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‘It’s so much bigger than me’: Morgan Cato is breaking ground with the Phoenix Suns’ front office

First Black woman to become an assistant general manager in the NBA says of her recent hire: ‘This is for people of color who thought they couldn’t be’

LAS VEGAS — Morgan Cato still felt relatively anonymous after becoming the first Black woman to be named an assistant general manager with an NBA team recently. But that all changed when the new Phoenix Suns executive was approached by a fellow Black woman who was very moved by the groundbreaking news.

“Literally as the news broke, I was heading to LA for the women’s Sportico conference to speak about being a woman in a space that is traditionally male-dominated,” Cato recently told Andscape. “And after the conference, a young Black woman came up to me and said, ‘I just wanted to say hello and just say thank you.’ And she immediately started crying. And she says, ‘I just don’t see women that look like me in this world.’ And we sat down together, and we cried together.

“And she said, ‘It just means so much to me that you’re here and that you can, because if you can, then I can.’ And that’s the moment that I realized it’s not even about the work. This is service work, and I will do everything I can to continue taking care of the game and taking care of the guys and doing what you can on coaching and international expanding. But I’m a vessel. I’m a vessel.”

The Suns made history by hiring Cato on June 20 as assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations. The New York native arrives in “the Valley of the Sun” after spending 10 years in the NBA’s league office.

Her NBA duties included working on strategic basketball initiatives for the growth of the game, coaching and officiating development and advancing the basketball talent pipeline, launching and sustaining the Basketball Africa League, advocating for women and people of color in basketball operations, and serving as the liaison with NBA teams on overall operational and engagement needs.

The graduate of Stony Brook University and the Harvard Business School Executive track also has experience in professional talent development in the consulting, investment banking and nonprofit industries. Cato has long had a strong rapport with Suns general manager James Jones and coach Monty Williams through her work with the NBA. Cato is in the process of moving from the New York area for the first time in her life and begins working for the Suns on Aug. 13.

“Morgan is one of those people that you meet and are like, ‘Holy smokes, this woman needs to be running a company or doing something in government, saving lives in society,’ ”

— Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams

“Morgan will work across all of our basketball operations team to lead strategy and processes in so many areas, including coaching development, player engagement and front-office operations,” Jones told Andscape. “She was pivotal in so many initiatives to grow and develop the game while at the league office, also consulting with teams to improve their overall operations. Between her experience at the NBA and business background beyond basketball, we are excited to welcome Morgan to the team and know her addition will elevate our basketball operations.”

Williams said he has known Cato for years, and that she is also mentoring one of his daughters.

“Morgan is one of those people that you meet and are like, ‘Holy smokes, this woman needs to be running a company or doing something in government, saving lives in society,’ ” Williams told Andscape. “She’s got leadership ability. She’s incredibly well-spoken. And she’s always been willing to tell the truth. When I found out we were looking at her, I was just hoping that she would make the move. And when she came on, I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be a huge asset to our organization.’ ”

Cato recently spoke to Andscape at the NBA’s Vegas Summer League to describe her upbringing in Brooklyn with Caribbean and Southern roots, when she got passionate about the sports business world, her role with the Suns, diversity and inclusion for women and people of color, and much more.

Phoenix Suns assistant general manager Morgan Cato.

Steve Freeman

“This is for us. This is for people of color who thought they couldn’t be. This is for women who haven’t had a voice, just even being in the space.” — Morgan Cato

What have your emotions been like since you were hired by the Suns?

The past month has just been really emotional because I’m just even humbled to receive the ask to be in this whole experience. It still isn’t real for me because realistically we’re just not in these spaces. So even with the great relationship I have with James and Monty, until it was real and I saw something in writing, it just didn’t feel real. And then when it hit, I was just not expecting that because it was 10 years after being in the league office and my entire career before was in banking, consulting, nonprofit. I’m focused on the work and this [is] bigger than you think, [it] really hit me hard. So, I’m still working through it. I’m thankful. I’m humbled, but it is not easy.

Who do you hope your groundbreaking news inspires?

Anyone that I’ve talked to, this is really for us. This is for us. This is for people of color who thought they couldn’t be. This is for women who haven’t had a voice, just even being in the space. It’s so much bigger than me.

What is your family story?

My family is New York through and through. My dad’s family’s Caribbean, from St. Vincent. My mother’s family is from the South. The Carolinas. Cheraw, South Carolina. They met in Brooklyn. An interesting fact about this, my dad’s family, the Cato line, my grandfather’s brother, Milton Robert Cato, was the first prime minister of St. Vincent coming out of English rule in 1979. So, there’s been advocacy, for-the-people gene that we have on the Cato line.

