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Still seething from a heated disagreement with the referee, Gregg Popovich pointed to one of his assistant coaches, Becky Hammon, and said, “You got ‘em.”
There was 3:56 remaining in the second quarter when Popovich was ejected with his San Antonio Spurs trailing the Los Angeles Lakers by 11 on 30 December 2020. With the five-time NBA champion coach gone, Hammon assumed the reins, and the transition appeared perfectly natural to her, the Spurs staff and players. Not a moment’s thought was given to the fact that Hammon had just become the first female to take charge of an NBA team. There was a game to win, and there was no one better to fill Coach Pop’s shoes.
“It was just a natural thing,” says Hammon’s father, Marty. “She was one of the two top assistants anyway. When Pop was not around, she really ran practice. Naturally, when Pop got tossed, she would lead the team.
“The players have an awful lot of confidence and belief in her. They trust her.”
Perhaps the weight of the moment, the extent to which the odds were stacked against her ever reaching that position, didn’t immediately occur to Hammon because she’s been overcoming adversity her whole career. She’s been leaping barriers for so long that they’re barely visible to her any more.
Hammon became the first female full-time assistant coach in any major American sports league when she joined the Spurs in 2014. The comprehensive understanding of basketball that enabled her get there was forged in a fire stoked by a natural athletic disadvantage.
“She’s listed as 5ft 6in … I’m not sure she’s 5ft 6in by any stretch of the imagination,” says Ron Riherd, a close family friend who coached Hammon at Steven High School in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“When she was younger, I would put up a hoop and I’d play on my hands and knees in the house,” Marty Hammon remembers. “She would say, ‘Dad, when do you think I’m going to be able to dunk it?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ll be able to dunk it in the house but you’ll never be able to dunk it on a regular basketball hoop. You need to concentrate on learning the game and playing with your head.’”
And learn the game she did, through hours spent in front of the hoop on the driveway of the Hammon family home, practicing her jump shot or playing pick-up with her older brother, Matt, and his friends. Her dad coached local teams when she was growing up, and even as an infant she’d race on to the court at half-time to flick shots at the full-size hoop, or work on her ball-handling on the sideline.
By the time she reached high school, she was “an outstanding player”, says Riherd. “From her sophomore year on, you couldn’t keep her off the floor, she was that good, ball-handling-wise, skill-wise. She was a great student of the game. Any time you talked about something, she picked it up right then. She was just like a sponge.”
Hammon’s coaching potential was in evidence early on, too. During one high-school game against local rivals Rapid City Central, she fouled out. Stevens High lost narrowly in her absence. As the buzzer signaled the end of play, Hammon waited in the locker room for her teammates.
“You guys have got to have more confidence than that,” she implored. “I screwed up, I know that. But there is no reason you couldn’t have pulled that out.”
Although Hammon established herself as one of the standout female basketball prospects in the state, few college scouts paid her much mind: she was just too short, most assessed. Her performances at a basketball camp in Terre Haute, Indiana, did catch the eye of an assistant coach at Colorado State, though. A recommendation was passed to head coach Greg Williams that he should check out this under-sized but highly skilled point guard. A trip to Rapid City was booked.
“I was able to see her play early in her high school season and really liked what she was doing,” Williams remembers. “We recruited her hard. I recruited her harder than any player in my college coaching career, after seeing her play myself.”
Williams travelled again to Rapid City, a four-hour drive from the university’s base in Fort Collins, to visit with the Hammon family. He spent six hours in their company, extolling the virtues of Colorado State, its basketball program and the city of Fort Collins, and watching the school’s football team play on television. Hammon was sold. She chose Colorado over the only other offer she was giving serious consideration from Illinois State.
“We were holding our breath that a lot of other major schools didn’t come in at the last minute,” Williams says. “But in her case it didn’t happen.”
In Colorado, though, she again encountered obstacles – this time in the form of a crop of talented seniors ahead of her in the pecking order for the guard positions, most notably a five-year senior who was running the point. Hammon came off the bench for the first seven games of the season.
“After seven games,” Williams says, “it was obvious she was our best offensive player. She was our leading scorer at the time. We made the move to put her into the starting lineup.”
Hammon never relinquished the position until she graduated. In her senior year, she set a scoring record for Colorado State’s basketball program – male and female – and led her team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Ordinarily, Hammon’s stellar college career would have been enough to see her drafted to the WNBA. But the 1999 WNBA draft was far from ordinary.
The year before, there had been two professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States: the two-year-old WNBA and the ABL. But in December 1998, the ABL folded, and all its players who wished to continue their playing careers entered the WNBA draft. In four rounds of picks, just 12 college players were selected. Hammon was not one of them.
With another hill to climb, Hammon kept faith in her ability. She remained resolute in her belief that she belonged in the WNBA and earned a place on the New York Liberty’s pre-season practice squad, ready to prove it.
