Becky Hammon has defied the odds throughout her basketball career.
She outdid even herself in 2014, when a chance meeting with Gregg Popovich, and the unofficial internship that resulted, prompted the Spurs to hire her as the first full-time female assistant coach in the history of North America’s four major professional leagues.
Here are 10 things to know about her improbable journey:
Make or miss … and walk: A deadly shooter, Hammon credits some of her prowess to her formative years, where she spent countless hours hooping on a rim mounted over a large concrete slab at the family home just outside Rapid City in the Black Hills National Forest. In addition to honing her stroke, she had extra motivation to make her jumpers count: To retrieve errant shots, she had to trudge down the hill from the Hammon homestead.
“I didn’t have any neighbors,” Hammon told Bleacher Report in 2014, “and if you missed, the ball rolled for 30 yards.”
Playing up: In addition to working obsessively on her shot, Hammon played almost exclusively against boys leading up to high school, including youth leagues in which she often played several years above her own age group. Despite her lack of size, quickness and hops, the experience proved essential to her future success, primarily in learning how to get off and make creative shots over larger, more athletic opponents.
“A couple of pump fakes and throw it with some twist off the board,” father Marty Hammon told Bleacher Report. “That just comes from playing with boys. We always had to find a way of getting that shot off. Where for anybody else that was crap, for her it was necessary. That was part of her game.”
Queen of the Hills: All that work paid off when Hammon arrived at Stevens High School, where she set career records for points, assists and steals while winning a pair of state player of the year awards. Former Stevens coach Ron Riherd, who led the school for more than 20 seasons, called her “by far the best player I ever coached.”
Yet Hammon still agonizes over the final contest of her high school career, a loss in the state semifinals in which the opposing team hit a game-winning buzzer-beater after she missed the front end of a one-and-one. Hammon, who would retire with the WNBA’s best career free-throw percentage at 89.7, finished with 29 of her team’s 34 points in the game.
Mr. and Mrs. Basketball: Hammon was preceded by several years at Stevens by Eric “The Polish Rifle” Piatkowski, who starred at Nebraska before enjoying a 14-year NBA career with the Clippers, Rockets, Bulls and Suns.
The life aquatic: An avid outdoorswoman, Hammon received a shotgun for her 14th birthday. While hunting wasn’t quite her thing — her brother Matt told Bleacher Report she cried after shooting her first (and only) deer — Hammon has an abiding fascination with the ocean, especially sharks.
“Becky loves those big sharks,” said Marty Hammon, whose family takes an annual vacation in Key West. “And they’re never big enough for her.”
Unwanted: Despite her high school achievements, Hammon was almost entirely overlooked by college recruiters. It wasn’t until the summer before her senior year, at a camp in Indiana, that an assistant coach from nearby Colorado State — there to scout other players — couldn’t help but notice the short, slow point guard who kept schooling the so-called superstars.
“She made them look silly,” that assistant, Kari Gallegos-Doering, told Bleacher Report. “She could just do things and go around people and make passes. I remember a player running down the floor shaking her head. She had just been duped. That was Becky. Here’s a nobody making these players look bad.”
That nobody went on to re-write the record books at Colorado State, setting school marks in career points, assists and 3-pointers while making three All-America teams and winning the 1999 Pomeroy Naismith Award, given annually to the best women’s senior under 5-foot-8.
History repeats: Just as college recruiters showed little interest in the 5-foot-6 Hammon, neither did professional scouts put much credence in her extraordinary career at Colorado State. And just as Hammon took maximum advantage of that opportunity, so did she prove her doubters wrong yet again in the WNBA.
Undrafted in 1999, Hammon would enjoy one of the most decorated careers in league history, highlighted by six All-Star appearances, four All-WNBA selections, the league record for career assists and selection as one of the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time after 14 total seasons with the New York Liberty and the San Antonio Stars.
“Her size never mattered,” Richie Adubato, her former coach with the Liberty, told the New Yorker in 2018. “When she drove to the basket, it didn’t matter who was in there. She had one shot blocked, I think, in four years.”
Circuitous route: In addition to her professional success, Hammon was also a two-time Olympian. Just not for her birth nation. Unable to get even an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in 2008, Hammon made the unusual — and highly controversial — decision to instead become a citizen of Russia, where she played professionally in the WNBA offseason for CSKA Moscow.
Critics weren’t shy, with then-U.S. coach Anne Donovan questioning Hammon’s patriotism and star center Lisa Leslie refused to shake her hand after the two nations met in the tournament semifinals. But Hammon put her hard-earned mental toughness to good use, shaking off the heat to help Russia win the bronze medal with 22 points against China before representing the country again at the 2012 Games.
“I took a beating,” Hammon told the New Yorker. “It helped build something inside me.”
Unofficial audition: It was with the Stars, for whom Hammon played from 2007 to 2014, that her relationship with Popovich began. The two first spent meaningful time together on their flight back from those 2012 Olympics, with Popovich peppering her with questions and Hammon impressing with her intelligence and candor.
Popovich’s admiration for Hammon was further elevated when she spent the 2013 season with the Spurs in an unofficial capacity while she rehabbed from a knee injury. Quiet at first, Hammon gradually began participating more and more in practices and film studies, even challenging Popovich when she saw fit.
“That’s when I knew,” Popovich told the New Yorker, “if I had the opportunity, I wanted to put her on staff.”
Said former Spurs player Pau Gasol: “Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”
The climb continues: Hammon’s star has only continued to rise since her hiring by the Spurs. Indeed, the Milwaukee Bucks even interviewed her for their vacant head coaching position in 2018. Several years before that, she helped the Spurs win the 2015 Las Vegas Summer League championship as the first female head coach in that competition.
She currently serves alongside Spurs legend Tim Duncan as one of Popovich’s top assistants.