchise would hire a woman who wasn’t a former college or WNBA star and who only had off-the-radar coaching experience.

For the past 12 years, Raman has toiled in lower-division obscurity as the women’s basketball coach at MIT, an institution better known for producing aerospace engineers than athletes. MIT women’s basketball had never even reached the Division III NCAA tournament until Raman produced back-to-back appearances in 2018 and 2019.

The Memphis Grizzlies first stumbled across Raman more than a year ago while searching for potential interns with backgrounds in math and basketball. Vice president of basketball strategy Rich Cho shrewdly recognized Raman might be a good resource given her connection to a pool of college students as comfortable solving equations as running a pick and roll.

While Raman stayed in touch with Cho, she had no inkling a job offer was forthcoming. She suspected nothing even after Cho began an August phone conversation by telling her about a vacant assistant coaching position.

“I thought he might be calling to pick my brain for potential candidates in women’s basketball,” Raman told Yahoo Sports. “I was shocked when he finished by asking if I would be interested in interviewing.”

The NBA has evolved to the point that it’s no longer surprising to find a woman in a position of influence, but the unconventional paths that have long been open to male coaches have not yet become available to women. Many of the league’s female coaches rose to prominence in the WNBA or at name-brand college programs, from six-time WNBA all-star Becky Hammon, to Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member Teresa Weatherspoon, to former California head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

Raman’s background is nothing like that. Before MIT, she moonlighted in coaching while attending law school and working in corporate law. The peak of her playing career was providing a jolt of energy off the bench for Tufts University.

So why would one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams trust the development of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson to such an unheralded coach from a place like MIT? The Grizzlies believe it’s a gamble worth taking.

How Sonia Raman found basketball

Sonia Raman can remember the exact moment she began to fall in love with basketball. It was the day her parents made the mistake of taking her to a tennis court with an outdoor basketball court adjacent to it.

As her mother tried to teach her to hit forehands and backhands, Raman’s eyes kept wandering to the kids playing basketball on the other side of the chain-link fence. Eventually, Raman asked permission to put down her tennis racquet and join the basketball game.

“From that point on, every time we took a family trip to the tennis court, I would shoot hoops while they would play tennis,” Raman said.

A wisp of a girl who was often the smallest player on her teams, Raman compensated for her slight stature by squeezing all she could out of limited physical ability. She made her high school’s varsity team in Framingham, Massachusetts, and became a four-year player and co-captain at Division III Tufts University.

During games, Raman was often the first to dive for loose balls. After practices, she was often the last to leave the gym. When she wasn’t on the court, she studied all levels of basketball to better understand the sport and find new wrinkles to incorporate in her game.

“I’ve never been around somebody that loved the game as much as she did,” former Tufts coach Janice Savitz said. “She wasn’t a star player by any means, but when she did get playing time, she did everything she could do to stay out there as long as possible. There’s no question she was viewed as a leader by her peers.”

While Raman flashed some qualities of a future coach during her playing days and then worked camps across New England after college, that wasn’t the career path she initially chose to take.

She graduated from Boston College Law School in 2001 and landed well-paying legal jobs with Fidelity Investments and the U.S. Department of Labor thereafter.

Raman had just started her job at Fidelity in 2001 when Kathy Hagerstrom reached out to her. The Wellesley College women’s basketball coach offered Raman an unpaid side job as a volunteer assistant coach on her staff.

The way Raman tells it, she rearranged her schedule at Fidelity to coach alongside Hagerstrom. In reality, that’s underselling Raman’s sacrifice. Because Wellesley practiced on weekdays at 4 p.m., Raman chose to drain her personal days and vacation time in order to leave work a little early and make it to the campus gymnasium on time.

“Sonia, just get there when you can,” Hagerstrom would plead with her.

“No, no, I’m going to get there for the beginning of practice,” Raman would respond.

Raman’s commitment to Wellesley didn’t end there. Sometimes she’d stay after practice to work with a player on her shooting mechanics or to help Hagerstrom put together a game plan. Other times, she’d volunteer to scout an upcoming opponent whom Hagerstrom had watched attack a zone defense but not yet man-to-man.

