Bulls performance psychologist Wendy Borlabi serves as inspiration for working mothers

Before the meeting to discuss the Bulls’ first in-house sports psychologist position, a friend advised Borlabi not to disclose that she was a single mother, let alone the mother of twins under 4.

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Doctor Wendy Borlabi stands with her twins, Bernard and Scout in front of their home for a socially distanced series documenting families in their neighborhood.

Provided Photo/Rossie Schwartz

Bulls performance psychologist Wendy Borlabi vividly remembers her final meeting with president Michael Reinsdorf before being offered the position. It took place during the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

Before the meeting to discuss the Bulls’ first in-house sports psychologist position, a friend advised Borlabi not to disclose that she was a single mother, let alone the mother of twins under 4.

Borlabi thought to herself, no. Not only had she prepared herself for this moment with all the degrees she had earned, but she also knew she couldn’t take a job that didn’t value who she was as a mother.

“They are my priority,” Borlabi said. “I’m not going to hide that. So I laid it all out for him.”

She shared the story of a routine visit to the doctor years earlier, during which she found out she had a golfball-sized fibroid cyst pressing on her uterus. If she wanted to have children, she would need surgery to remove it and begin the process of in vitro fertilization.

After her surgery in January 2011, Borlabi began IVF at Fertility Specialist Medical Group in San Diego. She found out she was pregnant in April, and in November, she gave birth to twins.

When she finished, Reinsdorf shared his own story.

He explained that Sheri Berto, the longtime assistant to his father, Jerry, had died having surgery similar to Borlabi’s. Emotions were high by the time they finished the meeting.

For Borlabi, there was never a question of how she would balance motherhood and a demanding job.

In fact, from the time she began her master’s program at Georgia Southern University, she worked twice as hard getting degrees that would ensure she could dictate her work-life balance.

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Provided Photo

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Borlabi moved to Midwest City, Oklahoma, from Ghana with her parents, Frank and Elsie, and her brother, Bernard, when she was 3. Her younger sister, Audrey, was born in the U.S.

Her parents wanted them to be Americanized, so Borlabi and her siblings grew up playing sports. Borlabi was a basketball player, and sports quickly became part of her identity.

Borlabi has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southwestern Oklahoma State University, a master’s in kinesiology with a concentration in sports psychology from Georgia Southern and her doctorate in clinical psychology with a concentration in sports psychology from Argosy University in Phoenix.

But those degrees came with challenges that eventually shaped Borlabi’s gritty determination.

Borlabi almost failed out of Southwestern Oklahoma State after a poor freshman year. She returned after a year off and finished her degree on time. After years working with adolescent male sex offenders at a charter hospital in Atlanta, Borlabi decided to go back to school when she was 28.

She visited Georgia Southern and met with the kinesiology department dean, who told her she would need to earn straight A’s in her first semester in the program to continue in it.

Borlabi made all A’s and graduated from the program at 30. She was the only woman, and she had three white male colleagues. By the time Borlabi got to Argosy, she was battle-tested. More importantly, she gained the confidence that she could make anything she wanted happen.

One piece of advice from her counselor at Georgia Southern has stuck with her throughout her career.

“He said, ‘You might want to rethink this career,’ ” Borlabi said. “ ‘Because sports psychologists who are doing applied work are white males. These white men are not going to step over for an African American woman to take their job.’ ”

•••

Borlabi was working at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when the Olympics came calling.

There was an open sports psychologist position, but instead of applying, Borlabi ignored it.

“It was the fear of success,” she said. “I was successful at James Madison University, but to have the Olympics calling me, that’s a whole other level. But eventually, I applied.”

Borlabi would spend the next chapter of her life in San Diego, working as a sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee in November 2009.

Two years later, Borlabi would have her fateful doctor visit that set in motion her journey to becoming a mother.

At five months pregnant during the London Games, Borlabi had IV treatments every other day. During one trip to the cafeteria, a concerned Russell Westbrook advised her against a certain kind of jello he was sure would make things worse for her.

Borlabi spent the final six weeks of her pregnancy in the hospital, meeting with her athletes via Skype. A bed sheet behind her hospital bed gave the illusion she was still in her office.

“The nurses put a sign on my door that said ‘In Session,’ ” Borlabi said. “I didn’t want anyone to know, but I still had to do my job. Obviously, my boss knew I was in the hospital.”

Scout and Bernard, a girl and a boy, were born Nov. 28, 2012. Borlabi continued working for the U.S. Olympic Committee until 2014. During her final months in San Diego, she consulted for the NBA and played what she called a “zone defense” taking care of the twins.

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Provided Photo/Rossie Schwartz

•••

Not long before the coronavirus pandemic flipped the sports world upside down, Borlabi walked into the Advocate Center with her twins on either side of her.

She was there to speak with Michael Reinsdorf, and before long, her 7-year-olds were in his office talking about Michael Jordan.

“Can he fly?” one asked.

“I want to be like Mike,” the other said.

“Michael and I just looked at each other and laughed,” Borlabi said, retelling the story. “It was like they were in the commercials.”

On a typical workday, pre-coronavirus, Borlabi liked to arrive at the Advocate Center early. Her goal was to be there as players and staff started trickling in for breakfast to provide what she calls “little nuggets,” or personal reminders to the team that she’s present and available.

The NBA adopted new rules at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, mandating that every team add a full-time mental health professional. But the Bulls were two years ahead of the game with Borlabi.

In the last seven weeks, like the rest of the world, Borlabi’s schedule has changed drastically. She went from 12-plus-hour days, bouncing between the Advocate Center and the United Center, and multiple days spent on the road with the team to working a double shift as mom and teacher to the twins.

Her sacred time with her children is at the dinner table and just before bed, when she gets to read them each a story, ask them how their day went and rub their backs until they fall asleep.

When she reflects on her life personally and professionally, she can’t help but think there are no coincidences.

“This is exactly where we are supposed to be,” Borlabi said.

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