Our Game 2: Spurs Love That Becky Hammon

As a newjack sports reporter back in 2000, while covering the early years of the WNBA, I wrote a story about the NBA and how long it would take a woman to ascend to head coach of a men’s team.

At the time, Carolyn Peck was coaching the Orlando Miracle and displaying a refined and classy, yet tenacious, coaching prowess that many people felt could at least garner her a look as an NBA assistant.

Basketball legend Cheryl Miller coached the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, is a college basketball legend, a former sportscaster for TNT and is currently women’s coach at Langston University.

Through hard work and years of proving herself, Miller almost became the first female NBA assistant in 1998, when George Karl, then coaching the Sonics, said he considered hiring her. "I think Cheryl is a lady who could end up on an NBA bench someday," Karl said.

She was very optimistic back then that an NBA women’s coach was around the corner. "I don't think we are that far from having an NBA assistant coach who is a woman," Miller said 14 years ago, "but I still think we have a way to go before we see a men's basketball team with a woman for a head coach."

Miller just didn’t know that the corner would be over a decade long. Good thing she didn’t hold her breath. At that juncture, there were no female assistants in the NBA and just one at the NCAA men's Division I level, Coppin State's Stephanie Ready.

Nobody obsessed with men’s basketball took the article or Miller’s prediction that seriously; but now that Becky Hammon, who is retiring this month from a 16-season playing career in the W.N.B.A., has been named by Spurs coach Greg Popovich as an assistant coach for the 2014-2015 NBA season, Miller can finally exhale.

Hammon, 37, becomes the second woman to serve on an N.B.A. coaching staff. However, the first, Lisa Boyer, who was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ staff in the 2001-02 season, worked part time and was not paid by the team. Hammon is getting a full-time, well-paid gig, comparable to any male coach.

“It’s a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility,” Hammon said Tuesday. “There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I’m just kind of following in their paths.”

The Rapid City, South Dakota native’s basketball knowledge is unquestionable. Hammond, who became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 so she could play for the country’s national basketball team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, was a legend and major celebrity during a prolific and offensively explosive career for the Colorado State Rams.

She was an All-American as well as Colorado Sportswoman of the Year. She led her team to a 33-3 record in the 1998-1999 season and helped them shock heads to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen and in 1998-99 season she surpassed University of Utah and former NBA player player Keith Van Horn as the WAC's all-time leading scorer.

She broke more records than Berry Gordy while at Colorado State, including points (2740), points per game (21.92), field goals made (918), free throws made (539), three-point field goals made (365) and assists (538). The diminutive dynamo also received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award from the Women's Basketball Coaches Association as the best senior player under 5 –foot-8 in 1999. On January 22, 2005, her #25 Colorado State jersey was retired at the Moby Arena.

In my days covering the WNBA, Hammond was a 5-foot-6 floor general with the heart of a giant and deadly from the outside, quick and considered a second coach on the floor. Her free-throw shooting is like, “Whoa.”

In her prime, she had scoring machine potential, was a six-time All-Star selection in the W.N.B.A., and in 2011 she was named one of the 15 best players in league history.

She played eight seasons in New York after signing with the Liberty in 1999 and spent the past eight seasons with the San Antonio Stars. She averaged 8.6 points and 4.2 assists in 27 games for the Stars in her final hoops-hop.

When I interviewed Peck and Miller all those years ago, both agreed that a woman would need to be an assistant first, so she could learn the rule differences in the men's game and adjust to the emphasis on athleticism rather than fundamentals.

"I've still got tons to learn," Peck said. "I started in the women's game as an assistant. There's no way I can step right in (coaching men) as a head coach. Being an assistant prepares me with coaching experience and mentoring."

Hammon spent much of the 2013-14 N.B.A. season around the Spurs’ organization in an unofficial capacity, which she terms an “internship.” Coming off a knee injury in 2013, Hammon began considering a coaching career once retirement hit.

The rehabilitation process allowed her to stay in San Antonio, and the Spurs embraced her ambitions, inviting her to practices, coaching meetings and film-review sessions.

Hammon watched games from behind the bench as the team outdueled LeBron James and The Miami Heat to win its fifth championship.

Like every other barrier-breaking event in sports, all it took to make history and progress society several decades, was a coach willing to go outside the norm. In 1990, Rick Pitino, then coach at Kentucky, made waves by hiring Bernadette Mattox, the first female assistant coach in Division I-A. She served on the Wildcats' staff from 1990-94 before taking a maternity leave.