“She started thinking like a head coach,” Hagerstrom said. “Those were the types of things that told me it was bigger than her just wanting to stay involved in basketball somehow. This was her seeing herself in this type of role.”

For years, Hagerstrom urged Raman to leave her day job and pursue coaching full-time. After a while, Raman decided she owed it to herself to give it a try.

“I started to realize that all day long I was itching for it to be time to go to practice,” Raman said. “Don’t get me wrong, I really liked my job at Fidelity. It was more that I found my passion, that I found something I liked even more.”

Sonia Raman had never been a head coach when she arrived at MIT. After 12 seasons, she's on to the NBA. (Courtesy of MIT)
Sonia Raman had never been a head coach when she arrived at MIT. After 12 seasons, she's on to the NBA. (Courtesy of MIT)

Taking the plunge at MIT

Julie Sorerio had only one question 12 years ago when Raman’s resume first landed on her desk.

“I was very curious why someone would leave a job as a corporate lawyer to coach Division III basketball,” the former MIT athletic director said.

Intrigued by her background yet unsure of her dedication to basketball, Sorerio invited Raman to MIT for an interview. That was the opening Raman needed to assuage Sorerio’s concerns and secure the first head-coaching job she ever sought.

“It was clear from the interview process that Sonia loves the game of basketball,” Sorerio said. “Teaching the game of basketball and helping young players develop is really what motivates her day in, day out.”

Once she revealed her bold career change to her parents without them disowning her, Raman turned her attention to an even greater challenge. She had to figure out how to revitalize an MIT women’s basketball program that had endured four coaching changes in the previous six years and seldom had been competitive in its own league during that stretch.

To say that Raman’s presence did not produce an instant turnaround is a vast understatement. MIT finished 4-19 in her debut season and failed to win a single league game. The next couple seasons were only slightly better.

In those days, MIT’s teams were so talent-starved that Raman resorted to scouting campus PE classes to fill out her roster. Before especially one-sided matchups, Raman would urge her team to focus on morale-boosting mini-goals like holding its opponent below its scoring average.

MIT didn’t crack the top four of its conference until Raman’s eighth season as head coach, but signs of an imminent breakthrough were evident before that.

Aware that MIT’s stringent academic standards drastically reduced her pool of potential players, Raman cast a wide net in recruiting and sought to identify prospects with the ability to help her team and the grades to gain admission. She’d take whatever talent she could find. Then she’d adapt her style of play to her roster.

For a couple years, MIT ran its offense through the low post because its frontcourt players were particularly skilled. More recently, Raman favored a dribble-drive attack and fierce ball pressure to capitalize on her team’s array of capable guards.

“Some colleges are able to recruit a very specific player to fit a very specific system, but at MIT you take the best player you can get,” said MIT interim coach Meghan O’Connell, an assistant under Raman the past three seasons. “Once Sonia put together a team, we would figure out how to harness their talents. She would say, ‘This is what we have, this is our strengths and this is how we’re going to use them.’ ”

The talent disparity between MIT and its opponents narrowed under Raman, but seldom were the Engineers one of their conference’s most physically gifted teams. To win at MIT, Raman had to exploit the one advantage her teams did have — their intelligence.

Winning at MIT

The first time she combed through one of Raman’s scouting reports for an upcoming opponent, Dolly Yuan was surprised by how thick it was.

There was analysis on everything from what set plays that team ran most often late in games, to the likelihood a certain guard would shoot over the top of a ball screen, to how often a particular post player turned over her right or left shoulder to score on the low block.

“Scouting was one of her biggest strengths,” said Yuan, a three-year starter at point guard for MIT. “We’d walk through all a team’s plays before the game and talk about how to defend them. We’d often have different ball-screen defenses for specific teams or specific players even. That’s something you don’t see very often at our level.”

It’s a testament to Raman’s work ethic and eye for player tendencies that her game plans were so detailed. When she first broke into coaching, she wouldn’t just ask two or three schools for burned DVDs of their games against a common opponent. She’d acquire video of at least a half dozen games and then follow up by phone with coaches to ask how they shut down a certain player or attacked a particular defense.