“When she got invited to camp there, she was not supposed to make the team,” Marty Hammon explains. “Richie Adebato was the coach, and the general manager kept saying, ‘When are you going to cut Becky?’ And he said, ‘Well, she hasn’t missed a shot in two weeks of camp. Maybe I’ll cut her when she misses a shot.’”
On the day of the final round of cuts before the Liberty’s roster for the season was set, Hammon was nowhere to be seen. Team captain Teresa Wetherspoon noticed the young point guard’s absence. “You better not have cut this girl,” she demanded. “She can play!” Wetherspoon was told to relax. Hammon simply had a dental appointment; she had made the team.
By 2008, Hammon was a five-time All-Star, voted All-WNBA first team and widely considered one of the league’s best players. Yet when selections were being made for that year’s Olympic team, she wasn’t even offered a try-out.
Hammon was devastated. It had been her dream to play in the Olympics for as long as she could remember. In high school, she would write down her career goals: “I want to play in the Olympics” was top of her list. In 2007, she’d begun playing for CSKA Moscow during the WNBA’s offseason. She discovered that she could obtain Russian citizenship and fulfill her Olympic ambition that way.
Weighing up what she knew would be an unpopular decision, he sought the counsel of her old high school coach.
“I think it’s your goal,” Riherd advised. “You need to do what’s right for you. If they’re not going to invite you, they’re obviously saying to you, ‘You’re not good enough to play.’ If you go and play somewhere else, I don’t see a problem with that.”
So Hammon wore Russia’s red jersey at the Games in Beijing, where she won a bronze medal after losing to the USA in the semi-finals. The Russian fans in attendance alternated between chants of Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya! and Becky! Becky! Becky! She continued to represent Russia through the next year’s EuroBasket, the world championships in 2010 and the 2012 Olympics in London.
Upon returning from China, she found herself the subject of abuse from rivals fans on road games with the San Antonio Silver Stars, to whom she was traded in 2007. Labelled a traitor, the backlash stung deeply.
“It was portrayed as if she sought out Russia to play there, rather than not being invited to play here,” remembers Riherd. “That was really devastating to Becky. She had been one of the best players in the WNBA, and you don’t get invited?”
Once again, Hammon overcame. Resuming the WNBA season after the Olympics, she led the Silver Stars to the finals. The following year, she led the team in points and assists and was named an All-Star and voted into the All-WNBA first team for a second time. By the time of her retirement in 2014, she’d earned six All-Star selections and would have her No 25 jersey retired in San Antonio.
It was on a return flight from the London Olympics that Hammon and Popovich got talking. The Spurs head coach had long admired Hammon as a player and began to gauge whether she had the makings of an NBA coach. She suffered an ACL tear the following year and asked if she could sit in on the Spurs’ practice sessions while she recovered. Shortly after her retirement in 2014, Popovich has seen enough. She was hired. And, a credit to both her coaching acumen and the inclusive culture cultivated by Popovich, she had the instant respect of the towering Spurs superstars.
“She’s a ‘hooper,’” says former Spurs player Tiago Splitter. She knows the vocabulary, she knows how to treat the guys. From day one, she was one of us. She was ready to talk and give her opinion, and everyone respected her. She is a great communicator and knows basketball.
“She was learning, but you could see all the talent and knowledge that she had. And she’s showing right now that all the talent she had for playing basketball, she has on the coaching side.”
Respect for Hammon stretches far beyond the confines of the Spurs locker room. Since her appointment to the San Antonio staff, 12 other women have held assistant-coach positions in the NBA. For everything that she has achieved in the game, all the barriers she has run through for herself and others, Hammon has earned the unanimous admiration of her peers and fellow pioneers.
“Her basketball IQ has always been high,” says Vickie Johnson, who worked alongside Hammon, as player and then coach, for 12 years in the WNBA. “She always has been a player-coach on the court, directing traffic from the point guard position, so I’m not surprised that she’s a coach. Her transition from being a player to a coach, I love it.”
“I think she proves herself,” adds Lisa Boyer, who became the NBA’s first female assistant coach when she worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a part-time basis in the early 2000s. “This isn’t some fluke by Popovich. He’s not doing that to get popularity votes. This isn’t some kind of a publicity stunt. He’s doing it because he knows she’s ready. So kudos to him, but more kudos to her, because she’s cutting it.”
Her first taste of what it’s like to be a head coach in the NBA didn’t go as she’d have hoped as the Spurs lost 107-121 to the Lakers. But, having already turned down head coaching offers from outside the NBA, the top job in the big league is surely the next hurdle over which Hammon will stride.
“I think she’s ready to be a head coach if the right organization gives her a chance,” says Johnson. “She will shine.”