Being the first at anything can be a bit scary, but a little intimidation couldn't stop Bonnie-Jill Laflin from going after her dream job as the first ever female scout in the NBA. Though Laflin is now a huge sports personality with her own show, it was her time as an NBA scout for the LA Lakers that taught her the most about her career. Back then, she was assigned to watch out for prospective players and report back to the team's general manager. It was a position that meant her superiors were relying onher expertise and gut instincts about up-and-coming players—which ultimately would determine if these guys got signed. Yeah, you could say she was a pretty big deal. But as impressive as Laflin was at this job, her journey to the position was even more amazing.
From Shouting to Scouting
When she was young, Laflin knew she wanted to be involved in professional sports, so she dove in wherever she could—and at the beginning, that meant cheering on the sidelines. "It was a way for me to get in these organizations and inside the sports world and capitalize on it," says Laflin. So she took advantage of her proximity to the action and went on to cheer for the San Francisco 49ers for two years, where she won a Super Bowl ring with them in 1995. Then she moved on to the Cowboys—the mecca of all pro-sports cheerleading organizations—and even landed a spot on the cover of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Calendar.
After racking up recurring roles on Baywatch and Ally McBeal, Laflin's popularity grew, which gave her the chance to move to LA, where she was hired as a sports broadcaster for CBS. "And among the many stories I got to report on, I was assigned to cover the LA Lakers," says Laflin. It was an opportunity that gave her even more knowledge of the industry, and one that put her face-to-face with Jerry Buss, Ph.D., former owner of the Lakers.
"My father worked for Dr. Buss, so he was already comfortable around me," says Laflin. "We spent a lot of time watching the team, and he would ask me for my thoughts, then actually listen to them." Before long, he started to see where Laflin could fit into his organization. "Dr. Buss had been talking to Laker management about the possibility of trying a female scout, so they asked me to take a shot at it. I did; they loved my report; and I became the first female scout."
Playing to Win
That didn't mean the job came easy. Instead, Laflin quickly faced the harsh reality of being a woman in a male-dominated field. "I'd go out on the road, and people would assume I was there to scout for the Laker Girls," says Laflin, who sometimes snuck into games in sweats and a baseball cap so she wouldn't get noticed.
She had to deal with broad generalizations from pretty much everyone in the industry. At an NBA pre-draft in Orlando, the organizers kept redirecting her from the scout line to the media line. "They kept trying to tell me I was in the wrong line," says Laflin. "Like I was making it up that I was a scout."
But Laflin was determined not to let her gender affect how she was portrayed by her coworkers. So she did whatever it took to make sure she was there for the meetings and the after-hours bonding. "We'd be on the road and after 12 hours of scouting games, all I'd want to do was go back to the hotel and decompress," says Laflin. "Instead, I'd go out with the guys for drinks and catching up—I wouldn't even drink at all, but I didn't want them to think I couldn't hang." Even if it meant sitting at a bar with wings and a soda, Laflin wasn't about to miss out on time to network and bond with her colleagues. "It's like the secret society of these scouts and I was trying to break in. I took a different path, and sometimes change scares people."
Laflin always thought of herself as a secure and confident person, but the discrimination that she faced understandably took a toll on her. "I was constantly going to my mentors to make sure my scouting report was perfect," she says. "I found myself trying to overcompensate for every little thing." She knew if she spoke up in meetings and at press conferences that it better be good, because all eyes were on her.
Soon she got comfortable with the notion that she would have to prove a few people wrong. Her solution: making sure she was always the most prepared person in the room. "Just like when a pro team is scouting for players, your bosses are going to want to see that you are ready, willing, and able to be a team player," says Laflin. "Study what you need to study, and don't be afraid to take assignments you don't like. Meet everyone you can in the business, and treat them with respect, regardless of where they may be on the food chain." It was these do-anything tactics that got her noticed in her field—regardless of her gender.
"I might have had to work harder, just like any woman in a traditionally male-dominated field," says Laflin. "But I was lucky to have a terrific group of people who genuinely wanted me to succeed." And she definitely did succeed: snagging five Championship rings with the Lakers between 2000 and 2010. Today Laflin is still a major presence in the sports broadcasting world—hosting shows in China and on Sirius/XM radio. After everything she's accomplished, she has a few lessons for other women going after their dream job: "Learn as much as you can, be willing to work hard, and don't stop trying to find people who want to share their knowledge and experience with you."