Passed over no more: Becky Hammon was exactly what Aces needed to win 1st title

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Las Vegas Aces had pulled within 40 minutes of their first WNBA championship. It was a Finals-opening home sweep in Vegas, but when their first-year head coach answered her final question of the night, the energy drop was instantaneous.

Did Becky Hammon think everyone in the NBA felt dumb for not hiring her?

“I’m used to people not picking me, I don’t know if you’re aware,” Hammon said, her fingertips in a steeple around the table microphone as she looked directly at the video screen in front of her. “I just do me.”

The evidence is plentiful and goes back decades. Division I college scouts, WNBA franchises, NBA front offices. Most are aware. Once seemingly destined for an NBA head coach position after assisting legendary San Antonio Spurs leader Gregg Popovich for nearly a decade, Hammon grew restless.

Then, the Aces called. They viewed her as a head coach right now when NBA franchises wouldn’t do the same. They picked her. She “just did me.” And both sides are already reaping the rewards.

“Their loss, our win,” is about all a chuckling A’ja Wilson had to say when asked a similar question.

Hammon lifted the WNBA championship trophy on Sunday afternoon at Mohegan Sun Arena after leading the Aces to a 78-71 win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4. It’s the franchise’s first championship over its 26-year history dating back to its start in Utah during the league’s inaugural season. And it was raised not even nine full months after news first broke the legendary former player, who spent the back half of her career with the franchise, was taking over a job no one even knew was open.

The Aces had the pieces under former two-time Executive of the Year Dan Padover and retired head coach Bill Laimbeer, who focused more on feeding the post than even bothering a thought of 3-pointers. They built a core that will stick around for 2023, as scary as that is for other franchises to dwell on, and Hammon turned them from starcrossed postseason attendees to champions.

Her leadership style is infectious and she drew the best out of every player on the roster, from the now two-time MVP Wilson to their two rookies. They encroached on offensive records and brought home four of the eight individual end-of-season awards. That included a Coach of the Year nod for Hammon.

“[She brings] a confidence. A swagger. She doesn’t fear anything,” point guard Chelsea Gray told Yahoo Sports. “She always says, ‘People jump out the water when they see sharks. I jump in.’ I think that’s the way our team has been feeling.”

From passed over to top of the mountain

The Aces have been near the top of the league in recent seasons behind a talented roster that included three consecutive No. 1 draft picks from 2017 to ’19. They reached the WNBA Finals in 2020 and were swept by the dominant Seattle Storm.

Wilson, the 2018 No. 1 pick, said looking back it felt like people thought, “Oh, cute,” that the Aces made it that far. That wasn’t going to happen again. Las Vegas backed up its status as a preeminent power with the league’s second-best record in 2021, only to be upset in five games by the No. 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury. It fueled the players. A leadership change provided a new building block.

“It’s about putting these ladies in a position to win a championship,” Hammon said after Game 2 to answer the same question about the NBA snub. “That’s been my focus. That’s why I took the job. I felt they had the talent to do it and I felt that I could build the relationships and build the culture in the right way for us to put ourselves in a position to be able to win a championship.”

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon reacts during Game 4 of the 2022 WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Sept. 18, 2022. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It was a great situation to step into, but she was only in Vegas because NBA teams repeatedly skimmed over her. When she joined Popovich’s staff in 2014 as the first woman to be a paid assistant in the NBA, the loudest on the internet claimed it was a gimmick that could create problems.

“I’m not here unless Coach Pop kind of sees me genderless — he sees me as a person that knows basketball,” Hammon said in 2016 for a Women’s History Month video by the NBA.

After eight years of success, high praise from the lauded Popovich and even stints as an acting head coach, Hammon still never received an NBA head coaching offer. She reached the final stages, but said she was told only being in San Antonio and never having been a head coach were deal breakers. Were others, all men, viewed the same? Likely not.

As for not being picked, it’s a well-worn hat for Hammon. As a teenager, it was high school coaches who overlooked the 5-foot-6 point guard. She rebutted by attending Colorado State and making it a destination with its first Sweet 16 berth and school marks in scoring, assists and 3-pointers. She finished as the Western Athletic Conference’s leading scorer, men included.

Still, no WNBA team took her in the 1999 draft and she joined the New York Liberty on a training camp contract. Nearly 25 years later, she’s a staple on lists of best WNBA players and remains sixth in career assists, 15th in points, fourth in 3-pointers and third in free-throw percentage over a 16-year career. Check that off the “told-you-so” list.

