In early January 2020, the Mavs Academy staff gathered together in a conference room for a weekly meeting. A short time later, Dallas Mavericks senior vice president Greg Nared noticed a text message on his phone.
It was from one of his former players who was ready to halt her basketball dreams. The young athlete had simply grown too weary, frustrated and exhausted with the game. She felt like basketball was no longer enjoyable.
The text pierced the souls of the entire Mavs Academy staff and they immediately recognized the need for change. The young girl had no idea that her cry for help would ultimately propel the Mavericks to take action and it would become a pivotal moment in the history of the franchise.
Mavs Academy coach Kelli Robinson, a former collegiate athlete herself, remembered that Nared told the group: “This is a problem, and we need to try and help these girls, so what can we do?”
Robinson instantly volunteered to help pioneer a new girls-inspired initiative created by the Mavs that would eventually become known as GEM – which stands for Girls Empowered by Mavericks.
“We wanted to develop a safe, emotionally and physically, environment for young girls to be themselves,” said Robinson. “We want to ignite this hope and belief inside them where they fully understand their potential.”
Those who know Nared aren’t surprised that he sprang into action and encouraged his staff to be bold and come up with an innovative solution to help girls. He knows first-hand the issues that young women in sports face after raising his own two daughters who went on to play collegiate basketball at Division I powerhouses.
For this reason, he’s also very intentional about hiring staff to work Mavs camps and clinics that are also committed to building up youth.
“Greg looked at me and asked if I wanted to lead a new initiative to help empower the next generation of young girls and I immediately said yes and got super excited about it,” Robinson recalled. “Now one year later, here we are.”
The desire to create a program like GEM became a personal mission for Robinson because she’d witnessed first-hand the growing apathy among young female athletes who she coached and worked with.
It’s the same trend that is rippling across the country for young girls in sports. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, participation in activities like basketball positively impacts the health and well-being of female youth — but twice as many girls quit sports by the age of 14.
There are a few reasons for this, like social stigmas and the lack of positive role models who are there to support and encourage young women.
With the support of the Mavs behind them, Robinson and two other Mavericks employees, Becca Brown and Lisa Byrd, hit the ground running. The three of them formed a coalition in hopes of creating sustainable change and influence among girls between 9-14.
The age group was selected because studies show that more girls drop out of sports in that age group than any other. The Women’s Sports Foundation even identifies age 14 as the most pivotal age for girls because that’s when young women decide whether to participate or drop out in sports.
“I believe that the females in this organization are the backbone for why this initiative can succeed,” Robinson said. “We are so fortunate to have a platform here at the Mavs that allows us to share our experiences and use them as tips to help others.”
In early January 2020, the idea for GEM was officially born, but it would take over a year of hard work, research and extensive interviews with young girls to create a program that would drive sustainable change and reach young women in meaningful ways. The Mavericks got an extra boost when UT Southwestern Medical Center, a a public academic health science center in Dallas, jumped at the chance to serve as GEM’s title sponsor.
Working together, the Mavs and UT Southwestern truly desire to create a program that will champion the future generation of young women.
Robinson said the pandemic actually helped foster the early days of the GEM program because the Mavericks were able to virtually visit with many young girls to help identify and then target their specific needs.
“We started with a focus group with 30 female Mavs Ballkids,” Robinson explained.
GEM organizers asked the girls various questions such as “what stems you to quit sports?” or “why do you play sports?” With trust and time, the girls began to open up and explained the amount of pressure they feel in the game today without quality leaders to lean on.
“After meeting with them, that just reassured us what we wanted to do,” Robinson said. “They were brutally honest. From there, we just started researching…we wanted to see what other Fortune 500 companies were doing. After we gathered the research, Becca Brown and I sat back and thought to ourselves ‘what would we have wanted to be equipped with when we were these girls ages?’”
Finally, with a firm plan in place, the Mavericks decided to officially launch GEM next week on March 9, 2021, right in time for Women’s History Month.
In many ways for the Mavericks, it’s Women’s Future Month, too.
GEM is a cutting-edge program that is designed to target the future generation of girls between the pivotal ages of 9-14. The program aims to inspire and empower young females through the use of physical activity as a backdrop to their continued development and success.
The program will focus on five main pillars: education, financial literacy, mental health, physical health and sports.
GEM will host workshops throughout the year under each specific pillar and numerous other activities are in the works for young student athletes like 11-year-old Neelah Garcia.
Garcia said that basketball is her favorite sport, and she would love to see more girls play the game. The young girl once had the chance to participate in a Mavs Academy-led Jr. NBA Clinic during halftime of a Mavs game before the pandemic.
