It was a “yes” that so many women weren’t sure would ever come. And now that it was here, the question for Jenny Boucek, and so many others, was, “What are you going to do with it?”

The year was 1997, and female athletes were beginning to reap the very tangible benefits and opportunities provided by Title IX, the law ensuring entities receiving federal financial assistance couldn’t discriminate against individuals based on sex. The Women’s National Basketball Association was playing its inaugural season that summer and Boucek, now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, remembers those early WNBA games vividly.

“[Games] would be sold out and grown women would be in the stands in tears because of what they had been through,” Boucek remembers. “All the ‘nos’ they had received because of their gender. The WNBA represented a ‘yes,’ and a big ‘yes,’ not just basketball but [that] women can do things they’ve never been allowed to do.

“You can see little girls in the stands almost confused, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think women could play basketball professionally.’ Even seeing the little boys in the stands with jerseys on and cheering for women, it was like, ‘Okay, this is going to raise up a generation of boys that will grow up into men who respect women differently – their wives, their daughters, their colleagues.’”

It was the start of something big, and every player on those eight teams in that inaugural season could feel it.

“The WNBA had a tremendous purpose,” Boucek told Legends Magazine. “That gripped my heart.”

And she almost missed out on it.

In 1997, Boucek had just earned a double major at the University of Virginia in sports medicine and sports management, all while earning All-ACC Second-Team honors and leading the Wahoos to four regular-season ACC Championships and three Elite-8 appearances, including going back-to-back in 1992 and 1993.

Despite her collegiate basketball success, and the rumblings of a new women’s professional league stateside, Boucek had no plans to pursue basketball after college.

“It was not in our paradigm at that time,” Boucek explained. “Some players were going overseas, but I was so excited about going to med school, I never even considered that. I was ready to go to med school.”

In Boucek’s mind, it was time to join the family business.

“Both sides, many generations, were doctors,” she explained. “My mom was a psychiatrist, a social worker, and her father was a neurologist, psychiatrist, and her mother, their whole lineages were physicians as well. My dad’s a doctor, his dad was a doctor, my uncles are all doctors. You go up and out on both sides of the family trees.”

Boucek’s family tree isn’t crowded with branches of just any doctors either, but ones pushing the limits of medicine. Her maternal grandfather, Dr. Robert Heath, founded the department of psychiatry and neurology at Tulane University. Her uncle, Dr. Mark Boucek, was involved in the world’s first baboon-to-baby heart transplant and was renowned in the Pediatric Heart Transplantation Community for the way he advanced the field.

“I was raised to see the world, and life, through the lens of, ‘Everything that you’re given is to give it back to the world and contribute to the world,’” she said. “All the gifts, experiences and passions that you have are for the greater good.”

She always believed that would be through becoming a doctor. But as she played that first pro season, she realized she wasn’t ready to leave her “first love” just yet.

“I came out of the womb loving athletics, it was my first love, and many people would argue, my primary one, until I had my daughter,” she said.

With the NBA Board of Governors saying “yes” to women’s basketball, Boucek said a “yes” of her own. She felt her purpose tugging her toward contributing in a way she’d never dreamed.

“It was so shaky,” Boucek said of the WNBA in its early seasons. “No [women’s pro league] had ever made it in our country. I wanted to do everything and anything I could do to help this league survive, and not just survive but thrive.

“It could change the destiny of young girls and women all over the world, which it has.”

For more than 15 years, Boucek was immersed in the fabric of the new league, first as a player, for the Cleveland Rockers, then as a coach. She joined the Washington Mystics as an assistant in 1999 following a career-ending injury in 1998. It would be the start of more than a decade rising through the coaching ranks of the league, and where she first understood how critical it would be for her to be a student of the game.

Boucek credits Tony Fiorentino, who was an assistant coach during her stint with the Miami Sol, with helping her make the transition successfully.

“He took me under his wing as a coach,” Boucek explained. “To this day, he’s like a second father to me. He taught me, which not many women knew at the time, what it looked like to coach professional basketball. Up to that point, the women’s coaches in the WNBA were former college coaches. There was no way around it, you didn’t have any way to get experience as a professional coach before the league started.”

Boucek describes herself as a sponge in those early days of learning the ropes of coaching. And the further she got into the strategy of team play and the dynamics of bringing the best out of her players, the more she realized why this feeling felt so instinctual, almost inherited.

“In addition to the larger purpose of the WNBA, I had this smaller purpose for me, which was stimulating both sides of my brain,” Boucek said. “My dad’s research, children’s heart transplants, like mechanism systems and problem solving, with my mom’s family all focused on mental health, so why do people do what they do? Trying to bring out the best version of a human through understanding neurology, psychiatry. I realized coaching was actually hitting both sides of my giftings and experiences and passions and interests. The strategy plus the people element was like, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’”

Boucek coached multiple teams in the WNBA over the span of nearly two decades before deciding to move to the NBA. At this point, the almost-doctor was firing on all cylinders as a coach, bringing out the best in other people’s children. Even as she thrived in her role, there was another tug she couldn’t ignore.

“I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” Boucek said. “I always knew I wanted to be a mom.”

As she moved up and around the coaching ranks, Boucek held that dream close, waiting for a traditional opportunity to fall in love and create a family with someone. Yet, the only thing that marched on as relentlessly as the coaching seasons she added to her resume was her own biological clock.

“I was aware enough of my age,” Boucek explained. “It wasn’t even like my biological clock was ticking in the sense that I wanted to be a mom yet, but I realized I should probably go talk to a fertility expert to see where things are at.”

At 36 years old, she decided to freeze her eggs.

The years continued and she remained content with the life she’d built and the purpose she was living out, while always checking in with herself, and her doctors, about what to do to keep this other dream alive.

“When I got into my 40s, the doctor and I kept meeting regularly and he asked, ‘Would you consider doing this on your own?” she recalled. “That was a really hard thought process – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Could I, should I, do this on my own? What would it cost me? It could cost me my career; it could cost me the relationship I’ve always dreamed of because now I’m bringing a kid into it.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Is it worth it if it costs me everything?’ It turned out, I didn’t really care what it cost.”

In 2018, she took an assistant job with the Dallas Mavericks. Within a month of her moving to Dallas, her daughter Rylie was born.

“Every day is literally an adventure and a journey,” Boucek says of life as a mom of a 5-year-old girl and as an NBA assistant. “We are one day at a time over here and we just don’t look too far down the road.

“I think God gave me the perfect kid for this wild ride because we have a lot of different helpers and she’s a very strong, independent, resilient young woman who is very in tune with her emotions and able to communicate them to me and others. I want her to know that she’s the most important thing in my life, but she also has to share me because the world does not revolve around her.”

So, the woman who laced up her sneakers with the inaugural class of WNBA players is raising a woman who will join her generation in taking the next step forward.

“You want these young ladies to understand how fragile it is, and not to take it for granted. [To] understand part of the foundation of this league is, there was a lot of struggle even before me that led to it being possible for us to have the opportunities we have,” Boucek said of what she hopes the up-and-coming WNBA players take from her generation. “So, you hope to preserve that somehow while also raising a generation of young people, including my daughter, that don’t expect anything less.”

Humility and appreciation for the work that’s been done and the audacity to know that there is much still to do.