And our family, originally descendants of Garifuna from Africa and St. Vincent. My grandfather is one of eight, give or take, but their parents passed very early, and they figured out how to survive throughout depression in the Caribbean, coming to the United States through education. So, my grandfather was the only one that came here to the States. The rest of his siblings stayed in the Caribbean.

He was a merchant Marine and then had wanted to become a pharmacist. But he made his way here. He was the one that pursued the American dream, per se. And my uncle was in politics, another uncle was a doctor, and just really just in the space, but championing for the things that you need for your people. So, he took it the distance. I met him when I was a young girl. He passed in the early ’80s.

Your Caribbean and Southern backgrounds, how do they influence you today?

I got a little bit of the best of both worlds. I would say my Caribbean roots, particularly with all the work that we’ve done in Africa, it’s all connected to the diaspora. So, there’s a lot of relatabilities, just even relating to our younger players that are coming from the space. And St. Vincent just feels like home for me. I’ve always felt like home. A lot of tradition, a lot of culture, just good peaceful times of how you enjoy life.

And I take my Southern roots … that’s probably my spirituality. My mom’s family grew up in a Southern Baptist church. So, I think I took the best of both worlds in that space. So, I’ll cook jerk chicken and I’ll cook curry. And then you’ll also have some rice and peas, and you’ll have some fried chicken and collard greens. So, I can do a little bit of it all.

So how did you get passionate about diversity, women and inclusion?

I never thought I’d hold a title or be such a champion or a feminist. The antiquated or older definition, you think of pro-woman, anti-men. Just this angry, visceral perspective on just what women should have, women friends. It’s not that. It’s more so coming from we can, so why don’t we have? And I didn’t realize that until you started doing more work and recognizing where you have opportunities to contribute, but it’s really challenging to be heard or be seen. And I think I’ve only really felt it maybe the past three or five years, and it’s not necessarily directly through work, but it’s just that’s our full ecosystem. Because I know we’re a bunch of amazing, talented people all over the world.

And I wonder just why. Why we can’t. Why don’t I see you here? I ended up having breakfast with [NBA vice president] Leah Wilcox and parents of a notable player. And she introduced me, and she was talking about the work that I do at the NBA. And this player’s parents said, ‘Why haven’t we seen you?’ It’s just interesting. I didn’t even realize. I would’ve just never thought about that for people that are actually doing the work and things can be different. So, it’s not to take away, it’s just recognizing that we have a lot to contribute.

Was there anything that happened to you or any moment that made you passionate?

I love the people I work with, and the people I’m around. And I fortunately have had an amazing path here at the NBA. And I talk about this all the time, just even how being able to shift, I follow the work. And I’m really thankful that I’ve had people taking a chance on me.

Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones (left), pictured with guard Devin Booker (right), had a strong rapport with Morgan Cato before she was hired to work alongside him in the team’s front office.

(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

How did you first get into sports business?

I wanted to study sport management in college. My father said, ‘No way are you studying sports in school.’ It was the best piece of advice he ever gave me. He said, ‘You will study business and you going to figure out the sports stuff on your own.’ So, they sent me to Stony Brook University, which was Division I-AA at the time, the cheapest of all the schools. And that’s where I started work, at school. And immediately I started working in sports there. I thought about walking onto the women’s basketball team, but just realized there was more that I wanted to do.

So, I got involved with the athletics program, campus recreation. You name it, I did everything. I lived in and out of basketball throughout the sports complex, etc., and was still doing a bunch of other stuff. Student government and RA, head of the Caribbean students’ organization, working through budgets, college is when I learned how to be an adult. But basketball was always, always there.

How did you get to the NBA?

I got a call from a friend who I had gone to school with, and he had recently started working at the NBA, and this is Jermaine Gough. We had known each other for years, but I’m literally coming back from a wedding in Barbados in 2011. And he also had this sports passion. So, we were both actually pursuing law school at the same time I studied for the LSAT. And he said, ‘Mo, there’s the perfect opportunity. I just started here. It’s the perfect opportunity here for you at the NBA.’

And I’m on the plane pulling something together because I wasn’t looking for work. I was just putting my head down and doing good work. And I sent something over and two weeks later I had a job offer in HR, meeting early career development and working with recruiting and helping young talent navigate throughout the game. So that’s how I met [NBA senior vice president, business communications] Amanda [Thorn] and met everyone else. But once I got into groups, [then-NBA commissioner] David Stern is just ‘DJS.’ And I’m fortunate. I had a very, very positive, personal relationship with DJS.

