In 2015, New Zealand physio Chelsea Lane was approached out of the blue with a job offer from one of the biggest teams in the NBA. Christopher Reive speaks to her about life in the league.

When Chelsea Lane arrived to start her role with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, it was like the world exploded.

But it wasn't just that the team hired someone from New Zealand with no knowledge of the team or the league. In accepting the job, Lane became the first woman to lead an NBA training staff.

It was the latter the franchise was unprepared for.

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"I got here and it was just like 'what are we going to do with you?'" Lane tells the Herald .

"I was like, 'I was female when you called me. It's hard to tell in email, but I started this way. It wasn't a trick'."

The Australian-born Lane knew she was in for a surprise on arrival after being headhunted by the franchise in 2015. At the time Lane was working as a physiotherapist with High Performance Sport New Zealand, with the world of the NBA far from her radar. While she lives for sport, Lane is quick to admit she's not a sports fan; if she isn't working in the environment, it comes across as a foreign language.

So despite the Warriors having just won the NBA championship in an entertaining six-game series against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers, Lane didn't have the slightest idea who the team was or what sport they played.

Chelsea Lane talks with Atlanta Hawks forward Taurean Prince and head coach Lloyd Pierce. Photo / Scott Cunningham, Hawks
Chelsea Lane talks with Atlanta Hawks forward Taurean Prince and head coach Lloyd Pierce. Photo / Scott Cunningham, Hawks

"I had to do some Googling, let's be honest. I had to catch up," she admits. "If I wasn't working for that sport or that team, it wasn't strange for me to not know who you were or what you did – very strange for them, though; they did not enjoy that."

The Kiwi was hired by the Warriors as the team's head performance therapist, relocating to Oakland with husband and former New Zealand bobsledder Matt Dallow. To put it simply, Lane's main responsibility with the club was to maximise player availability by putting programmes in place to ensure the athletes' health - both mentally and physically.

Lane settled into the role despite the odd obstacle, which included not having use of a women's locker room to get changed in at the practice facility. As she says, "it was fine, but in a pioneering 'get changed in a toilet stall because there isn't a place for you to get changed' kind of a way."

But while her introduction to the league included her wandering in and out of urinals, she's noticed an increase in women around the league during the past few years. More and more women are having an impact in the NBA across various roles, including San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon and refereeing trio Lauren Holtkamp, Ashley Moyer-Gleich and Natalie Sago.

"It's changing," Lane says.

Becky Hammon has been an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. Photo / Getty Images
Becky Hammon has been an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. Photo / Getty Images

"I say that like I've been around a while when I really haven't – it just feels like I have because one season is five years in adult life – but there are more and more women all the time."

Lane is an established name in the NBA now and, after three seasons with the Warriors, was courted by the Atlanta Hawks for the 2018-19 season as their executive director of athletic performance and sports medicine - a move that came as a blow to the Warriors.

But while she's made a name for herself in the league, Lane still faces occasional issues simply because she's a woman.

During the Hawks campaign this season, one arena wouldn't let her in with the team because she didn't have her credentials on her - despite her being in uniform, arriving on the team bus and going through security with the players and other staff. It wasn't the first time in her NBA career something like that had happened.

"That's one of those embarrassing moments I've had in the league more than I'd care to have, and my response is usually 'well, I'll just stand back and someone will get me eventually'.

"The Hawks took that very differently. They're a very inclusive organisation and I had PR and security down there. Historically when that's happened I've just waited until someone who was more comfortable with me changed shift and I could get in."

Overcoming issues has been a feature of Lane's time in the league, during which she has gone from being an unknown Kiwi to a leading voice when it comes to player welfare; respected and praised by some of the biggest, and most well-paid, names in the sport.

As Lane speaks, she makes a point to refer to the players as humans rather than athletes, talent or otherwise when the context of the conversation allows her to do so.

Her approach to the role is a unique one in the United States. While she's dealing with athletes worth millions, her ethos throughout her 20 years in sports medicine has always been to work on the human before working on the athlete.

It's common practice in the league for player welfare divisions to be set in their ways and take a bulk approach to how issues should be dealt with, whether they're physical or mental. But in Lane's system, how a player is treated comes down to his individual needs.

