Nader Granmayeh, Contributing Photographer

It is Thursday morning in the John J. Lee Amphitheatre, and Coach Dalila Eshe’s team has just finished practice, standing around her in the court as sunlight pours down from the windows above the stands.  

As Eshe — “Coach D” to her players — leads the team in a conversation about the upcoming game, anybody is welcome to contribute. Players and assistant coaches chime in. Because the team has lost their last three games, they talk about returning to the fundamentals of basketball, which seem to always make up the foundation of winning teams: tough rebounding, physical defense, and confidence. The conversation ends, Eshe gives some final words, and the crowd disperses. 

Despite the adversity that team has experienced in her first year as the head coach, including the injury of star player Camila Emsbo ’23 and a recent losing streak, Eshe said that she is exactly where she wants to be.

“It is 100 percent everything that I thought it would be,” she said. “I am now having to deal with the psychological portion of rebuilding a team, which is a lot more taxing than one would think it would be because we’re trying to regrow an entire culture. And so I go home some days and I’m  utterly exhausted and frustrated… And then I remind myself, this is exactly what I wanted to do and this challenge is exactly what I wanted.” 

When Eshe says that this is exactly what she wanted to do, she means it.

Before she went on to become a star player at the University of Florida, where she set a school record with 39 consecutive free throws during her senior season, and before she played professional basketball after being selected 25th overall in the 2006 WNBA draft, Eshe was just a freshman in high school starting to play basketball.

“In my freshman year, basketball started to become serious for me,” she said.  “I started planning … I knew that I wanted to get a college scholarship, play professionally, and I knew at that point, and even said it to my parents and wrote it down, that I wanted to be a head coach for a division one program.”

Now, in her first year as the head coach of the Yale Women’s Basketball team, it seems as if Eshe has achieved the goals that she set off to accomplish at the age of 14. The next challenge on her mind is creating a winning culture within the Yale Women’s Basketball program.

“Winning can be putting a banner up there, but it can also be the growth of these young women,” Eshe said. “Everything that we do here… transfers to the rest of their life, it transfers to their ability to fight through things that are difficult to push through to the other side, and find confidence in themselves.”

Eshe is the first Black woman to be a head coach at Yale. 

She estimated that while about 50 percent of the athletes who play women’s basketball in college are Black, only around 20 percent of the head coaches are Black women, adding that these athletes are then “not seeing the representation of themselves playing on the court.”

“It’s a huge deal [to me].” she said. “I want it to be diverse across the board, [where] you’d have choices to play for somebody who looks like you, for someone who doesn’t… and it gets to the point where it’s not even a conversation.”

This representation has already made its impact on the Yale squad, according to Nyla McGill ’25.

“It very much matters to have someone you can relate to, especially when the rest of the team can’t.” McGill said. “In terms of small things like hair and skin care, and also big things such as upbringing and experiencing social prejudices. It brings comfort knowing someone understands what you deal with and therefore is much better in supporting you.”

When Eshe was playing college basketball at the University of Florida, her coach was Carolyn Peck. Three years before arriving at Florida, Peck had led the Purdue University women’s basketball team to a national championship, subsequently becoming the first Black woman to coach a team to a NCAA division one national championship. 

“That representation alone through my four years of college of being able to play for the first black female that ever won a national championship…was huge, that representation every single day, to see the platform that I wanted to be on and to play for her was huge,” Eshe said. 

Now that Eshe is coaching the Yale women’s basketball team, she reflected on the role she can play to pave the way for future generations of Black women athletes. 

“I spent a lot of time knowing the programs that had Black females as head coaches, and watching them and how they carry themselves and hoping for their success,” Eshe said. “Because a lot of times with minorities across the board, when you get an opportunity, and you’re successful, you have now paved the way for the young black females after you.”

And Eshe knows how to win. At her last job as an assistant coach at Princeton University, she helped coach the Tigers to an Ivy League Championship and a top 25 national ranking.

“Dalila is an incredibly skilled and talented coach who connects deeply with her student-athletes,” Yale athletic director Vicki Chun said. “I am so excited for the new level of excellence she will undoubtedly continue to bring to our program. Her future is so bright at Yale, and we are excited for what is to come under her direction.”

Eshe has been studying victory for a long time. While at the University of Florida, Eshe studied psychology with an emphasis on sports psychology in order to better understand the mental side of the game.

Eshe has been around many coaches and has learned from each one, bringing these experiences to her role at Yale. She named her Amateur Athletic Union coach, Kimberly Davis Powell, as one of her role models. To this day, the two “still talk” and Davis Powell knows Eshe’s children. 

“I think a good coach is one that is in tune with their players.” Eshe said. “Not just not being concerned with them for what they do for you on the court, but just loving them as an individual person and being present in the whole aspect of their life.”

On February 25, the Yale women’s basketball team will travel to Ithaca to face off against Cornell. 

HENRY FRECH