Hammon To The Rafters

By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com

Long before President Barack Obama and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver were sending their congratulations, Becky Hammon’s basketball journey began at the age of 3 on her driveway.

She grew up playing against her older brother Matt and his friends. The boys would knock her down sometimes, but she’d get back up.

Hammon became South Dakota’s player of the year, but at 5-foot-6, most colleges passed on her. She brushed herself off and wound up at Colorado State, where she became an All-American.

At the 1999 WNBA draft, Hammon’s name wasn’t one of the 48 called. She was one of 20 training camp invitees for the New York Liberty, where teammates eventually asked to “keep that little white girl who keeps getting up when we knock her down.”

Hammon was named a WNBA All-Star six times, and recently declared one of the WNBA’s Top 20 players of all-time. In eight seasons in San Antonio, she set franchise records for points per game and assists.

On Saturday, her Stars jersey will be raised to the AT&T Center rafters, too high to ever be knocked down again.

“I got knocked down a lot, but that’s also the story of my journey,” Hammon said. “You just keep getting back up. When you do that, the places that you eventually go will blow your mind.”

Hammon will become the first Stars player to have her jersey retired when the Stars face Atlanta at 7 p.m. Saturday. Her jersey will hang across from the Spurs jerseys of James Silas, George Gervin, Johnny Moore, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Bruce Bowen.

Hammon played eight seasons in San Antonio, guiding the Stars to the WNBA playoffs seven times. The only season they didn’t advance was in 2013, when Hammon missed all but one game because of a knee injury.

She is eighth all-time in the WNBA in points (5,841), fourth all-time in assists (1,708) and the all-time leader in free-throw percentage (89.7).

“I had so much fun coming to work every day,” Hammon said. “We had so many great moments at the AT&T Center. If you looked at us on paper, nobody ever picked us to make the playoffs, let alone do anything. I guess that’s always part of my story, too.”

When the WNBA released its Top 20 players of all-time on Tuesday, the list included seven players who were No. 1 overall picks in the WNBA draft. Nineteen of the 20 players were either selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft or the now-defunct ABL Draft. Hammon is the only one who never heard her name called.

She was undrafted, yet undeterred. Hammon’s mentality was to never give coaches a reason to cut her, and it worked. She was a backup to Teresa Weatherspoon, and the Liberty reached the WNBA Finals in her rookie season. After the 2003 season, Hammon became the Liberty’s starting point guard.

Hammon was a fan favorite with her fiery play and finishing ability, and also had a fan in Stars coach Dan Hughes. Every year, he said he put in a courtesy call to the Liberty front office, just to see if they would consider trading their All-Star point guard.

New York agreed to a trade on draft night in 2007, and the Stars finally had their leader.

The Silver Stars had been a struggling to find success before they traded for Hammon. The team never made the playoffs and had a .301 winning percentage in four seasons before Hammon’s arrival. After winning 20 games in the previous two seasons combined, Hammon guided the team to 20 wins in 2007. In 2008, the Stars had the best regular season record in the WNBA (24-10) and reached the WNBA Finals.

“She wasn’t blessed with being 6-foot-4, she worked and got better to be where she is,” Hughes said. “Fans loved watching this great player who looked like them. It was magic in their eyes.”

When Hughes speaks of Hammon’s leadership, it isn’t measured in points or wins. It’s in the shared wavelength, the look they gave each other to know they were on the same page.

Hammon came to San Antonio from a structured system in New York. As a Star, she had the reins of the team and was asked to create.

The Silver Stars reached the playoffs for the first time in Hammon’s first season, facing Sacramento in the opening round. