Most days, Sarah Works says, she can still beat any of the Lobo men’s basketball players in a game of H.O.R.S.E.
“Oh yeah. And they know it.”
But her basketball ability and decorated hoops background, ironically enough, isn’t really why she finds herself on the bench of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team.
It doesn’t hurt, of course. And there’s no denying that her love of the basketball was a heavy influence on why she made her way over to the program a year ago in the first place while nearing completion of her Ph.D. program in Sports Administration at UNM.
But the reality is, second-year head coach Paul Weir is far more interested in how the program could benefit from Works’ life experiences off the court, and those gained in another court.
Earlier this week, Weir announced Works, a respected lawyer, tribal court judge, former NAIA athletic director and former prep and college basketball star, accepted the position of Director of Player Development, an unpaid position with the program aimed at helping develop Lobos away from the sport as much as in it.
“Her totally different background is incredibly appealing to me,” said Weir, who spent much of his first year at UNM trying to build a foundation for the program that is based heavily on fitness, nutrition and strengthening players’ minds as much as their bodies. To do so, he has maintained, they need to be surrounded with influences they might not otherwise be used to.
“For me to ask a question to three assistant basketball coaches,” Weir said, “90 percent of the time, you’re going to get the same answer. With her in the mix, I would hope there would be situations where we get a perspective none of us were thinking about or even could think about just based on our own life experiences. … That, selfishly, was part of it. It’s just so appealing to me to have her around to help all of us in our growth.”
Works’ background certainly doesn’t look typical among most college basketball staffers.
Growing up on the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington as the daughter of social workers – mother, father and stepfather – who worked around the reservation, Works’ unique perspective was formed.
“I grew up in the context of a lot of oppression of minorities,” said Works. “A lot of oppression of Native Americans. So that was just my everyday context of living. So, when I got to go to such a great law school with such a great Indian law program, I saw a lot of options to fix some of the problems I saw growing up.”
Works was a star high school basketball player in Washington and at the University of Idaho, where she earned a degree in political science and philosophy in 1993. She is a 1995 graduate of the University of Arizona law school, which, like UNM, she says, has one of the best Indian law programs in the nation.
Works is a mother of two – 16-year-old River and 14-year-old Eagle, both members of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, where she in the past has served as Chief Justice for the Court of Appeals and as general counsel. Her professional life as a lawyer, including private practice, has been focused on economic development and gaming compacts.
She still practices law while finishing the Ph.D. and is the chief judge of the Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Court in northern California, which require quarterly work trips to California.
But, while Weir has been open about seeking balance outside of basketball, pursuing multiple degrees and also still completing his Ph.D. work, Works sought basketball as the avenue to find balance of her own to avoid burnout as a lawyer, something she says is common in the field, especially among women.
And what she saw when she helped out strength and conditioning coach Tyler Stuart last season convinced her to stick with the program in whatever capacity she can.
“I saw that coach Weir was building the type of basketball program I always wish would have been built,” Works said. “… The type of program that puts strength, conditioning and nutrition under the spotlight because that is where championships come from. A type of program that recognizes that the young people in the sport are multi-dimensional. Their passions matter. They’re not just athletes. They’ve got lives. They’ve got families. They’ve got musical interests. Artistic interests. I love it in athletics, and particularly in men’s basketball, when the young men can really be embraced for the whole people that they are and not just be seen as an athletic commodity.”
Works said not once did she feel her gender was an issue with a player or colleague while working with the team last season. She doesn’t foresee it being an issue moving forward.
But Weir admits it is something he sees as a huge plus.
“In any predominantly male organization,” Weir said, “be it in sports or government or whatever it might be, when men get around men, they can all lose perspective. I think if you look at young men making mistakes, it can often be rooted in surrounding themselves only with other young men. … I think this can give them an opportunity to grow, and I really can’t wait to see how we all grow having her as a part of what we’re doing.”