As UNLV basketball players high-five and joke with the ball boys and girls before a recent game at the Thomas & Mack Center, Kreigh Warkentien can’t help smiling. She spent a good part of her childhood out on that hardwood.
Warkentien, 25, is UNLV’s director of basketball operations—one of only three women to hold such a post in Division I men’s basketball. But she hardly feels a stranger on the Rebels’ bench.
A former administrative assistant to Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, Warkentien was one of Dave Rice’s first hires after he became UNLV’s head coach in April 2011.
Rice—a member of UNLV’s 1990 national championship team—was consciously looking to make the Rebels’ rich basketball tradition a part of the team’s present. The hiring of legendary UNLV forward Stacey Augmon as an assistant coach helped cement those connections.
So, in a quieter way, did the arrival of Warkentien. Her father, Mark Warkentien, was an assistant to former Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian during the team’s glory years in the 1980s and early ’90s. (Warkentien trivia: As the Rebels prepared to play Indiana in New Orleans at the 1987 Final Four, Mark noticed a Hoosier swingman named Kreigh Smith. The Rebels lost, but coach Warkentien’s first child got a name.)
Kreigh grew up to earn her bachelor’s degree at ASU in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in communication and business. For Sendek, she oversaw travel, equipment, recruiting and training-table budgets, and assisted with academic support. She does all of that and more for Rice, overseeing players’ campus housing, maintaining compliance paperwork, arranging practice schedules and serving as a liaison between the coaches, players and academic adviser. Rice says she provides encouragement and structure for the players.
Warkentien—who is working toward her master’s degree in sports management—dismisses the notion that the hurdles are higher for a female in such a male-dominated environment. “The biggest challenge would be letting yourself believe that as a female in this position you are different than a male,” she says.
In any case, she’s dealt with bigger challenges. Warkentien was born with cystic fibrosis, or CF. Both of her parents are carriers of the genetic disorder, but neither they nor her younger sister, Aubrie, have the disease.
CF most critically affects the lungs, but it can affect other organs. Co-workers have become accustomed to Warkentien’s chronic cough, which is relieved by morning and evening sessions with a medicated nebulizer. Warkentien says hers is a mild case of CF, but the disease is often deadly, with an average life expectancy of about 40. To raise awareness, she volunteers for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s national Great Strides walkathon, which raised $40 million for research, care and education programs in 2012.
“The growth of awareness over the past 20 years has been huge,” she says. “For people to know [about her CF] is important, as long as you don’t give yourself limitations.”
For now, she’s most concerned with the basketball in her blood. She might one day be a collegiate athletic director, or even a director of player personnel for an NBA team—a title her father holds for the New York Knicks. Or, in 20 years, she still might have her dream job—the one she’s got right now, right here at UNLV.
“Everything is a possibility,” she says. “I just try to take it one day at a time. You can’t really plan on basketball.”