The Sixers are leading the way in the NBA when it comes to putting women in charge. Meet Annelie Schmittel, vice president of player development, and read our other profiles here.

A 7-year-old girl wearing a braided blonde pony tail and a plain denim vest walking past the court stopped dead. She looked at Annelie Schmittel once; twice; a third time; eyes wide, mouth agape.

She saw what everyone else saw: In the middle of all those NBA giants stood someone who looked just like her.

This happens to Dr. Annelie Schmittel all the time these days. The Sixers hired the 31-year-old German former high-jumper in January to be their new vice president of player development, chiefly tasked with helping new players find their way and helping old players exit the game with a strategy for the rest of their lives. She is constantly around the team: at practices, on the team plane (she travels with the team), and, on game nights, courtside until tip-off.

People notice her. Just weeks after the Sixers hired her she received a LinkedIn message from an anonymous dad:

“You don’t know who I am. My daughter is 12 years old. I just want you to know: You’re going to be her role model. I want to know how I can be a better dad for her, so she knows she can one day get a job like yours.”

“Because I have this position, it allows little girls to think it’s possible," Schmittel said. "When I was little, and even when I was not so little, I would look for that one woman.”

Annelie Schmittel is always with the team -- at practices, on the road, courtside before games.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Annelie Schmittel is always with the team -- at practices, on the road, courtside before games.

When she was little, that woman was German tennis star Steffi Graf, who won the “Golden Slam” -- all four grand slam titles plus the Olympics -- in 1988, the year Schmittel was born. Growing up in Zell, 15 minutes from the Swiss border, she could ski as soon as she could walk, studied karate to focus her energies and played both basketball and tennis before deciding to be a jumper. She spent her senior year as an exchange student in Black River Falls High in Wisconsin, where she caught the football bug and fell in love.

Both she and her future husband, local football star Erik Steine, went to Winona State, but both battled injury. He mangled his leg in a farming accident after his senior season. She simply wore out her hips, knees and back when she added the triple jump and long jump to her menu of events, and quit after her junior season.

She taught classes as she pursued her master’s degree in sports communication at Winona State and tried her hand at reporting.

One day her Skype guest was Katie Douglass, then the Kansas City Chiefs’ director of player development. The idea of helping athletes adjust to a new life and prepare for their next life — much the same way she and Erik had faced collegiate athletics — fascinated her: “I was, like, ‘I want that job.’”

After she completed her PhD in sports communication at Florida in 2015 she contacted the Buccaneers and the Jaguars, and those interviews led to a player-development job with the Raiders. For the last three years, she was a steady beacon in bizarro world. She helped Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper complete his degree at Alabama and helped Bruce Irvin complete his degree at West Virginia. Cooper was 23. Irvin was 30.

Schmittel attended Irvin’s graduation: "It was my proudest moment so far."

Her combination of fearlessness, resilience and empathy led the Sixers to choose her over 500 other candidates.

“She understands how to help younger elite professional athletes maximize their careers and balance their lives. I knew I wouldn’t back down and get good results,” said Sixers general manager Elton Brand. “What she and her husband went through in college — that does drive her. She truly cares, and it shows.”

Schmittel’s skeptics have been around for years, especially when she worked in the NFL. A typical introductory conversation went like this:

"What do you do?’

“I work for the Raiders.”

“Really? Are you a Raiderette?”

“I’d be really wealthy if I got a dollar for every time someone asked me if I was a cheerleader.”

She’s never had to deal with this with the Sixers. But then, like most of the NBA, the Sixers boast a roster of accomplished women who are changing the landscape of the industry.

“In pro football, there aren’t a lot of females in any role that is really close to players,” Schmittel said. “It’s growing. It’s changing. It has to change.”