When the San Antonio Spurs brought Becky Hammon on as an assistant coach last summer, head coach Gregg Popovich didn't get too caught up in the historic nature of the hire. That Hammon was a woman, and would be the first woman hired as a full-time assistant coach in the history of major men's American sports, was secondary; to hear the legendary bench boss tell it, Hammon was first and foremost a savvy instructor whose "basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills" he admired, a whip-smart veteran whose understanding of the game and how to teach it would prove an asset to the Spurs' ongoing attempt to build and maintain championship-contending teams.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
A six-time WNBA All-Star and four-time All-WNBA selection and one of the most decorated point guards in the history of the women's game, Hammon essentially interned with the Spurs' coaching staff during the 2013-14 NBA season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. ("She's been perfect," Pop said of her.) Hammon repaid the faith that Pop and general manager R.C. Buford showed in her this month, leading the Spurs' Las Vegas Summer League squad to the 2015 league title and igniting leaguewide discussion over when — not if — the pioneering Hammon will get an opportunity to make even more history as the NBA's first female head coach.
All that chatter, which reached the highest levels of NBA leadership, is a very good thing for a league that aims to be the most progressive among America's major pro sports. And while it's still, at base, about basketball to him, Pop — an "incurably inquisitive" and exceptionally thoughtful sort who's often very willing to give detailed answers to smart questions (provided, of course, they don't come between quarters) — did confirm during a recent interview that sees Hammon's success, subsequently raised profile and ignition of consideration of women coaching men professionally as a "step in the right direction."
From Popovich's recent sitdown with former NBA big man and KNBR radio host Tom Tolbert, who played under Pop when the latter was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors back in 1992 (starts at about the 8:55 mark):
Tolbert: Speaking of Summer League, how big a deal was it that Becky Hammon was the coach of a team that won Summer League? Or was it a big deal that she was just the head coach of a Summer League team?
Popovich: You know, it became huge when we hired her, and now it's even bigger, because of the Summer League situation. But we didn't even think about that stuff. I hired her because she was in my coaches' meetings for a whole year because she was injured, and she's got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player, and as a point guard, she's a leader, she's fiery, she's got high intelligence and our guys just respected the heck out of her. She's out on the court, she's coaching with us, she's running drills. And so that's why we made her a full-time person, and that's why I gave her the opportunity to coach in Summer League.
I don't even look at her as, 'Well, she's the first female this or that or the other.' She's a coach, and she's good at it. I think some people thought, 'Well, this is some sort of a gimmick, they're just trying to be cool,' or whatever. I'm glad she's there. I respect her opinion. I enjoy the give-and-take with her. And when she went to the Summer League ... you know, that's about development. It gives coaches a chance to coach, but the real reason you're there is to watch your new draft pick or a free agent that you might like develop and hopefully make your team. That was her purpose. She did a great job of just concentrating on trying to make guys play the way we want to play and develop as individuals. It worked out that we won the Summer League, but I don't think [Warriors head coach and defending NBA champion] Steve Kerr is real worried about that.
(No, but Kerr might have something to worry about given what else the Spurs have accomplished on their summer vacation.)
Pop's perspective on the specific goals Hammon accomplished en route to the Summer League victory dovetails (as you might expect) with the way Buford sees things, according to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:
Had a chance to speak to Buford tonight. Biggest takeaway from Hammon: "The most impressive part...we got better over the week." (1/2)
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) July 24, 2015
"She handled herself with real poise. Her timeouts were purposeful. We ran good stuff out of timeouts. The team reacted well to her." (2/2)
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) July 24, 2015
Tolbert admitted that during his playing career in the late 1980s and early '90s — and even as recently as a few years ago — he never would've thought it possible that a woman would be a head coach in the NBA, but that as years have advanced and perspectives have evolved, it's become a much more reasonable prospect. Popovich agreed:
Popovich: You know, I think it's more — it's what you say, it's a societal sort of thing. America, we're great at sticking our heads in the sand and being behind the rest of the world in a whole lot of areas. We think we're this big, democratic, fair, fair place, but you know, you look at our world now, and whether it's gender-wise or racially or religiously, there's all kinds of stuff going on that is not the way it's supposed to be. I think a female coaching a team these days has got a lot to do with the people on the teams maturing as individuals, as civil members of a society, understanding that it's not about any of those things. It's about talent. It's about respect. And I think, you know, people like Becky, over time, who gain respect and people understand that this is possible ... it can happen. Just like women getting the vote. How many years did that take? It's ridiculous when you think about how many decades and centuries in some cases before change was made.
But I think, you know, here since 2000, changes have been pretty damn rapid in a lot of ways. And I think people are fed up with injustice and with people not respecting other people's space and who they are. I think it's a step in the right direction.
Tolbert expanded the discussion to consideration of openly gay players on men's pro sports teams, an issue famously broached in the NBA when Jason Collins came out two years ago. Collins' landmark announcement and subsequent signing with the Brooklyn Nets opened the door to increased tolerance among players within NBA locker rooms, and as Popovich described it, it's incumbent on those in leadership roles within the league — on rosters, on coaching staffs, in front offices and elsewhere — to demand that tolerance and promote greater acceptance, whether in the context of a player's sexual orientation or a coach's gender:
The other half of it is, on leadership's part, you've got to say, 'Figure it out, Jack.' I mean, 'You guys: figure it out. You're going to have to handle it. This is the way it is.' It's a dual approach, I think. Some of it's got to be ... not forced, but matter-of-factly stated that this is the world. Grow up. Mature. Widen your horizons. And secondly, be loving enough to continue to educate some of those that maybe never had an opportunity to change their mindset.
None of Popovich's comments are surprising, of course. He offered a characteristically gruff shrug of support after Collins came out ("I could care less if somebody's gay or not gay [...] He's no different than anybody else to me"), he's been vocally supportive of Hammon throughout the last year, and he's long ranked as one of the league's preeminent voices in favor of diversity of opinion, experience and background within his own locker room and organization. What matters, though, isn't whether or not the statement of such attitudes can be considered revelatory; it's that the statements get repeated, and filter their way down to the base of our collective sporting consciousness.
Pop saying coaching is about talent and respect more than gender in and of itself isn't groundbreaking, but Pop and others saying it over and over again can certainly help break down the remaining biases among those who still feel today like Tolbert said he felt years back about the viability of a woman coaching men at the NBA level. The more the message gets hammered home, the closer we get to eradicating the resistance to it. Seems like a pretty appropriately Spurs-y way to think about it.
Hat-tip to Eye on Basketball.
- - - - - - -