Sonia Raman wasn’t planning on moving across the country during a pandemic. The all-time winningest coach for MIT women’s basketball, she had built a home in Cambridge over 12 years, a home she had no intention of leaving.
Then Raman received a job offer from the Memphis Grizzlies, who announced her hiring in September.
When she told her players at MIT she was taking the job, you could hear a pin drop over Zoom. And not just because they had muted themselves.
“So I couldn’t really hear their reactions, but I could see their faces. And there was certainly just complete shock,” she said. “I don’t think as a Division III women’s basketball player you expect your coach to tell you that she’s resigning to go coach in the NBA.”
Raman’s jump from MIT to NBA comes as the league broadens who it welcomes into its coaching ranks. Raman joins a number of coaches with Division III experience and a steady wave of women coaching in the league. But she’s also making a bit of history: She is the first woman of Indian descent to coach in the NBA.
But talk to anyone who knows her and it becomes clear why Memphis would hire a coach from a Division III school that’s far more likely to produce Nobel Laureates than first-round draft picks.
When Raman arrived on MIT’s campus in 2008, she inherited an Engineers program not known for success. Even after Raman started, her teams didn’t have a winning season until the 2015-16 campaign. But she brought an almost academic attention to detail that matched the institution.
Lucia Robinson-Griggs, the head women’s basketball coach at Vassar College, served on Raman’s staff at MIT for eight years. She said that Raman's basketball IQ and drive to learn are immeasurable.
“It’s never just enough to watch maybe the last couple of games of an opponent. She’s going back years,” she said. “She’s looking back at, ‘Hey, two years ago, they were in this endgame scenario. Let’s find those clips and let’s look at it, just in case they throw it out again.’"
Robinson-Griggs said being prepared was always one of Raman's core values. She'd always be going down rabbit holes of film or talking about different game situations in the office, constantly staying ready.
Under Raman, the work recruiting high-caliber athletes who excelled academically and the focus on getting better incrementally slowly turned to fortune. The Engineers won their first ever New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference title in 2018, repeated as champs in 2019 and made it to the conference championship game this past season, a mighty turn for a once-meek program.
Larry Anderson, MIT’s men’s basketball head coach, chaired the committee that recruited Raman to MIT. During their time together on campus, he saw something more than just an understanding of Xs and Os that helped build those winning ways. It was her skill connecting with players.
“I think one of the things that is so cool about her and a strength of hers is her ability to read and understand people and get the most out of them,” he said. “Not for her, but because they want to be the best. Everybody who’s involved in any profession, they want to be the best. And Sonia makes it easy for them.”
Anderson can’t speak highly enough of his former coworker. He strongly believes Raman will be the first woman to be a head coach of an NBA team. Either that or she’ll be commissioner one day.
For all of the talk about the basketball knowledge of someone he described as his “work sister,” Anderson also raves about her smart jokes or how she never seemed to have a bad day. He said that Raman loves life and basketball is a part of that.
“I’m sure this was difficult for her to leave because she’s not driven by anything except being a part of an organization where she believed that she can be a part of the greater good of building something special that’s gonna be good for humanity,” he said. “And so basketball was just a vehicle for her, allowing her to be part of an organization that’s doing that.”
Emotions can be mixed when a coach who has been at a program for as long as Raman leaves. But Kylie Gallagher, who played for Raman the last three seasons, said everyone was simply proud.
“You never see this sort of jump. And I think it gives a lot of recognition not only to D-III sports, (but) women’s sports in general,” she said. “I think usually when a coach leaves, it’s kind of strange sometimes. It can be hurtful. And I think in this case, no one has been hurt or anything. It’s very celebratory.”
For Meghan O’Connell, who served on Raman’s staff and is now MIT’s interim head coach, Raman’s biggest contribution may be the culture she leaves behind. It includes everything from high standards on and off the court to an alumni tree that remains invested in the team.
“So there’s just this culture that she has built and the players are just passing it on and on to that next group that comes in from what she established,” she said. “So I think that her legacy of creating just an incredible culture is gonna continue because I think these seniors and these juniors want to continue to perpetuate that. And it’s ingrained in them.”
Raman’s path towards the NBA actually started a little over a year ago when Rich Cho, the Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball strategy, reached out to Raman looking for potential interns or recent graduates to work for the organization.
“And I just thought that was so forward thinking of the franchise to think about tapping into this group of brilliant women, experts in fields like engineering and computer science and data analytics,” Raman said. “But also really great basketball players and people who know the game. And to think about tapping into that talent pool just made so much sense to me.”
The two kept in touch, so when Cho asked if Raman would be interested in interviewing with the team this summer, she couldn’t resist.
It’s a fitting move for a forward-thinking franchise like Memphis. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins' approach has simply been to find the best coaches for his staff, regardless of where they come from.
“You know, MIT may not get the recognition from a basketball standpoint,” he said. “But from a teaching standpoint, from a care factor in terms of what she was able to accomplish as a coach at MIT, the uniqueness of a Division III school and what your brain and your coaching philosophies have to adapt (to) year to year, you could tell she was a student of the game. And she had successful teams.”
Jenkins, who is one of the youngest head coaches in the league and holds the distinction of not playing college basketball, knows firsthand what’s possible when you expand the thinking of who you let in to the coach’s circle.
“Because what it’s all about at the end of the day is finding people no matter what their backgrounds are,” he said. “If you can really at the core discover the best coaches and the best people and the best fits for your program, they can come from anywhere in the world, any background, any experience level. That’s what the vetting out process is when you hire people is you’re trying to find the best of the best.”
Raman’s aware of the importance of representation and how seeing women and people of South Asian descent at the highest levels of the game can impact others. While she’s focused on helping a team that fell just short of the playoffs last season, she has a keen sense of the power of setting precedent.
“Our VP-elect just recently said, ‘You know, I might be the first, but I certainly don’t want to be the last,'” Raman said of Kamala Harris. “I think that’s kind of how a lot of us feel. It’s really an honor to be one of the first ones to go through this. But [I’m] excited for that next generation coming up to have these opportunities.”
Raman’s been in Tennessee for a little over a month now and is acquainting herself with southern staples like Memphis dry-rub barbecue and neighbors who say “y’all.” She couldn’t be more excited to be in Grind City.
“You’re coaching the best players in the world, you’re coaching against the best players in the world,” she said. “Through the interview process, [I] really started to get a sense that this team really feels like a family, which felt very similar to what I was used to at MIT. ... It all just really spoke to me.”
But her roots run deep in New England.
She went to high school in Framingham and played her college ball at Tufts, where she later got her first gig as an assistant coach. She went on to the coaching staff at Wellesley. She also earned a law degree from Boston College.
But through all this time, her connection to basketball has been a constant.
And whether she’s coaching ball on the banks of the Charles or banks of the Mississippi, Raman is at home wherever the game takes her.