Mattox told me that “men in positions to make hires know there are capable female coaches, and players eventually will respect any coach who knows his or her stuff.” The guys at UK were very good to me, and I was very fortunate," Mattox said. "They respected the things I did, and Coach Pitino expected the same thing of me as he did his other assistants. We had a group of class individuals who understood coaching and understood that there is no difference between men and women."

Being tabbed by a five-time NBA championship coach and one of the shrewdest minds in the game is an automatic, official stamp of legitimacy for Hammon. She didn’t come into some two-bit, struggling organization in need of a PR boost or some controversy. If Pop makes a move, everyone already knows its all business. He is notorious for having what my aunt Bango always referred to as a “low tolerance for the bullshit.”

“Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball I.Q., work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs,” Coach Gregg Popovich—who who made it clear to Hammon that her being a woman—had nothing to do with his decision, said Tuesday in a statement.

Hammon couldn’t have a better Yoda than Popovich. The Spurs organization was already buzzing about her basketball savvy and innovativeness. To add her to the mix of an organization that is unique in how it runs its operation only makes sense. Pop is always looking for an advantage and picking the brain of a woman who might see things a bit differently based on her experiences can only keep him a step ahead of the game.

Back when I first broached this topic, the name most frequently mentioned as more than capable of coaching men was Tennessee's incomparable coaching pioneer Pat Summitt. Summitt, an old-school coach with a no-nonsense approach, now serves as the head coach emeritus of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team.

She holds the most all-time wins for a coach (men and women) in NCAA basketball history and coached from 1974 to 2012, all with the Lady Vols, winning eight NCAA national championships, trailing only the record 10 titles won by UCLA Bruins coaching god John Wooden and the 9 titles won by UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma.

Peck, whose shot in the men’s game never game, but instead has settled into a plush career as a broadcaster, has experience working with males. She instructed former NBA centers Felton Spencer, Will Perdue and Mark West while working at Ed Martin's Big Man's Camp back in the days. Her experience there let her know that "those guys were there to get better. As long as someone was teaching them something that improved their game, they were willing to listen."

Peck wasn’t interested in coaching men in Division I. Instead, she sought specific opportunities offered only by the pro ranks. She does however hold much respect for Teresa Phillips, who made national news when she became the first woman to coach in a men's Division I college game in 2003.

Phillips run as head coach at Tennessee State University lasted just one game and rose out of necessity more than Phillips’ personal ambition. As athletic director she implemented changes she felt her turmoil-filled basketball program needed. She had fired Tigers coach Nolan Richardson III earlier in the season and then suspended interim coach Hosea Lewis.

Phillips used her 19 years of coaching experience at the time, having coached the TSU women three years earlier, and coached the team herself in its next game—a 71-56 loss against Austin Peay.

It was a big deal for a brief time. Sports Illustrated named Phillips one of its "101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports" that year. The Tennessean named her the "Second Most Influential Woman in Sports" in the state.

"That would probably still go down as my lowest time in my career at Tennessee State," Phillips said. "That was a decision that I didn't think very much of; I didn't think a big deal would be made of it and all of a sudden it was a big deal. It was not intended to make history."

Now it’s Hammon’s turn to be put in the spotlight, but she always seemed to embrace the spotlight and the pressure that goes along with having to prove yourself. Despite her college success, Hammon was undrafted, but after signing to the WNBA on May 12, 1999 and joining the New York Liberty, she quickly rose to prominence backing up All-Star guard Teresa Weatherspoon. Hammon’s ill and aggressive style of balling captivated fans and by 2004 she was a starter and team captain.

Now, she’s getting the opportunity to prove that women have the chops to coach men, although their approaches may differ at times. Hammon is setting the stage for the first woman’s head coach in the future.

"Sometimes there is a misconception that women aren't tough enough to coach men," Miller told me back then. "I don't think there are enough women coaching men to really have any stereotypes." 

Peck agrees and optimistically perceives Hammon's opportunity as classic.

"The long 82-game season, the chance to work with a large staff and the scouting and preparation that goes into each NBA game intrigues me," Peck said. "It's like you are getting your Ph.D. in basketball."

Dr. Hammond, it’s time to get to work.

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.