An unlikely path to the NBA for former Jumbo Sonia Raman

The Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center is pictured on Aug. 28. Ann Marie Burke / The Tufts Daily

One of the NBA’s newest female assistant coaches was once a Jumbo.

And an Engineer.

And a lawyer.

Sonia Raman (LA’96) made history as the NBA’s first female Indian American assistant coach when she was hired by the Memphis Grizzlies in September. Alongside that milestone, Raman, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India, is also one of three Indian American assistant coaches in the league right now.

 “It’s an important part of who I am, period. I take a lot of pride in being Indian American,” Raman said.

Raman is also the 14th female assistant coach in league history. Raman’s hiring is part of an overall push within the NBA in recent years for teams to hire female coaches.

Her unorthodox path to the NBA began over 20 years ago, playing basketball for the Jumbos at Cousens Gymnasium, before heading to law school and most recently coaching the women’s team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Raman played for the Tufts women’s basketball team during a period of turnover for the program, with three different coaches — Sharon Dawley, Ed Leyden and Janice Savitz — over her four years as a Jumbo. The mid-1990s were also well before the team became the Div. III powerhouse it has developed into over the past 15 years: In Raman’s four years, the team went 44–49 overall.

But Raman, who was a co-captain during her senior year, still credits Tufts for much of her success.

“Getting the opportunity to be a student athlete and have that kind of balance in my undergrad experience was so beneficial for me in my own personal growth and development,” Raman said. “Tufts is such a special place.”

Part of that development happened during her junior and senior years, when Raman was sidelined with an injury for portions of both seasons. It was that time spent watching — and not playing — that gave Raman a new perspective that she took into her coaching career.

“I really got to observe a lot in a different way than when you’re playing or even when you’re on the bench,” Raman said. “I just really embraced it and tried to learn as much as I could and contribute in other ways to really work on leadership skills.”

After graduating from Tufts in 1996 with a degree in international relations, Raman returned as an assistant coach for two years, and also got her Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School in 2001. Focusing on her law career, Raman worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and Fidelity Investments while also working as a part-time assistant coach for the Wellesley College women’s basketball team.

Landing a college head coaching job — let alone an NBA coaching gig — was never Raman’s plan.  

“I always was really looking to be as good as I can be where I was,” Raman said. “I think it’s really important to do the job you have really well as opposed to constantly be thinking of what’s next, and what’s next, and what’s next.”

But in 2008, Raman made the jump, hired by MIT as the women’s basketball coach and assistant director of compliance (she still had to do something with that law degree, of course).

Raman inherited a program with little historical success, and accordingly went 4–19 in her first year at the helm. But the team’s record gradually improved each season, finally breaking the .500 mark in 2015–16 with an impressive 17–9 record. Over her 12-season tenure at MIT, Raman became the winningest coach in the program’s history with a 152–155 overall record and won the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference in the 2017–18 and 2018–19 seasons.

“I thought I had landed my dream job with MIT,” Raman said. “I was very much excited to be at MIT for the long haul.”

Her success in Cambridge caught the attention of Grizzlies’ Vice President for Basketball Strategy Rich Cho, who made NBA history himself as the first Asian American general manager when he was hired by the Portland Trailblazers in 2010. According to Raman, Cho first reached out to her last year just to make a connection but followed up this summer as the Grizzlies were hiring to fill a position on the coaching staff vacated by Niele Ivey, another female assistant coach.

Raman, who loved her position at MIT, was intrigued.

“It just became apparent that it was just kind of an opportunity of a lifetime,” Raman said.

After interviewing with head coach Taylor Jenkins, Raman was sold on the Grizzlies. It’s clear that the Grizzlies, too, were sold on Raman and her coaching abilities.

“She has a high basketball IQ and a tremendous ability to teach the game, as well as a strong passion for the game,” Jenkins said in a statement when Raman was hired in September.

Raman’s hiring comes alongside the hiring of many other female assistant coaches in the NBA. With the New Orleans Pelicans’ hiring of Teresa Weatherspoon last week, there are now eight full-time female assistant coaches in the league, most of whom have been hired in the past few years.

“Just having more people in different professions representative of the larger world that we live in is always key and really important,” Raman said about the recent trend. “We’ve seen men have the opportunity to coach both men and women, so I think this is just kind of a natural progression — that women should have that same opportunity to coach women, but also to coach men.”

In her four weeks so far in Memphis, Raman has noticed, too, that women fill other important roles in the NBA aside from coaching, which tends to get the most media attention.

“You can see that this is something that really has a lot behind it — it’s not just like ‘we just want to hire a woman,’” Raman said.

With the NBA still in its offseason due to schedule changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Raman has yet to step on the court for the first time as an NBA coach. But she said she’s had a whirlwind of a first few weeks in her new home, enjoying the local food, history and Southern hospitality as best as she can amid a pandemic. Most importantly, she’s looking forward to working with the relatively young team led by 2020 Rookie of the Year guard Ja Morant.

“I’m excited to learn more and set foot on the court for my first practice, and then I guess I’ll know more from there,” Raman said.