Inspired. Empowered. Liberated. Fierce. This is what it must feel like to be Wonder Woman.
As I look out from the Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach, California and see the sun setting on the ocean, I realize I’m sitting next to some of the most powerful women in sports at Tuesday's espnW Women + Sports Summit and somehow I feel like Wonder Woman. How is this possible? I’m probably the least achieved, poorest woman at the summit, but that doesn’t matter. This event is about sisterhood. The sports world is dominated by men, so it feels pretty damn good to not be the only one in high heels for once. It’s also a nice perk to be greeted by warm smiles, instead of googly eyes.
One smile, in particular, blinds me as I walk down the stairs to my seat. It’s a smile so big and so warm and so familiar. It’s that of Los Angeles Lakers owner and president Jeanie Buss.
It would be an understatement to say Buss is an inspiration to women in sports all over the world. But where does she get her inspiration? Buss says she gets it from retired Laker Kobe Bryant. “Mamba mentality is a constant quest to find answers,” Kobe says “It’s the infinite curiosity to want to be better, to figure things out.” Since taking over one of the greatest franchises in sports history, this has been Buss’ mentality, too.
But before that, she found her inspiration in tennis champion Billie Jean King. In 1973, King played a famous match against male tennis champion Bobby Riggs, and won. Buss’ father, Dr. Jerry Buss, made her watch and told her that moment would change the world forever. Dr. Buss was right. Women could compete with men in sports.
It would be an understatement to say Buss is an inspiration to women in sports all over the world. She is an inspiration to people all over the world. But where does she get her inspiration?
Buss then tells the women of the espnW summit the story of how at just 19 she was put in charge of minor league sports at The Forum, which her father owned, along with the Lakers and the LA Kings. Her job was to fill in the gaps during the basketball and hockey offseason. She was in charge of everything from gymnastics and volleyball to roller hockey. Buss credits the minor leagues for preparing her for her future responsibility with the Lakers, including firing her older brother this past season. She had a choice to make, keep the relationship with her older brother or keep her fathers legacy with the Lakers alive. She chose the Lakers.
Buss then tells the story of a coach who complained to her about not having enough resources to win a championship. She asked the coach how much money it would take to win, and when he gave her a number, Buss said, “I will give you that amount but if you don’t produce a championship at the end of the season, you have to pay that money back.” She always understood the business side of the game, which was a blessing and a curse. It led her father to leave her in charge of the Lakers but it also cost her, in the form of her the relationship with Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whom she was engaged to. Again, Buss had a choice to make. She could either tell Phil to stay in LA and as she calls it “annoy her all the time “ because he had nothing else to do or let him go to New York and try to a long distance relationship. She let him go and soon realized just how single-minded she was. Buss has also said she has never been a good multli-tasker. She liked to focus on one thing. In that moment she understood her “one thing” was the Lakers. She has always chosen the Lakers. Will always choose the Lakers. That empowers her.
The summit stage later fills with 16 women from across the world; Peru, Nigeria, India, China and more. These women are all beautifully dressed in bright colors in the fashions of their native lands and speak eloquently of their desires to change the world. They are sports reporters, athletes, and educators, from all different walks of life, and yet they speak of the same goals; to motivate women through sports, help women gain self respect, and end gender discrimination in sports. The U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program came together to embolden these women to make changes in their communities. The partnership began in 2012 and to date 99 women have successfully went through this program from 52 different countries around the world. Together, these beautiful women find their own liberation in helping liberate others.
As dusk turns to dark, SportsCenter’s Jemele Hill, Paralympic athlete Alana Nichols, WNBA Player Chiney Ogwumike, professional equestrian Jessica Springsteen, Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner, and Olympic softball player Natasha Watley all sit on the stage together drinking wine. A unique enough moment by itself.
And then Wagner, who is a bronze medalist and three-time U.S. figure skating champion starts discussing having had six concussions and how she has to live with the fact that her brain is now “apple sauce." She says she has the memory of “Dory from Finding Nemo." Moments later, Nichols recalls the day she broke her back snowboarding at 17. She struggled with depression for several years before finding her competitive edge again, this time in wheelchair basketball. The ladies sip their wine and open up about everything from politics to their random talents. After getting to know a little bit about everyone on the stage and witnessing their sisterhood in real time, I realize these women are showing what it means to be fierce.
ESPN anchor Sage Steele, through watery eyes and a strong yet emotional tone, closed the night with some food for thought. We are all different and what makes us great is being able to come together and celebrate everyone’s thoughts and our diversity. Women from all over the world, every race, class, and religion decided to continue their night together, dancing the night away under the moon with a glass of wine in hand.
The evening wasn’t about sports, it was so much bigger than sports, for I am my sisters’ keeper. We as women are all responsible for each other and in so we together become inspiring, empowering and liberating women. Sports is just the vehicle that helps create these fierce Wonder Women that go on to change the world. If the future has even a few more women like the ones I met at the espnW Summit in it, you know what, I think we will be all right.