Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
It’s been a week since the official start of the NBA offseason, and the race to land Kevin Durant is in full swing. Every day brings new rumors of one team or another offering a king’s ransom in exchange for the Brooklyn Nets superstar. What could a potential trade package from the Phoenix Suns look like? “No comment,” Morgan Cato says with a chuckle. “My official Suns cap isn’t on yet.”
Later this month Cato will join the Suns front office as the team’s vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager and become the first woman of color to ever hold those titles in the NBA. But her historic hire also solves a crisis management problem for Phoenix. For the past eight months, the NBA has been investigating allegations that team owner Robert Sarver made racist remarks, was verbally abusive toward Suns employees and even sexually harassed some underlings. Sarver denied the allegations in a statement that predated the publication of a November ESPN story in which a slew of current and former Suns employees came forward with stories about Sarver setting the tone for a hostile workplace. Still, it doesn’t appear that the decision to hire Cato was Sarver’s call.
Speaking during Summer League in Las Vegas, Cato said her interviews were with general manager James Jones and coach Monte Williams—senior leadership she had frequent dealings with while the NBA operated under COVID seal in Orlando. “I fundamentally believe in their basketball program,” she says of Jones and Williams, “and that’s what holistically got me to Phoenix.”
Cato comes to the Valley after nine years in the NBA’s operations office, where she has been a key figure in the league’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. During this past year’s All-Star Game in Cleveland, she spoke on a panel about racial equity in sports. Really, she hasn’t had much of an offseason. In between the playoffs, she was hopscotching from Senegal, Egypt and Rwanda to support the Basketball Africa League, a nascent joint venture between the NBA and FIBA. “That’s been an exciting journey for me, when I think about the globalization of sport and the NBA,” she says. “More than anything, it impacts on the court—but it also impacts revenue. It impacts profit.”
After the Finals, she was onto the combine and the draft and even the WNBA All-Star Game. “It’s hoops 365,” says Cato, who also worked in recruiting and public relations.
It was much the same story for her growing up in Brooklyn, where she fell in love with basketball in the ’90s—the Hoop Dreams era, she calls it. “You know, of just kinda watching the grit of the game and it really being a point for not only how people compete, but also figuring out what comes next, how it saves lives and how it takes care of families,” Cato says.
Her family ran a basketball tournament in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her cousin, Jameel Watkins, was a local legend who tangled with Stephon Marbury in high school and played for John Thompson’s Georgetown. “I remember looking up and just watching this Goliath of a person say to my family, ‘We’re gonna take care of Jameel. He’s gonna get a world-class education, he’s gonna be a stand-up man and he’s gonna play basketball. It was in that order. He didn’t lead with hoops. That’s when I realized it’s more than a game.”
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At the league office, she was a right hand to operations president Byron Spruell and ran point on a slew of initiatives intended to grow the game. That included enhancing the development pipelines for coaching and officiating. She was also instrumental in the launch of the Basketball Africa League, while advocating for more women and people in the NBA.
Over the years she’s found that her greatest impacts often start in the smallest ways. “Even before Africa, we had our NBA women’s academies that had me working with women all over Latin America,” she says. “I remember in 2019 or so I had a woman who was natively from Puerto Rico who spoke little English. Her complexion was the same as mine. We were sitting in this room and she asked me, ‘How does it feel to be a Black woman in business?’ It stung me because I realized in 2019 there are parts of the world where being a woman of color is still pretty foreign as a leader. And this woman is an American citizen. It hit me hard.
“So when I really think about the impact of sport—yes, I’m in service to this beautiful product on the court, but my part behind the scenes or tangential to the court is really how we use this platform to create more awareness and access to anyone who wants to contribute to.”
A captain of her high school team, Cato considered walking on to the women’s squad at Stony Brook but her father insisted she devote all her focus into her studies. But even as she pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees, her inner drive wouldn’t let her just sit on the sidelines. “I was an RA, I was in student government, I was in the Caribbean students organization, and if I wasn’t there I was in sports,” says Cato, also a Harvard Business School grad. “So much of that shaped how I learned to do things now.”
Expect her to hit the ground running in Phoenix. After making the NBA Finals in 2021, the Suns were knocked out of the 2022 conference semis by the Dallas Mavericks. Even though the team didn’t have any picks in the 2022 draft, Phoenix did re-sign former top pick Deandre Ayton and does retain one of the league’s best backcourts in All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Besides pushing for a championship, the Suns have been vocal about advocating for the return of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner—who has been detained in Russia since February. While Cato, in her capacity at the league, hasn’t been privy to the backchannel communication the NBA has engaged in on Griner’s behalf, she appreciates the complexity of the situation and the precariousness of the timing. “Brittney is intertwined in the social justice movements of the past two years,” she says. “There’s war in Europe, maybe a recession here. We’re dealing with fertility matters when it comes to women. When you look at the last five to seven years, it’s just been uncanny. I didn’t think in my lifetime that I’d be in the space that I’m in now.”
But she’s here now. By the time she finally slips on that official Suns cap, she could find herself swapping it for a few different hats.
Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
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