On a blistering summer day in San Antonio, Becky Hammon, 37-year old former WNBA star, sat at a podium, with a purple button-down shirt rolled up to her elbows, black pants and black heels. Hammon is flanked by RC Buford and Gregg Popovich, two of basketball’s most influential contemporary minds. The soon-to-be retired 15-year vet of the WNBA, who’s just been named the first female assistant coach in NBA history, looks the part.
Evolution is perhaps the greatest driving force for change.
In spite of tremendous advances, both racism and sexism are still very much a part of the fabric of our culture. In many areas of our society these issues have eroded, but in American professional sports, sexism remains.
While Title IX has proven to be a tremendous stepping stone for women in sports, there have been very few advances for females in sports media and positions of influence in male professional sports. Varying opinions and perhaps more importantly, perspective, are the natural cogs to the free flow of discourse within a society. A lack of female voices in American professional sports does a disservice to the discourse as a whole.
As scarce as positions in sports media are for women, these roles provide an oasis in the greater desert of professional sports. Coaches, assistant coaches, general managers and other front office positions in the Big Four of professional American sports (NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL) are all male dominated.
As far as professional sports leagues are concerned, the NBA has always been more progressive than the others.
Bill Russell became the NBA’s first African-American head coach nearly a quarter of a century before that same feat would be achieved by Art Shell with the Oakland Raiders in the NFL. The NBA was the first professional sports league to introduce female referees, and has been blessed (before Hammon) with brilliant female minds like Cheryl Miller and Nancy Lieberman. Last year, Michele Roberts became the first woman voted as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
Gregg Popovich is most certainly a progressive, but his motive for hiring Hammon had little to do with the social implications. Part of Pop’s genius is his continuous commitment to evolution. Pop has presided over the most successful organization in professional sports. He’s won five championships (third-most of any coach in the history of the NBA), but he’s still as much a student as he’s a teacher. It’s this quality that could very well be the most influential in Pop’s success.
After a relatively quiet year on the bench as an assistant, Hammon’s name received greater recognition when she, as head coach, helped the Spurs win a Summer League title in Las Vegas.
Is Becky Hammon now ready to be an NBA head coach?
What about Nancy Lieberman?
Or…how about Ettore Messina, the Spurs lead assistant, and longtime successful European head coach?
Becky Hammon’s coaching readiness is no different from a bunch of other assistant coaches in the NBA; they’re only as ready as the commitment they receive from the organization willing to hire them.
Championships aren’t won by coaches, players, owners or GM’s; they’re won by organizations. The same is true for losing. It takes an organization, but only one man, or perhaps soon one woman, will take the fall.
Hire a coach and commit to that coach. Commit to the philosophy, schemes and players, or otherwise commit to losing.
Was Jacque Vaughn ready to be an NBA head coach? Vaughn sat in the second row of assistant seats, the same row Hammon sat in last year, for two seasons for the Spurs before he was hired in Orlando. The Magic hired Vaughn after Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy left town. They had a poor cap situation and the 19th pick before Vaughn’s first season. Two top five picks later, the Magic fired Vaughn. Is he a bad coach? It takes an organization to win and it takes an organization to lose.
Decades ago, in a small town in South Dakota, a young Becky Hammon fired shots at the basket with her dad. “Will I ever play in the NBA?’” asked Hammon. “He looked at me and said ‘uh, sweetie no, you’ll never be able to play in the NBA, but if you are really, really good maybe you’ll be able to get a college scholarship.’”
Individuals capable of instilling social change have to understand one defining principle: they must be comfortable being uncomfortable. After being passed over by USA Basketball, Becky Hammon opted to represent Russia, a nation where she played professionally during the WNBA offseason, and was a dual citizen. She was widely criticized, especially from USA Basketball coach Anne Donovan. This wasn’t a political statement, but rather a statement in individual mettle. Becky Hammon was determined. This is where her remarkable journey to becoming professional sports’ first full-time female assistant, and perhaps first female NBA head coach began.
Is Becky Hammon ready?
Of course she is. She’s been fighting her entire life.
Will she be successful?
In that endeavor she’s not unique at all.