What was your role like with the NBA?

So all of these development tools of being on the court is essentially how I started doing pure basketball work, and then programs get included in CBA, benefits, factors, etc., all those things. And as [NBA president of league operations] Byron [Spruell] was transitioning in, we just naturally connected and were sitting down talking one day and he said like, ‘Let’s just keep this going,’ because I just understood the business, I understood the game and how live it was. And shortly after that is when I shifted into basketball. And my first capacity was a chief of staff role to help continue growing the game, but also how does our department grow together. Because we were very siloed.

And we just, in this space, things started moving fast, start[ing] from 2012, just had come all together. So [we] supported our whole basketball business, primarily on officiating development, [we] shifted the narrative and the perception of officiating. And as we were working through that space, I transitioned to different, like, special teams, projects and basketball as the need arose.

So, oversee our budget, worked directly with our GM [general manager], our coaches, coach advocacy, helping to build the BAL in tandem with Amadou [Fall] and Kim Bohuny. So, I’ve really had a chance to touch all facets of basketball and I didn’t ask for it.

What was your connection to the Suns?

So, fast forward to the Suns after doing work with Monty and James over the years, in particular as they’re trying to shape and build their house. That’s how this opportunity came about, just how do you continue having impact in the game. And it happened very, very quickly. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t anticipating it or expecting it, but it showed their trust in me and the value that I could bring to the Suns based on the work that I do in basketball, the work in understanding our players, understanding the game, how we continue to help our coaches bring it to life and just needing more.

So, James has this amazing basketball IQ. Monty is through the same lens. And they need someone in their house to help complement the other pieces of how they take it to the next level. And that’s where I’ll continue to come in to support. It more so came down to the work that we’ve been doing together over the years, working close with Monty in and throughout the bubble as he was transitioning to the head coach role, even going back to the coaches’ summit as he was navigating early steps, just being a support system there. Monty’s been helpful throughout our officiating advisory council discussions and just providing a basketball perspective.

It was more of a combination of recognizing the season’s finished and how they want to rebuild and how they’re going to do some things differently. So, with Monty and James, they were looking at what they have in their house and what they need. There was a short list of people that they consider for how we take basketball to the next level, how we continue to grow holistically. And I was on that short list. So, James reached out to me directly.

What was your reaction when James Jones offered the job?

I prayed on it. And I realized that this was giving me an opportunity to impact the game differently. We support learning across the board, we support basketball ecosystems and having the chance to go deep and really impact that way. It felt good. I respect James and Monty immensely, and having the chance to work with just two great basketball mentors to do more was an awesome experience. And the fact that they thought that I could add value to them as well. How could I not?

And this was something that they recognized, ‘Mo, because of what you bring to the table, because of what you can do, you can help us.’ And those opportunities don’t happen so often, particularly as a woman of color, as someone who didn’t play professionally, as someone who didn’t go to a PWI [predominantly white institution], as all these different things. Still throughout all of that, they saw something that I could add.

“It [getting the assistant general manager position with the Suns] happened very, very quickly. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t anticipating it or expecting it, but it showed their trust in me and the value that I could bring to the Suns based on the work that I do in basketball.”

— Morgan Cato

Did you understand the historical significance of it when you took it?

No. I knew it, but I didn’t understand it. And I don’t think anyone would know it because it’s never happened. I mean, they’ve been first in spaces, etc., but I had no idea that I was going to have access to 50 million people with a drop of a tweet, and that 50 million people all over the world would know my name, and that it would just really have this deal. I just … I didn’t even fathom it. I’m focused on the work. And I’m like, ‘OK, well, when do we start? What’s the offseason look like? When are guys back in the gym? When do I need to be there? Let’s focus on what are our priority points. How quick he wants to get to the Mercury.’

I’m focused on the work. I’m not thinking about any of this other stuff. And James and Monty have been great throughout all of it. And then the world just responded the way the world responded. And that was really the humbling piece that made me realize that this is much bigger than me. So, I’m going to do my canvas, to do great work and advocate wherever I can for our players and our coaches and help Phoenix get this [championship]. That’s what they want. So, I’m excited to work closer with the coaches. I have a very soft spot for coach development. I think that’s your jewel right there.

