Leadership in sports is one of the most enduring old boys’ clubs, but women are on a hot streak, fast chipping away at the glass ceiling that’s protected coaching positions, commissioners’ offices, and ownership opportunities. In 2020 alone, Callie Brownson, the chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns, became the highest-ranking female coach in NFL history when she stepped in as a position coach. Becky Hammon made history when she became the first woman to act as head coach during an NBA regular-season game. Kim Ng became the first woman general manager in Major League Baseball history as the Miami Marlins G.M. Katie Sowers was the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl game (topped the following year by the two women coaches of the Super Bowl winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers). But before all of these pioneers, there was Melissa Proctor.
Proctor, a Black woman with locs and a nose ring, doesn’t fit the old boys’ club bill. But as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Atlanta Hawks, she’s a powerful force in the NBA and one of the highest ranking women in big-league sports. The Miami native grew up in an immigrant household not watching American sports, but her cousin introduced her to basketball by way of the Miami Heat. Around that time, Proctor asked her mother if she could get a part-time job; her mother responded that she could get a job only if it were something she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “At 15, I thought about it, and I realized that every time I was watching games on TV, I never saw women,” she said. “I didn’t see women on the sidelines, and so I said that I wanted to become the first female coach in the NBA.” She was determined to make her way in the NBA, starting with becoming the league’s first ball girl.
Proctor had never played basketball—she’d never even been to an NBA game and had no idea what a “ball boy” did, but she knew that was the place to start. She wrote letters and made phone calls to the Miami Heat but was turned down repeatedly. “I finally found the equipment manager, and he tried to discourage me and tell me it was grunge work,” Proctor says. She didn’t have access to someone who could make the opportunity happen for her, but Proctor’s pure determination kept her on the course to find a job with the Heat. When she was 16, “the equipment manager called me back and said, ‘You know, you got a lot of heart, kid. Come in for a preseason game.’” She was given an outfit and put to work.
Proctor immediately made her mark. “I was becoming the queen of the court because I was out there hustling and diving for loose balls and doing things that some of the guys didn’t necessarily feel like they had to do,” she said. Her presence eventually inspired the Miami Heat owner’s daughter, Kelly Arison, to become a ball girl too. Now the organization had two girls on the court and decided to change the role’s name to a gender-neutral “ball attendant” to be inclusive.
During her time as a ball attendant, Proctor had a front-row seat to watch Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, and Dennis Rodman. She built relationships with the game-day operations staff to learn what it takes to put on a game. She learned how to interact with ownership, celebrities who are sitting courtside, the janitorial staff, and security. At the time Proctor didn’t realize the magnitude of being the Miami Heat’s first ball girl. She was breaking barriers in sports but also setting the groundwork for how she would fearlessly pursue a career in an industry famously lacking in women. “I’m so grateful for the freedom to think big and the freedom to explore different things without judgment,” she says.
Proctor was leaving her mark on the NBA all without ever having actually played on a basketball team (the schools she attended didn’t offer sports). So while interning with the Heat in college, she started to reevaluate her coaching plans. “I remember one of the assistant coaches telling me, ‘You know, it’s going to be very difficult for a man to respect you if you’ve never played his game,’” Proctor says. She wasn’t insulted by the statement, but took it as an opportunity to reevaluate. “I didn’t necessarily shift that perspective away from coaching, but it really opened up my eyes to what the other opportunities were within the NBA that I could still be around basketball,” she said.
After being turned down by the NBA’s management trainee program, she got a marketing internship with Turner Broadcasting in 2003 and moved to Atlanta just as the city prepared to host the NBA All-Star game. Proctor was assigned to the game’s marketing task force and returned to the court as a ball attendant for the Atlanta Hawks. She’d finally found her home, going from mopping up sweat from the Hawks’ hardwood, to becoming a senior executive for the organization.
Proctor remembers how the rooms looked when she started with the Hawks and how much those room demographics have changed. “I remember going through my first sales and marketing meeting where all the teams came together and there were mostly white men,” she says. Now she’s in rooms with Cynthia Marshall, the first Black female CEO in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks, comfortable showing up in the boardroom as her full self. “I think that’s incredibly important for women in leadership or people in leadership to even allow women to do that, to speak up and use their voice,” she says.
When asked what she is most proud of about her current job, she says she is most proud to be an example. “I didn’t know any Black women who are CMOs of NBA teams. I didn’t see it and I really believe you can’t be what you can’t see sometimes,” Proctor says. “So being able to continue to break down those ceilings and provide opportunities for other women to be able to see it—as soon as you can see it, that’s it; you know there is opportunity for more.”