uOttawa alumna Dawn Smyth is helping the NBA bring basketball to the world

Dawn Smyth (BSc ’05)
Dawn Smyth, Senior Director of International Basketball Operations with the National Basketball Association (NBA).
For Dawn Smyth (BSc Human Kinetics ’05), basketball is a passion, a profession, and a means for her to pursue her mission of lifelong learning. As the senior director of international basketball operations with the National Basketball Association (NBA), Smyth is responsible for leading a team across 15 NBA offices outside of the U.S.. Together, they oversee youth basketball programming in 173 countries, impacting more than 60 million people worldwide.

It all stemmed from a nugget of parental advice: “When I was in high school, my dad said, ‘find something you love and find a way to get paid for it,’” shares Smyth. Her teenage years in Ottawa revolved around high school basketball, and Smyth heard that studying kinesiology could lead to a career in the sport.

Smyth was never far from the court during her degree at uOttawa. When a recurring ACL injury prevented her from playing, she turned instead to coaching.

“Officiating and coaching allowed me to understand the strategy around basketball,” expands Smyth. “I realized I loved creating training environments that would allow for the greatest amount of improvement within the timeline given.”

After graduating from uOttawa, Smyth spent a year as an assistant coach for the Gee-Gees women’s basketball program. “I was working with some amazing young women, some of whom I had played against growing up,” remembers Smyth. “I only had one female coach the entire time I played, and so showing up as a female role model was something that felt very rewarding.”

Dawn Smyth with young basketball players in Japan.
Smyth in Tokyo Japan after the first ever Her Time to Play Clinic in Japan that delivered specialized basketball training for young women as part of the NBA Japan Global Games 2022.

From the Gee-Gees to the NBA

By nature, basketball is constantly evolving. There are new strategies, shifting trends, and a different slate of opponents with each game. This ongoing need to learn is something that compels Smyth to the sport. Her time at uOttawa taught her to always be open to new experiences, even if they may not offer an immediate or clear payoff.

This growth mindset has led Smyth to two master's degrees, one in education and coaching and the other in sports marketing and communication, and various coaching certifications. That includes the National Coaching Certification program and graduating from the National Coaching Institute, the top tier of professional training for coaches. Smyth used that knowledge to coauthor a book to help players develop their skills.

It was Smyth’s second master’s degree—attained at an Italian university in conjunction with Euroleague Basketball—that connected her to the world of global basketball. Building on her seven years as a director with Canada Basketball, Smyth started an exciting new chapter when she became the NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations in November 2019.

uOttawa President Jacques Frémont, Dawn Smyth and Hugh Verrier.
uOttawa President Jacques Frémont, Dawn Smyth (BSc Human Kinetics ’05, Gee-Gees), Hugh Verrier (LLB ’81), Partner, White & Case and uOttawa Campaign Cabinet Member at an alumni & friends event in NYC, November 2023.

Connecting people with the game she loves

Broadly, Smyth works to fulfill the NBA’s mission of inspiring and connecting people everywhere through the power of basketball. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this meant supporting the NBA to rapidly pivot its youth development and officiating programs online—something Smyth had coincidentally done in her prior role with Canada Basketball.

“The pandemic removed barriers and borders between countries, and online delivery is now a standard part of the NBA,” says Smyth of the pandemic’s legacy. “We did some of the coolest online events where you could see people in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas doing basketball skills activities and feeling like part of a community at the same time.”

Now that the pandemic has resided, Smyth is often jetting off from her home in New York to the countries where the NBA runs a youth development program. That may take the form of a Jr.  NBA League tournament that includes skills clinics for kids and games that attract thousands of onlookers. Or it could mean helping organize NBA Basketball School camps or after school programs in partnership with cities, national governments, private organizations, or other groups with aligned values.

Smyth with former NBA players at Basketball Africa League Finals.
Smyth with former NBA African Legends DJ Mbenga, Dikembe Mutombo, WNBA Legend Mery Andrade and NBA Africa Basketball Operations staff in Kigali Rwanda in 2022 after a delivery of a Jr. NBA Clinic for local youth during the Basketball Africa League Finals.

As well as presenting young people with hands-on opportunities to play basketball, the NBA and WNBA often bring in star players and teams so people can witness the highest level of basketball in person.

Smyth’s role within these international programs is multifaceted. It includes strategy and business development for events, as well as finding ways to improve them in the future. “And then there have been times when I’ve thrown on my running shoes and been able to jump in on the court, which has been fun and refreshing,” laughs Smyth.

In many of her overseas collaborations, Smyth says the French language exposure she received at uOttawa has helped her be more effective and is something that differentiates her from her American colleagues.

Smyth is content in her role and not ready to think too much about what comes next. One thing that coaching has taught her, however, is the value of preparation. She tries to weave that reminder into her day-to-day life, learning as much as possible and approaching new opportunities with an open mind.

Regardless of her future, it’s certain that Smyth’s love of basketball will shine through. “I think back to what basketball brought me as a youth: the confidence, the building of healthy lifestyles, the friendships,” concludes Smyth. “The opportunities that you can bestow on youth through basketball and youth sport are ones that can greatly impact their lives and our entire society.”