Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of features that spotlights innovative, unique figures around the NBA who could change the league forever.
* * *
SAN ANTONIO -- Joyous, having just bulldozed through yet another barricade along the path of a trailblazing career, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon quipped that “life has a funny way of just getting better.”
Surely her female coaching contemporaries agree.
In the five years since Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in league history, 10 women now occupy NBA benches, including five hired just this past offseason. Now the world awaits the next step, with Hammon poised to take it, as potentially the first woman to serve as head coach of a major professional North American sports team.
“I’m going to feel great about it, and I’ll be happy for her, because she’s worked hard and put in her time,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge told NBA.com.
The question now is when?
Conventional logic -- and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s past antics -- suggest Hammon could make history at some point this season; especially after considering that Popovich was tossed twice in the span of a week last season, including one ejection just 63 seconds into the game.
In the event of a Popovich ejection, typically the assistant on staff with the most experience takes over head coaching duties.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Popovich’s top assistant, Ettore Messina, left in June to join Italian team Olimpia Milano. And Ime Udoka, the staff’s second-most experienced bench coach, departed the same month to join the staff of former longtime San Antonio assistant Brett Brown in Philadelphia.
That leaves Hammon as the Spurs’ most experienced bench coach. But Popovich hasn’t officially appointed her as lead assistant. In the wake of the departures of Messina and Udoka, Popovich also moved Will Hardy to the front of the bench while adding future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan to the coaching staff.
On Spurs media day in late September, Popovich was asked who would take over if he’s ejected from a game.
“I’m offended that you would even think that I might get tossed,” Popovich joked. “I’m just gonna leave it at that.”
That, in turn, leaves the rest of the world to wonder when Hammon’s time will finally come.
She’s certainly ready for it, according to several players and coaches drawn into Hammon’s basketball orbit over the years, and it’s not just sheer Xs and Os or hoops acumen that make it so. She’s got all that, for sure. But what sets Hammon apart, according to former Spurs GM and current chief executive officer R.C. Buford, is “emotional IQ,” a key intangible that equips coaches to navigate the extreme highs and lows that accompany an 82-game schedule.
Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes saw it on display firsthand while coaching Hammon during her last eight years as a player with the San Antonio Silver Stars.
“Emotional IQ, that’s a wonderful term,” said Hughes, who most recently served as assistant coach for the USA Women’s Basketball Team at FIBA Women’s AmeriCup. “What it means to me is I use the word 'presence'. She has a presence that is unbelievable. Presence is important to me; being able to handle the different situations, to remove distractions, to understand the goal and keep a constant path towards that goal. That begins with Becky Hammon in my life. I never saw her in the presence of a moment that I didn’t think she could handle. And I saw her in some unique ones. That’s probably what R.C.’s talking about with emotional IQ. She kind of knows when to inspire, when to have a calm about her, when to be knowledgeable, when to listen. She’s got a great balance of that.”
According to Udoka, who had worked alongside Hammon on the Spurs staff since 2014, it all stems from a 16-year career in the WNBA as a point guard. Hammon was a six-time WNBA All-Star and is also the Stars’ all-time leader in points per game (15.6), assists (1,133) and 3-point field goals (829).
In fact, Hammon’s jersey hangs from the rafters at the AT&T Center alongside all the former Spurs greats. That gives Hammon instant credibility inside San Antonio’s locker room, according to Spurs guard Bryn Forbes, who quickly points out that “none of our jerseys are hanging up in there.”
The diversity in opinion, the diversity in ethnicity, race, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, all those sorts of things I think make people more vocal, more communicative, more understanding. That can’t do anything but help a sport that’s a team sport where everybody has to work together."
“She’s just been through it as a player,” Udoka told NBA.com. “So a situation isn’t going to get her rattled on the court. I keep going back to her playing and being a point guard, specifically. She had to know when to keep players calm as well as herself. Then, also there’s times when you’ve got to get guys up, get them going and get on their asses a little bit. So that part is natural to her, and I’m thinking that’s what R.C. means. She can deal with all the situations. So it’s easy to handle them when they come around whether that’s as a coach or a player.”
Hammon displayed as much behind the scenes in the summer of 2017, when Aldridge sat down with Popovich to request a trade due to his discomfort in San Antonio’s system. While Popovich deserves credit for convincing Aldridge to stay, what many don’t know is the diligence Hammon displayed working with the forward to help him find a comfort level in an unfamiliar system.
“I think she’s tried to understand me,” Aldridge told NBA.com. “She’s definitely gone the extra mile to make me feel more comfortable on the court. She just gets it.”
That’s also how Hammon got the job on San Antonio’s coaching staff. Hammon worked a good portion of the 2013-14 NBA season in an unofficial capacity with the Spurs, as she rehabbed from a 2013 knee injury that pushed her toward considering life as a coach once her playing career came to an end.
The organization welcomed Hammon into practices that year, as well as coaching meetings and film reviews, with Popovich coming away from the experience impressed with her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills. What’s more is Hammon fit into the dynamic of diversity that Popovich seeks.
Hammon didn’t just go along just to get along.
She shared her own opinions, expressed her own viewpoints, regardless of what peers thought.
“Pop wants debate, wants conflict, wants different ideas,” Udoka explained. “So he would egg us on as far as that because he wants to hear different ideas. If you’re prepared, and you’ve done your homework, you fight for your points as well as if you see something differently. She had no problem doing that. She’s going to state her opinion, and stick firm to it. When we got together, she would ask why are we doing it this way and why aren’t we doing it this way? She was very clear with that from Day 1, and nobody ever had a problem with that.”
Popovich saw it as a virtue and made Hammon a full-time staffer in 2014.
“It’s not just diversity racially, or gender, it’s a diversity geographically,” Popovich says. “The diversity in opinion, the diversity in ethnicity, race, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, all those sorts of things I think make people more vocal, more communicative, more understanding. That can’t do anything but help a sport that’s a team sport where everybody has to work together. So that level of understanding and experience I think helps us greatly.”
Whether it proves beneficial for San Antonio in 2019-20 remains unclear.
But like Hammon once said: “life has a funny way of just getting better.”
She’s going to state her opinion, and stick firm to it. When we got together, she would ask why are we doing it this way and why aren’t we doing it this way? She was very clear with that from Day 1, and nobody ever had a problem with that.”
Hammon originally said that at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, after becoming the first woman to be a part of an All-Star game coaching staff. Hammon later cracked up laughing when she was reminded of those words.
“They still are true,” she said. “They still are true.”
Hughes, meanwhile, like the rest of the world, sits back and waits for Hammon to finally receive the opportunity to become the first woman in history to coach an NBA game.
Hughes paused for several seconds to ponder the thought.
“One of the things that has inspired me as an older coach is what people that have gone down this journey do with their lives,” Hughes said. “That would be a special moment. I’ve had a few, but that would be right at the top. I would be tipping a glass of wine that never tasted as good.”
Likewise, Popovich is sure to savor a toast, too; right along with the rest of the world.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.