“I think girls are just as good as the boys,” Garcia said. “If we can dream it and believe it, we can achieve it.”
This kind of spirit is the exact reason Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall rallied behind the creation of GEM. Two of the four children she adopted are now grown adult women, but she still remembers the challenges and obstacles they faced during adolescence.
“March is an extra special time for the Dallas Mavericks organization,” Marshall shared. “We are celebrating Women’s History Month and we will continue to accelerate conversations about gender equality and equity and amplify the important role that women play in sports.
“We have numerous women within our organization who constantly challenge themselves to pave uncharted paths to create new opportunities for future generations. GEM was created by three Mavs women, Kelli Robison, Becca Brown and Lisa Byrd, and we are thrilled to empower the future generation.”
FINNEY-SMITH: ‘THE GEM PROGRAM MEANS A LOT TO ME’
Dallas Mavericks veteran wing Dorian Finney-Smith is also a staunch supporter of the new GEM program and he knows first-hand the important role that women play in sports.
Finney-Smith’s mother, Desiree, raised six children as a single mother and cleaned houses to afford basketball travel fees. Four of her children went on to receive athletic scholarships.
That same strength has now trickled down to Dorian’s 11-year-old daughter, Sinai. A basketball player herself, Sinai walks to her own beat and isn’t concerned that her father is an NBA player. She knows the game, too, and makes sure to correct Doe-Doe when he’s caught slipping on the court.
“Dad doesn’t know anything,” Finney-Smith said while laughing. “That is what I’m starting to learn.”
He said that Sinai is now at the age where she really values female role models in her life, and he understands and recognizes why girl-centered programs are important these days.
“At first, I was her world,” Finney-Smith said. “She’s still up under me all the time, but when it comes to decision-making or I tell her one thing compared to what my girl JazMyne tells her at the same time, she is going to listen to her because dad doesn’t know anything.”
He said the GEM program means a lot to him and his daughter.
“It’s a way to cope with stress,” Finney-Smith explained. “It teaches ways to stay healthy and have a healthy body and healthy mind and healthy life. I try my best to keep my daughter as active as I can, but I love to see more empowered women practicing physical activities.”
Mavs center Willie Cauley-Stein is also a bonafide girl dad. Although his daughter is only eight-months old, he’s already injecting plenty of love and attention into her life.
“I’ve done a lot of cool stuff, and this literally is probably the coolest thing I’ve done is help raise this girl,” Cauley-Stein said.
Another member of the Mavericks’ staff that is raising a young girl is Mavs assistant coach Jenny Boucek. Boucek was once ready to choose motherhood over the NBA with the arrival of her daughter, Rylie, but a short time later, the Mavericks hired her as the first female coach of the organization.
Today she carries both roles with great pride, and Coach Boucek will serve as a source of inspiration for GEM.
“I want to live a purposeful life,” Boucek said. “Sometimes the crazier it is, the more right it is. Have the courage to know what’s in your heart and go for it.”
Words like this are the exact reason that Robinson said she’s proud for the Mavericks to launch the GEM program. It’s innovative and new, but definitely needed for young girls across the region.
Robinson is also thankful that the Mavericks have a group of players, coaches and staff that are proud to raise daughters. Rick Carlisle has a teenage daughter and Mark Cuban is also raising two teenage daughters.
Then there are countless members of the staff that are raising girls. All of this feedback and support will help the Mavericks amplify hope and create empowering programs for female youth.
“These are the girls of the future,” Robinson shared. “This generation, I truly believe, is going to change the world. It is our job, as an organization with credibility and tremendous leaders, to give them a platform to do so.
“From the beginning, we have lived by the words: engage, inspire and empower. Why? Because every female, no matter their age, deserves to be inspired, feel empowered and continue to engage with the ones around them. Our hope is that we can instill those ways of life in these girls starting at the age of nine.”
To read more about the GEM program and to sign-up your daughter beginning March 9, click here.
ABOUT GEM: Girls Empowered by Mavericks, aims to engage, inspire and empower young females (9-14) using physical activity as a backdrop for their continued development and success. Girls will learn to value their whole self; discover and develop their inherent strengths; and receive the support they need to navigate the challenges they face. We will offer programming and workshops for all groups.
Story: Tamara Jolee, Dallas Mavericks
[Editor’s Note: Images that appear in this story took place prior to COVID-19. The Dallas Mavericks continue to maintain social distancing guidelines and all GEM and Mavs Academy events will remain virtual until further notification.]