Ultimate underdog blazing a trail
Becky Hammon, one of the greatest WNBA players, signs with San Antonio to become the first full-time paid female NBA assistant coach
Becky Hammon has been defying the odds her entire basketball life. Now, the ultimate underdog is preparing for her biggest challenge yet.
Hammon has just accepted a coaching position with the San Antonio Spurs, making her the first full-time paid female NBA assistant coach. She will begin her new job when her current one, playing in the WNBA for the San Antonio Stars, is over at the end of the season.
"I'm the person that always is kind of like left off the roster. I'm the one that's always kind of picked last," Hammon said. "So this whole thing to me is a little bit crazy and mind-boggling that an opportunity like this has come down the pipe."
The 1.68-metre guard has always seemed to be going against the grain. Coming out of high school, a lot of coaches told her she could not play at the next level. She proved them wrong, having a stellar All-American career at Colorado State. She was not drafted by any WNBA team, but went on to be honoured as one of the league's 15 greatest players of all time.
She also became the highest profile American women's basketball player to compete for another country in the Olympics when she helped guide Russia to a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Games.
"I do feel like those situations built character and built a persistence about me, made me work harder and study harder," Hammon said. "All those little things that you go through year after year, it builds something in you. Now, taking on this next challenge, I know the same thing that got me through those things are the fibres of what I'm made up of.
"Nothing in my life has really ever been easy. I've always been someone who did it uphill. I'm up for challenges. I'm up for being outside the box, making tough decisions and challenges ... and I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. Throw those all in there and this was the perfect challenge and opportunity."
The 16-year WNBA veteran will work with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on scouting, game-planning and the day-to-day grind of practice like no woman has done before.
"It will definitely open some doors," said Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman. "People who know Becky will understand that she put herself in a position to create this opportunity. Everybody knows that Pop is not about doing something for publicity because he does not need it.
"It is about his values and who she is. It is a perfect marriage, I hate to use that in that sense, but it is 2014 with social media and everybody having eyes on it, I think it is really going to be something special for us."
Hammon, humble about her new job, quickly deflected the success women have had in other areas. "As cool as it is, this is just the fact that this is basketball," she said. "There are women who have been trailblazers on much bigger paths. And really, they were trailblazers for things like this to happen. There are a lot more important things going on in the bigger [picture]."
Hammon was also quick to note that she got the job on her basketball ability and not because of her gender.
"Obviously, that's great and it's a tremendous honour, but I think the bigger point is I'm getting hired because I'm capable, because of my basketball IQ, and stuff that they've seen in me personally," she said.
San Antonio is the perfect fit for Hammon. Last season, she attended Spurs practices, film sessions and sat behind the bench at home games after suffering a torn ACL that kept her from playing. She has been friends with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan since competing in an NBA All-Star shooting competition in 2008, a familiarity that will help as she makes her transition to coaching the two stars.
"It's good she's also going into a situation where people recognise it's not a publicity stunt," said Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault. "Popovich is comfortable in his own skin. They're the world champions. They're kind of a low-key organisation. Doing something like this is something they feel is a good thing to do."
Hammon is not the first woman to work with NBA players. In the 2001-02 season, Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas brought Lisa Boyer into the practices and some games. Boyer, now an assistant at South Carolina, was not paid by the Cavaliers and did not travel with the team.
Nancy Lieberman and Charlotte Bobcats sideline reporter Stephanie Ready have both coached teams in the NBA Development League. Lieberman now serves as the general manager of the Texas Legends.