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Hoop Dreams

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Collingswood native Cathy Engelbert, a Hall of Fame CHS athlete, spent the last year transitioning from trailblazing CEO to her new role as the WNBA’s first commissioner 

Collingswood native Cathy Engelbert was named the first commissioner in the history of the WNBA in July. (Credit: Courtesy NBA Photos)

Springtime was always a fun time of the year at Kurt and Margaret Engelbert’s home on the White Horse Pike, just off Collins Avenue.

Once the bone-chilling cold was gone and there was no need for gloves and snow boots, the backyard was abuzz. Basketball was in session.

With eight kids, including the oldest six separated by just seven years, the competition was intense.

“We’d want to play until 10 or 11 at night but we had neighbors, so my dad would have to set a curfew,” Cathy Engelbert recalled recently. “And every spring when the ice would melt, they’d spray paint a foul line where our station wagon usually parked. We’d have to move the cars, (at least) when we were old enough to move them. Otherwise our parents were moving them.”

A love for the game was fostered at a young age for Cathy Engelbert, the fifth child and second daughter of Kurt Engelbert, who played on legendary coach Jack Ramsay’s St. Joseph University teams in the 1950s. 

She capitalized on a combination of strong athletic genes and hard work through constant sibling rivalries by excelling at Collingswood High School. Engelbert starred in basketball, lacrosse and tennis for the Panthers; when she was inducted into the Collingswood High School Hall of Fame in 1993, she was the only athlete in school history to be an All-South Jersey selection in three different sports. 

Like her father, Cathy Engelbert’s favorite sport was basketball, so it was fitting when she returned to those roots last summer and made history in the process. Engelbert was named the first commissioner in the history of the WNBA in July.

“If you talked to me 25 years ago, I’d always wanted to be a sportscaster on ESPN,” Engelbert said. “When I was growing up, ESPN was just being launched. So I always thought it would be cool to be Linda Cohn or Hannah Storm. But ultimately I took this job because after 33 years in business I wanted to do something different, something where I would have a broad women’s leadership platform, and something I had a passion for. Not really thinking it would take me into sports and back to basketball, but the passion part is huge. I love the game.”

Engelbert, who played under current Notre Dame two-time National championship-winning coach Muffet McGraw at Lehigh University, has taken a sharp turn back to basketball. She moved to the WNBA after more than 30 years at Deloitte, where she rose to CEO, becoming the first woman to lead one of the United States “Big Four” service firms.

In her first half year on the job as the league’s first commish — her predecessors were league “presidents” — Engelbert got quite a lot accomplished. She toured the the landscape of the WNBA throughout the summer, meeting with players, coaches, management, and fans of the league’s 12 teams. After the season came to an end in October, Engelbert used her business acumen to hammer out a historic, eight-year collective-bargaining agreement that brought increased player salaries (a 53 percent spike, with players reining in an average of $130,000), guaranteed full salaries for players on maternity leave, and introduced other health and travel benefits into the league, too.

“We’re tripling the pay of our top players …  but also maternity, fertility and adoption benefits …  A child care stipend for our moms. So something for everybody,” Engelbert said. “A very holistic view, making sure that we are taking care of our players as professional athletes as they deserve …  If you’re trying to transform a league and lift women and women in sports, you’ve got to get long-term labor peace, and that’s what we did.”

Engelbert went from backyard basketball junkie to Division I basketball athlete to rising business executive to trailblazing CEO to WNBA commissioner in the span of 40 years because of her hard work, intellect, and determination. Her family surely helped mold her into a highly successful professional. 

After her father passed away in 1987, Engelbert’s mother, Margaret, continued to raise the family and work full-time. She didn’t retire from her job at a local pediatrician’s office until recently, after 60-plus years with the business. 

Engelbert’s Collingswood roots played a pivotal role in her development as a young professional, too.

She named Collingswood coaches Bea Markwick, Sam Young and Mimi Bach as influential mentors. And then there was Mike D’Alessandro, who Engelbert didn’t have as a coach (he coached boys tennis), but welcomed her as a newcomer to the Collingswood school district.

“Mike D’Alessandro was an icon … he taught history in ninth grade,” Engelbert said. “Most kids went through the public school system but I didn’t, so I didn’t get there until ninth grade. Coach D’Alessandro was really instrumental in making sure I had the confidence that I would be this great athlete.”

Engelbert, who lives with her family in northern New Jersey, is grateful for her upbringing in Collingswood and returns to the area often to help pay it forward. She emcees the Collingswood High School Athletic Hall of Fame ceremony each spring (this year’s is on March 30 at Cherry Hill’s Crowne Plaza). She also regularly meets with young women to let them know that they, too, can succeed in any athletic, academic, or professional venture they choose.

“I tell everyone I never aspired to be a CEO or a commissioner, I just happened to be a first in both of those,” Engelbert began. “I was just with a group of high school students in New York City and what I told them is that we need (two) things from you: we need confidence and we need courage — because confidence and courage are important for girls today to become future leaders of tomorrow. And as I look around at these girls I see a little lack of confidence that I don’t see in their male counterparts. 

“And when I speak to college students or young professionals, I tell them they need to be courageous in taking risks. I think it was Wayne Gretzky who said it, but it applies in basketball, too: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. So I think about the practice it took to mold me into the athlete I ultimately was and the leader I was.”

Dream big. Stay steadfast and driven toward your goals. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.  

Engelbert left Collingswood and eventually became one of the most successful business leaders in the country. She’s now back with the sport she fell in love with as a young girl and paving the way for future generations, too.

RYAN LAWRENCE
RYAN LAWRENCE
Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.

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