Around a decade later, she was left off the 2008 Olympic team, chosen by a Team USA selection committee, even after finishing second in MVP voting in the 2007 WNBA season. So she accepted an invitation to play for Russia, where she competed in WNBA offseasons, and won a bronze medal.

When Aces president Nikki Fargas called late last year, Hammon listened. The Aces’ head coaching job wasn’t even open, making the news akin to a surprise party. And a homecoming. She played the second half of her career with the San Antonio Silver Stars, who moved to Las Vegas in 2018, and was honored in 2021 when new team owner Mark Davis and the front office brought alumna home for games.

“This was not really about the NBA or WNBA, this was about me personally being ready to have a team and wanting to have a team,” Hammon said at her introductory news conference in January while still working for the Spurs.

There’s little doubt she was ready.

Aces no underdog, but needed tinkering

When Hammon took the job, she had Wilson, the 2020 MVP, come down to San Antonio to work out and chat. She watched her new star forward hit basket after basket and told her if she didn’t take more than one 3-pointer a game — actually, bump that up to two or three — she was going to be upset. Like Kelsey Plum said, shooters shoot.

“As soon as I met her in San Antonio she was like, 'This is what your role is going to be. This is how I want it to be,’ ” Wilson told Yahoo Sports. “And she presented it in a way that’s like, OK, you can do it. She wouldn't show me things if she didn’t think that I could accomplish it.”

Hammon’s offensive philosophy could fit on a wooden desk sign from the Dollar Spot at Target. As she’s repeated multiple times throughout the season: “If you’re open, you shoot it. If you’re not, pass it. It’s very simple.”

It worked. They led the league in pace per 40 (82.2), offensive efficiency (109.6) and points per game (90.4). The Aces still get theirs in the paint, but have expanded their arsenal by attempting double the 3s per game they did in 2021 while still holding at around a 36% clip.

Jackie Young expanded her game en route to the Most Improved Award. Plum joined Diana Taurasi as the only players to hit 100 3s in a season. And even Wilson, who moved over to play center nearly every game, cranked up her attempts like Hammon first asked in San Antonio. She had attempted two 3s in her four-year career until Hammon’s instruction. This season, she was 31-of-83 for 37.3%, a mark ranking 23rd in the league.

Hammon said whatever she tells Wilson to do, the forward does it. She has noted a few times she “calls up my boss, A’ja Wilson.” Dub it a mutual trust.

“The conversations that we’ve had that are so real, that’s so true, that’s so clean-cut is something that I need,” Wilson said. “I’m not a player where I’m like — don’t sugarcoat s*** to me. I’m not about it. I don’t fall for that. I see straight through it, I don’t listen to it and I move on. But when it comes to Becky, she lets me know straight-up.”

It resulted in a second MVP as well as Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-WNBA selection even while learning new systems and verbiage on both ends of the floor. One of the most important things Wilson said Hammon has taught them is how to balance a habit ingrained in childhood with a winning mentality.

“She calls us out on our selfishness,” Wilson said. “She’s like, you’re human. You’re going to be selfish. We’re all taught to do that. As a kid, these are my toys; I don’t want you touching my toys. And she plays on that. She’s like, I know you’re human. I know you’re going to want to have your selfish ways. Each and every last one of us could score 20 points in a game if you allow us to. But she’s like, no we want to play the right way.”

They were one of the best at moving the ball, led by a career-high 6.1 assist per game by Gray, the “point gawd.” Joined by Plum (5.1 apg) and Young (3.9 apg), they’re the only team with three players ranking top 15. They’re also the only one with three players ranked top 15 in scoring (Plum 20.2 ppg, Wilson 19.5 ppg, Young 15.9 ppg).

Spot-on to what they need

Hammon made social media rounds after a tight three-point Game 1 win when she calmly and sternly answered a question about a halftime pep talk with, “Oh, I was lit.” (She followed it up with, “I don’t even yell in my real life,” all the more funny since she has two young children.)

“She’s spot-on of what we [need],” Gray told Yahoo Sports. “Do we need a good cuss-out, do we need to be left alone, do we need to just be encouraged at that moment? And her feel for that has helped me as a leader in how to react in certain moments as well.”

That type of knowledge also applies to Wilson, who said she has learned different players need different approaches from a leader. She’s not telling just anyone to “get her s*** together” ahead of a Finals game.

