NBA’s first female scout who has swapped Chicago Bulls for London Lions

Vanja Cernivec, general manager of the London Lions women's team/The NBA’s first female scout who has swapped Chicago Bulls for London Lions
As general manager of the London Lions women's team, Vanja Cernivec has helped to install a winning culture within the squad

Certain words and phrases tend to make your eyes glaze over when coming from sportspeople. When Vanja Cernivec, general manager of the London Lions basketball team, starts talking about “culture”, I fear the worst. This is usually a chance for LinkedIn-speak, the vague buzzwords of performance and “elite mindset” that launched a thousand Jake Humphrey podcasts. Cernivec has a different approach.

“In the academy, we have four values: community, joy, vulnerability and communication,” she says. This is a world away from the usual faux-inspirational sloganeering most teams paint on to the walls of their training facilities. “Vulnerability is the only way you progress. Every practice, you need to make mistakes and learn from them. You’ve got to be able to be exposed.

“It takes years to build a culture but we have an idea of what the team should look like and how the players should be. For the women’s side, what I tell the coaches and the players is, we cherish them as people first. We really want them to be happy. I feel like in a lot of professional sports a lot of teams and managers forget about happiness. But at any level, if you are unhappy you can’t perform at your best, whatever you do.”

Clearly, something is working. The Lions are unbeaten this season in the British Basketball League, regularly winning by 30-point margins, not least the recent 102-56 rout of Newcastle Eagles:

When Cernivec speaks of her early experiences of playing, at home in Slovenia, it is hard not to read her approach now as a reaction. It was a life of non-stop practice, before injuries curtailed her career as a point guard in her twenties. “I had what I call Communist-style coaching. We were on court for eight hours a day and it destroyed us.

“There are two halves to that. One is, ‘F---, I survived it, I’m strong’. The other is, ‘My body is ruined’. A lot of coaches feel they must coach in the same way that they were and can struggle to change. I try to flip it to the opposite. I would never have our teams practise four to five hours a day, it’s completely crazy. We couldn’t laugh, couldn’t talk, could only say, ‘Yes, coach’, in practice.

“Everybody observes an athlete during their career, no one thinks about what happens afterwards. Are they able to run, to walk, to play with their kids? I don’t want to ruin our players.”

Cernivec’s role includes running the academy as well as more traditional recruitment responsibilities. “It’s assembling pieces together and finding players and coaches.” Here the player’s personality is as important as her performance on the court. “When I say scouting, it’s not just about watching them play, it is seeing if they fit our team philosophy. It is about how they behave off the court and their body language, what their personalities are.”

Her scouting nous was honed with one of the giants of men’s basketball. Cernivec worked as a scout for the Chicago Bulls for two years, looking for draft and pro prospects in Europe and at college level. Her previous job was with the league itself, “my dream job”, she says, but it is tough to resist the call of Michael Jordan’s team.

Vanja Cernivec in her role as international scout with the Chicago Bulls in 2022/The NBA’s first female scout who has swapped Chicago Bulls for London Lions
Cernivec in her role as international scout with the Chicago Bulls in 2022, a role that the Slovenian held for two years - Getty Images/Aitor Arrizabalaga

“My previous role was so colourful, I really did everything. The Bulls offered me a job as an international scout. It took me two weeks to soul search, to wonder if I was doing it just for the logo. Then I thought, ‘If a 12-year-old Vanja knew you would be offered this job…’ so just shut up. Just go.”

Predictably, as the first female scout in the history of the National Basketball Association, Cernivec was frequently the only woman in all-male environments. She credits the mentoring of Ivica Dukan, the Bulls’ director of international scouting, as invaluable.

“I never felt like my voice was not being heard, they were very open-minded. I called myself ‘gender-blind’ but you just get used to it and it becomes normal, which is so wrong. We have a lot of female colleagues on the marketing and business side on the London Lions and I’m so grateful to them, because they flag things to me which are wrong. I’m so used to being one of the guys, which is a good thing and it’s not a good thing, looking at the big picture and what it means for women in sport.”

This feeds into the sense of mission Cernivec tries to imbue. “I tell the players that we’re not just here to win, we are changing the basketball landscape in the country, so you will have to be donating your time, doing sessions in the community, and they’ve been so open to it. We have to give girls the basketball role models they don’t have right now.”

For now, the focus is on a two-legged EuroCup quarter-final against Turkey’s Melikgazi Kayseri on Feb 22 and 28. Despite a nationwide lack of European pedigree, the Lions are viewed as favourites to progress, but they will need as much support as possible.

“Basketball has been neglected in multiple ways in this country,” Cernivec says. “It’s part of my job to put the sport forward.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.