Once Synergy’s online database of game film and advanced stats hit the market, it only made it easier for Raman to seek out advantages. Suddenly, she could find five teams across the nation that attacked a 2-3 zone most efficiently, watch how they did it and incorporate her favorite sets into an upcoming game plan.

Raman’s thirst for knowledge didn’t stop there either. She’d call other college coaches or Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens to ask to observe their practices or to seek feedback on if there was a better way to teach something.

“Sonia never stopped thinking about basketball,” former assistant coach Lucia Robinson-Griggs said. “She was the type where we’d be grabbing dinner and watching a game on TV and she’d write something down on a napkin to remind herself of a play she wanted to go back to.”

The combination of Raman’s eye for talent, meticulous preparation and relentless positivity eventually made a difference in the win-loss column. Opponents who once penciled in MIT as an automatic win quickly realized they were in for a challenge when they faced the Engineers.

Since a breakthrough 2016 season, MIT has piled up a 51-21 conference record and finished no worse than fifth in the regular season. The Engineers reached the title game of their conference tournament each of the past three seasons, capturing championships in 2018 and 2019.

With each successful season, Raman put her previous career further behind her.

“After a while, she was no longer Sonia Raman, the corporate lawyer,” Sorerio said. “She was Sonia Raman, basketball coach.”

When Sonia Raman arrived at MIT, no women's coach had won more than 86 games at the university. When she left after 12 seasons, Raman had won 152. (Courtesy of MIT)
When Sonia Raman arrived at MIT, no women's coach had won more than 86 games at the university. When she left after 12 seasons, Raman had won 152. (Courtesy of MIT)

The Grizzlies take notice

Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins had never heard Raman’s name before until he began the search process to fill a vacancy on his coaching staff a few months ago.

Vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman revealed that the team had established a relationship with Raman through Cho and encouraged Jenkins to speak with her.

“I was immediately impressed with her passion for the game of basketball,” Jenkins said. “Sonia has a drive to constantly learn and grow as a coach, and take all that she has learned and teach it to her players and fellow staff. She absolutely loves teaching the game.”

Jenkins envisions Raman having a hand in many roles, including player development, scouting, practice planning and analytics. Working with the team’s analytics staff to uncover new metrics will be a particular emphasis for Raman given her expertise in that area.

The Grizzlies’ youthful roster has come of age in an era when some of the most successful NBA coaches never played in the league themselves. Frank Vogel played at Division III Juniata College. Tom Thibodeau was a captain at Division III Salem State. Brad Stevens famously accepted a marketing job after graduating from Division III DePauw University before reconsidering and pursuing basketball.

The presence of women on NBA benches has also become more common in recent years. The Grizzlies were one of 11 NBA teams with female assistant coaches until Niele Ivey left in April to become the head coach at her alma mater Notre Dame.

“Sonia will have her work cut out for her if people judge her on what she looks like or Google her background,” Hagerstrom said. “But I’m telling you, the moment the guys spend 30 minutes with her and listen to what’s coming out of her mouth, that’s going to be gone. The Grizzlies are going to know how much Sonia cares about them and they’re going to know that she’s the real deal. That’s not pie-in-the-sky. That’s absolutely the truth.”

Where Raman’s background may help her is the work ethic and adaptability it has instilled in her. After nearly two decades wearing many hats as a Division III coach and an assistant director of compliance, she’s far more accustomed to working long hours and doing multiple jobs without complaint than some ex-NBA players are.

“Sonia being who she is, she’s going to be ready and she’s going to know things inside and out,” Robinson-Griggs said. “She’s probably been doing research on the Grizzlies’ roster since before she got the job offer.”

If Raman validates Memphis’ bold decision to hire her, she’ll undoubtedly open doors for other coaches from unconventional backgrounds. Many fellow Indian Americans and Division III coaches have reached out to her the past few months to thank her for the reminder of what can be accomplished with hard work and a positive attitude.

“It’s always really exciting when you can see someone that looks like you and is maybe in a position that you didn’t know was a possibility,” Raman said. “To know that coaching in the NBA is a possibility and to work for it if that’s what you want to do, I think that should be the biggest takeaway.”

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