All of Hammon’s instructions and analogies apply off the court, players said. Often she’ll take an example from everyday life and apply it to basketball. Take the selfish toy example.

“You’ve got to do things the right way in order to reap the benefits of what you want,” Wilson said. “And I think that’s so key with Becky is that she wants us to be great players, but also just great people.”

Gray, who has the benefit of learning from a coach who played the same position at a high level, concurred.

“I think the biggest thing is how to challenge a group of women to be better,” she said. “How to challenge them in different ways [and] in different moments.”

The NBA’s loss was the WNBA’s gain. It wasn’t so long ago the league was dominated by male coaches, leaving women and former players on the outside. Now, they have arguably the biggest name in the profession and she’s already standing at the top. Even possibly bringing up the next group of player-coaches.

The Las Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson and head coach Becky Hammon celebrate after defeating the Connecticut Sun to win the 2022 WNBA Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Sept. 18, 2022. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Gray’s only WNBA season playing for a woman was in 2015 for Anne Donovan in Connecticut. Having Hammon, a former point guard, to learn from was something Gray looked forward to when she spoke with Yahoo Sports shortly after the news. Less than a year later, she said she could talk for hours about the tidbits she has picked up watching Hammon.

“When we’re looking at each other on the sideline, it’s like we’re looking through the same lens,” Gray said. “And I think that’s when you have a powerful thing when your point guard and your coach are able to see the game in a similar fashion.”

Rookie Kierstan Bell described Gray as an extension of Hammon. Gray will often take the clipboard and draw up plays, something Gray said stems from a freedom and confidence Hammon has in her.

“She gives me the board sometimes, and in a huddle, she’ll wait to talk sometimes until I’m finished,” Gray said. “It’s like a free-flowing kind of environment that she’s created. Not even just for me. I think it’s other people.”

There’s a trust, an openness, an environment in which to be honest. Wilson called it like having another teammate. One who relies heavily on her starters — they averaged a league-record 77.5 points per game in the regular season — but wants her bench, which averaged a 2022 league-worst 12.9 points per game, to remain engaged, included and valued.

Much like sharing toys, she wants a level of fairness. Hammon has first-hand experience being the last on a roster, like her rookies Bell and Aisha Sheppard. That Liberty team made the Finals, too. As did three more teams she was a part of, including the 2008 Silver Stars. None won.

An Ace culture enhanced

The Aces have a good time, they don’t know if you’re aware. Tortilla challenge checked off. Instagram reels in the athletic trainer’s room. Pranks. Constant chitter-chatter and razzing in media availability. Yahoo Sports still cannot confirm if Gray and Sydney Colson are best friends.

No, Hammon had no idea that was what she was walking into.

“I wasn’t sure quite how to take them at the beginning,” Hammon said. “They always seem super loose [and] I don’t know if I like this or not. But it’s kind of been their thing so I kind of just let them go.”

The Aces are the belle of the ball and the class clowns all wrapped up into one. Not every WNBA team elicits “did you see their Insta reel?” from casual fans. That combination makes them one of the most interesting and fun teams to follow on the court and off. That in itself is a big deal for a league growing in audience.

“I think they perform best when you can be your authentic self,” Hammon said. She later added, “As long as they show up and they’re doing their job, from what I can tell, happy players make better players.”

Hammon is often away from the social media fueled antics, but that doesn’t mean she’s not just as laid-back and “silly” when the time warrants. The day the Aces could have completed a Finals sweep, she swooped in to sit cross-legged next to Wilson and two reporters at center court, poking fun at the approach. She bailed when Wilson started singing her praises.

Throughout the Finals, she would spend the beginning of practices rebounding for her son, Cayden. When she became privy to the eyes on her, she had some good fun and swatted his shot to the other end of the arena. He dribbled it back and “drove past” his mom for a bucket that everyone celebrated.

Hammon has drawn comparisons to Popovich throughout her postseason news conferences. And certainly his impact is there. He made an appearance in the Aces’ locker room after Game 2, one Hammon said he probably won’t make again after being all over social media. She really just wanted her players to see his face, because she was so happy to see it.

Popovich asked what he should say and Hammon gave him the most simple directive. Much like her coaching philosophy. Akin to an analogy to be used for basketball and life.

“I said, just be you,” Hammon said. “That's what he always tells me, just be you.”

She took that advice herself, despite not being picked. It led her to a championship. The question isn’t, does she think everyone in the NBA feels dumb. Rather it’s, how many more will come?

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