“He didn’t buy any tickets from me. But he did ask, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I told him I wanted to be an NBA general manager one day,” Nichols said in a recent phone interview. “He said, ‘Why are you in sales?’”
Nichols inched closer to her dream job this month when the Washington Wizards named her general manager of its G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go. She is just the second female general manager in the NBA’s 28-team farm system, joining Tori Miller, who was hired to head up the Atlanta Hawks’ affiliate in July.
Nichols, 28, will spend her inaugural season working near Orlando, where 18 G League teams will play out the season over 4-6 weeks inside a bubble and the Wizards have assigned players to the Erie BayHawks, the New Orleans Pelicans’ affiliate. She has heard the tales about life in the NBA bubble this summer, how thrilling games masked a dreary, nonstop basketball grind and feelings of isolation from the outside world.
Yet Nichols can’t help but feel eager for the work ahead. Staff members from every team to trade information with and scores of players showcasing their skills all in one place is like Candyland to a talent evaluator.
“I’m able to see how our guys are developing, communicate with our player development staff [back in D.C.], and, when I get into the bubble, I’ll be able to evaluate every G League team,” Nichols said. “That’s the part where my passion lies — finding the diamond in the rough.”
Nichols set her heart on the NBA when she was a sophomore in college and a torn labrum in her hip made her realize pro ball might not be in her future, but she couldn’t bear to leave the game behind. The issue was that after graduating with a sociology degree, she had no idea where to start.
Graduate school was the next step, then after that the ticket sales job in Sacramento, where Nichols promised herself she wouldn’t stay in sales long. Her plan was to meet someone — anyone — on the basketball side of the organization and work her way in from there.
Opportunity came in the form of Nancy Lieberman. The Kings hired the Hall-of-Famer that same summer, making her the second female NBA assistant coach after Becky Hammon.
“We were able to connect, and she gave me advance scouts to do, so, writing about the personnel and tendencies of teams the Kings were about to play, and would critique them,” Nichols said.
By the time she got Hurley — the former football player who didn’t buy Kings tickets — on the phone, Nichols had fallen in love with picking apart players’ strengths and weaknesses and deciphering how they might fit in the ecosystem of an NBA team. After learning Nichols’ career goal, Hurley introduced her to his college roommate Kevin Eastman, an assistant coach for the Clippers at the time.
Nichols didn’t make much of an impression the first time they spoke. She vowed to have something to wow Eastman next time, and started a blog where she published scouting reports and analyses of draft prospects. Swayed by her work and nudged in part by a nod of approval from Lieberman, he recommended Nichols to then-Wizards front office executive Tommy Sheppard after Nichols applied for an internship in Washington.
She left her full-time job in sales to intern for the Wizards, picking up a part-time job at Nike to make ends meet.
From there, she worked at the league’s Players Association and at the G League front office before landing back with the Wizards in 2018, overseeing logistics for the Go-Go. She was promoted to assistant general manager of operations last year, working under former GM Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who left the organization last summer amid uncertainty about the G League season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“People always say, ‘Oh, you’re so young!’ And everything did happen fast. But I had to fail and be unprepared in order to learn,” Nichols said. “I didn’t have anybody to guide me coming out of school. I didn’t have anything to show Coach Eastman at first, so I started a blog. Coming out of my internship, I had a scouting interview with the Rockets and I bombed it, because the whole time I was focused on draft preparation for the Wizards. I promised myself I would never be in that situation again. I know every roster and every player in the NBA now because of that.”
As the Go-Go’s general manager, Nichols — who also happens to be a cousin of former Wizards point guard John Wall — sits in on coaches meetings, works closely with the organization’s player development staff and sends regular reports to Sheppard, now Washington’s general manager.
“Couldn’t be prouder. Amber deserves it,” Sheppard said. ” … It’s a natural progression. She came in as director of player programs, assistant GM, and now she’s the GM, and we’re excited she’s leading our team.”
Her promotion highlights the G League’s potential as a testing ground not just for NBA players but for the next, and hopefully more diverse, generation of front office members, said Allison Feaster, who first met Nichols when they worked in the G League office together. What struck her most about Nichols was her willingness to take on the unglamorous tasks and roles that didn’t precisely fit with the career path Nichols had in mind.
Now the vice president of player development for the Celtics, Feaster said she felt “elation” when she heard news of Nichols’ promotion.
“I also thought about the people who have the ability to hire — the Tommy Sheppards, the Brad Walkers at the G League office, the Danny Ainges in my organization … the people who have the power to pull those levers, put the right people in place and create opportunities for women,” Feaster said. “Enough can’t be said about that. Obviously, one or two [women] is not enough, but it’s important to highlight that there are people like Amber, who are deserving and the best people for the job, but there have to be people willing to put them there.”
Nichols might have been even more excited when Miller was hired in Atlanta than she was for her own promotion, if only because it was the first time she saw a tangible path to reach her career dreams — a feeling that doubled when Kim Ng was hired to manage baseball’s Miami Marlins in November.
“It made it very real for me, like, Amber, you could do this,” Nichols said. “I’m proud to be a woman GM, I’m very thankful to be recognized. But ultimately, the work isn’t done. I have the opportunity, now what am I going to do with it? That’s where my intent, my sense of urgency is.”