"This is an athlete with their own injury history, their own story, their own psych issues, their own dietary requirements, their own wife they had a fight with this morning, this age coming from this college and having been exposed to this.

"That's a human and if we want them to excel we have to work out what they need, and to do that we've all got to work together or we'll never get there."

The NBA is a business, however, and Lane knows part of her job is to provide feedback to the franchise to help them place an asset value on players. But in a world where players have been dehumanised and pigeonholed by how valuable they are to their franchise, Lane's desire to get to know the players on a more human level is one that isn't taken for granted.

Vince Carter has played 21 seasons in the NBA spread across eight franchises, and during that time he's seen the continued improvements in player welfare management.

Vince Carter was still dunking during his 21st season in the NBA. Photo / Getty Images
Vince Carter was still dunking during his 21st season in the NBA. Photo / Getty Images

In the 2018-19 season, the 42-year-old Carter was available to play all 82 games of the Atlanta Hawks season and says working with Lane is a big reason for it.

"She's given me some wonderful gems that have helped me to stay healthy," Carter tells the Herald .

"Before I even got the opportunity to meet her we talked through text multiple times. It's nothing like meeting that person and learning who they are and what they're about and what they believe in. She's a huge believer in taking care of the body and assisting any way she can.

"Her knowledge of health and being great and being able to perform at your highest level is phenomenal so I've always sat and talked with her. She's gotten the most out of me because of her knowledge."

Rising forward John Collins echoed Carter's comments.

Collins, 21, is touted as a vital part of the Hawks' future with all the tools to become an NBA superstar, but he has been limited by injury issues through his early years in the league.

After missing the first 15 games of the Hawks season this year, Collins was able to get back on the court and thrive; getting a big increase in playing time and doubling his offensive production.

John Collins has shown potential to be one of the Atlanta Hawks' superstars of the future. Photo / Getty Images
John Collins has shown potential to be one of the Atlanta Hawks' superstars of the future. Photo / Getty Images

Like Carter, Collins gives a lot of credit to working with Lane.

"She's been night and day," he tells the Herald . "Coming in from the first day she implemented her plan and I was on board. I feel like that plan she has is solid.

"For me coming off of injury, it's very important to lock in mentally about what I need to do to recover and she was always right there whenever I needed anything. Big shouts out to Chelsea, she was huge in my developmental process and getting me back onto the court.

Chelsea's my girl, she knows that.

T

he distinction between human and player is an important one, but one that can get lost amid the lucrative world of American professional sports.

Communications between fans and the players can be overwhelming. Working in such close proximity to the team, Lane has seen all sorts of online and real-life interactions between fans and players. Some are respectful, but the majority is far from it.

It's for that reason you won't find an account run by Lane on any social media platform.

She says she tried Facebook once but was offended so greatly she couldn't get off it fast enough.

"There are plenty of people in my role in the league that have all sorts of presences and live in social media, and it's not a slight on them, it's just not how I do it. I don't want it in my world and I don't want there ever to be a chance that I could misplace the trust of my athletes.

"The more portals that are open to me, the more access there is to them. I hold all the information, and I see it as a huge responsibility.

"My role is to protect the privacy of people who have no privacy."

And during her time in the league, she's been given all the freedom she needs to do just that.

When she joined the Warriors in 2015, there was a real possibility her philosophy of putting the human first and the needs of the organisation second would not be well received by general managers and owners.

It was, however, a non-negotiable aspect to her work. She says it's an approach that not every team in the league would buy in to, but the support of current Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, who was assistant general manager at the Warriors when Lane was hired, has allowed her to work as she wishes.

"If that connect wasn't there, my ideals would be in the way. I'd be a problem. But because we see eye to eye on that, there's no issue with me making that the vision of my staff and promoting that in this space."

When she looks back on her time in the world's most popular basketball league, there's one thing Lane still hasn't been able to lock down an answer for - just exactly how the Warriors tracked her down back in 2015.

When asked about it, Lane simply shrugs and puts it down to a suggestion from "people who know people who know people". It's not something she dwells on, as it's afforded her a life working in a world many can only hope to someday achieve.

"There isn't a day where I don't go home and go 'wow, that was a cool day at work'."