So, I’m looking forward to it. And I only know how to be Mo. That’s it. I only know how to be Mo, so they’re going to get this girl right here. And I think that’s also the relatable point where people can figure out how to be themselves and say, ‘No, I want this. Let’s figure out how to go get it.’

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams (right) has been enthusiastic about Morgan Cato joining the staff.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

How would you describe all your duties and does that include personnel decisions, too?

Front-office personnel, coaching development, player engagement strategy, connectivity to the W [WNBA], international expansion, and the work that we’ll continue to do with international players, roster chemistry and cohesion, and working really closely with our coaches, with our heads of analytics and scouting, and then also our salary cap folks. So, I think with James’ vision is essentially, ‘How do we bring this all together to bring it to the next level? How does Phoenix become this destination?’ They have a lot of great talent and it’s under the surface, and they’re ready to bring it to the next level and I’ll do my part to help.

How did the situation with troubled Suns owner Robert Sarver weigh into your decision to join the franchise? (The NBA is currently investigating Sarver for allegations of misogyny, racism and a toxic culture with the Suns and WNBA Phoenix Mercury.)

I don’t think it did. That’s a genuine answer. That has nothing to do with me. I have no parts of that, and I have no opinion or insight to it. So, what I’m privy to is a bachelor organization that wants to continue to do more, and I feel comfortable in their space to do more. So, I’m happy to support it.

Have you met with Sarver?

No, he has not been part of this discussion, these decisions. From what I understand, James runs his house. So, from an oversight, he’s there, but James and Monty, they handle basketball. Sarver is not in the day-to-day operations. And I believe, from what I understand so far, he let them do their work.

Does being a Black woman help you connect easier with players in a predominantly Black NBA?

There’s pros and cons to all of this. So, part of the Women in Basketball Operations Forum, the work that we’re talking about is also how do you break down some of the typecasting of the type of work that women do in sports. In most cases, they’re in the maternal role of team services, taking care of, etc. So, while I do think that there’s value there, that’s a piece, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

So, the way Morgan moves as a girl from New York who’s loved this game is very different from how someone who doesn’t have my experience, woman or not, who’s going to relate to the guys. So, I do think there’s a degree of relatability and I’m going to use it however I can. But more than anything, I just want to be able to support these folks. And I’m a real person. I think that’s going to trump more than anything because there’s no B.S. here. So, we going to get down what we need to get down with.

What influence did your dad have on you in the financial space?

My dad is meticulously really, really good at money management, saving. He is a risk-averse, safe individual by nature. But I think my dad probably had the biggest impact on my career because as a kid, I grew up every day watching him go into the city with a briefcase and a suit. And he worked in business. And I said, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ I knew I wanted to work in sports, but he is essentially my North Star, just how you conduct yourself in the work environment and just doing things through that lens. But he’s protected us. He raised three amazing girls and one baby boy. So, he’s taught me a lot.

And, boy, I am my dad’s child. I am. I have a lot of my mom. I got my mom’s soul. I’ve got my mom’s love, her warmth, her cooking, her dance, her singing. But I’ve got my dad’s grit. I got my dad’s no B.S.

What conversations have you had with Monty since you’ve taken the job?

He’s just really, really excited. So, I took one quick trip to Phoenix, one-day trip. And I met with the guys after practice and came in. James said, ‘Show up downtown.’ I’m like, ‘OK, this is me in my corporate space. What’s the agenda? What are we doing?’ And he’s like, ‘Morgan, come by at 10.’ I’m like, ‘All right, just going to show up. …’

And right after they finished practice and Monty’s downstairs with the guys. And this is when I knew this is going to be a good environment. Because they just finished practice, everyone’s sitting around like it’s a barbecue. They’re in the weight room, talking, laughing — coaches, players, etc. And they’re just there.

And I’m walking in and everyone’s just chilling and talking and laughing. And Monty comes down. Monty gives me this big bear hug. He’s like, ‘You are with us? What are you doing? Let’s go. Let’s get this going.’ And I said, ‘Well, we are figuring it out.’ And then when it was finalized, I just sent him and James a text, and Monty’s response was excited, happy memes and fireworks. I’m thankful to just know him even before this phase and we’re both faith-based. So, when you just talk about moving through this space to have someone else that you can just talk about and understand the path that God has brought someone together.

It’s really, really comforting to work with him in that area. And I mentor his daughter, Lael, and I’m just excited for her growth and all of that. So, all this stuff was happening off the court before this was even a blip. It’s not like I was saying, ‘Let me run and go be this or be that.’ I don’t know if my decision would’ve been the same if it was another team.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.