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More than two years after her barrier-breaking hire as the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history, Becky Hammon is still grinding away with the San Antonio Spurs. No flash in the pan or gimmick hire, the 39-year-old Hammon is still standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Ime Udoka, Ettore Messina and Chip Engelland, still working as as part of the legendary Gregg Popovich’s staff to help push the squad to the second-best record in the NBA in pursuit of another championship.
Mike Francesa does not think that she, or any other woman, has any chance of ever becoming the head coach or manager of a men’s professional sports team.
The longtime afternoon host on New York radio station WFAN fielded a seemingly innocuous question on Wednesday from a caller who said his daughter loves sports with all her heart, and who wanted to hear Francesa’s take on whether a woman could ever be the head coach of a men’s pro sports club.
Francesa obliged. His take was that the idea is so ludicrous as to be impossible to comprehend.
It was not a great take.
Mike Francesa with an unfathomable display of sexism. Women shouldn't be anywhere near men's sports!
(Except for cheerleaders, presumably.) pic.twitter.com/2n2plZMLIF
— Funhouse (@SportsFunhouse) March 2, 2017
“It’s a gender situation,” Francesa adroitly explained. “They don’t play — they’re not players. They don’t have any way to be in the league.”
For one thing, this is demonstrably untrue. Of the 30 coaches currently leading NBA teams, 17 did not play professionally at the NBA or ABA level. Many played at the college level or in other professional leagues, though … like Hammon, who’s one of the greatest and most decorated players in the history of women’s basketball. She has a way to be in the NBA, because she is currently in the NBA.
“What would qualify her to be a coach, on a professional level, of a men’s team?” Francesa asked.
We’ll let Popovich — one of seven coaches with more than 1,100 NBA wins to his credit, one of five in league history to win five or more NBA championships, one of three ever to win NBA Coach of the Year three times — field that one:
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. […]
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.
That was Pop, in July of 2015, explaining why he and the Spurs tapped Hammon to run their entrant into that year’s 2015 Las Vegas Summer League tournament. The Spurs won that tournament. She coached the Summer League squad again this past summer.
After the caller asked whether Francesa believed longtime New York radio color commentator Suzyn Waldman could manage the New York Yankees, the host doubled down on his insistence.
“No!” he said. “She’s not a coach, though, and was never a player. She’s a broadcaster, that’s fine, but you know what? You have to have been in the game if you’re going to be a coach. In any sport, you’re going to have to — you’re not going to start off as the head coach or a manager.”
I repeat: Becky Hammon is one of the greatest and most decorated players in the history of women’s basketball; she is presently in the game; and she is starting off as an assistant coach, just like countless other assistants-turned-head coaches have before her.
Caller: I’d like to, someday, in my lifetime, see a female coach. I think that —
Caller: I just think that it would be something that would be great to see one day.
Francesa: But why? I’m asking you why. What would make that person qualified?
I repeat: Becky Hammon is a decorated college and pro player whose mind for the game, contributions in coaches’ meetings and manner with Spurs players led San Antonio’s chief decision-makers, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, to give her a shot at Summer League. Her team not only won the whole thing, but, in the words of Buford, “We got better over the week.”
Caller: I could see it happening in college — you know, a great female college basketball coach becoming, someday, an NBA coach. Couldn’t you see that?
Francesa: How would she get to the NBA, though?
Well, somebody with an NBA team would hire her. Like Pop did for Hammon, and like Vlade Divac did for Nancy Lieberman — two things that actually happened in real-ass life, rather than in the world of theoretical abstraction. Lieberman, by the way, actually coached a professional men’s team for a year, leading the D-League’s Texas Legends to a playoff berth.
Francesa pressed on:
Francesa: Here is the thing: you have decided that your daughter should be allowed to manage a professional team. Let’s be honest: your daughter, maybe she’ll become a great athlete, maybe she’ll become a great executive, but the problem is there’s not going to be an avenue for her to manage a major league men’s team.
Francesa: First of all, do you know how difficult it would be on a female to manage 25 men? Or 50 men? Do you know how impossible it would be? It wouldn’t be tough; it’d be impossible! You’re going to tell me that you would think a woman could walk into an NFL team and coach, as a head coach, 15 assistants and 50 to 60 men?
I don’t know, Mike. Rich Kotite and Marty Mornhinweg got a couple of cracks at it, didn’t they? Couldn’t go worse than that, right?
Maybe a female football coach couldn’t walk into her first gig and command an NFL locker room right off the bat. But every coaching tree starts with the planting of a seed somewhere, and even in the ever-conservative NFL, the hires of Jen Welter and Kathryn Smith suggest a future teeming with possibility.
Francesa went on to suggest that the great Pat Summitt not only wouldn’t have been capable of being a great men’s head coach, but that “she would have said, ‘I don’t belong there.'” We’re sure the late Tennessee legend appreciates a sports talk guy in New York speaking for her posthumously on the matter. (Summitt actually had several opportunities to take over the Volunteers’ men’s basketball program, but declined them all, because “I think women should help women” and “I wouldn’t want people to think I looked at the men’s game as a step up.”)
Francesa: You want to see it because you think that you’re closing off an avenue to your daughter. But that’s not closing off an avenue. That’s something that’s not realistic. For her to coach the men is not a realistic destination. It’s not realistic. Plus, it would be so — I don’t think you understand how difficult it would be. I don’t think you understand — a woman in a locker room running 50 men. Do you understand how difficult that would be?
Caller: And so you think this lady out in San Antonio has no shot?
Francesa: To be the head coach of an NBA team? No shot. No shot. No shot. I mean, the odds on that are a million to one. And if it wasn’t Gregg — if it wasn’t the most dominant coach in the league doing that, I’m not even sure anyone else would even hire a woman right now. I think it’s an honorable thing, but the bottom line is what you’re asking her to do is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It really would be unfair. It’s not even something that would make sense to aspire to.
There is an aspect of this that Francesa gets right: that becoming the head coach of a professional sports team is an incredibly difficult thing to do. That is true for anybody, of course — there are only so many head coaching jobs to go around — but it’s especially true for women, thanks in large part to attitudes like the one Francesa’s forwarding here, a regressive viewpoint that creates its own feedback loop of trash. Luckily, the specific woman under discussion here is no stranger to doing difficult things.
Lightly recruited out of high school in Rapid City, S.D., Hammon went on to star at Colorado State, becoming the leading scorer in Western Athletic Conference history. Even so, she didn’t hear her name called during the 1999 WNBA draft … and went on to become a seven-time All-Star during a 15-year career that earned her inclusion among the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time in 2011 and Top 20 @ 20 in 2016. At every step along the way in her chosen career path, Hammon has met with resistance; at every turn, she has overcome it.
“Just because something’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” Hammon told Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News in August of 2015. “Leadership has no gender. The point is, ‘Do you know basketball? Do you know what it takes to lead people?’ We’re not asking the male to get up and leave his seat. We’re just saying scoot over a little bit. Make a little room at the table for the ladies.”
There are men who are willing to do that — coaches and players and commissioners and executives and writers and fans. There are more now than there were a decade ago, or two decades ago, or in whichever decade Francesa first started collecting his concerns about “how difficult” this would all be.
This, like every other line that society has crossed over the years, is something that’s impossible until it’s done, that’s unthinkable until it’s real, that’s unfathomable until it’s just the way things are.
“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,” Popovich said in 2015. “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.”
Even if a 62-year-old radio host has trouble wrapping his mind around the concept.
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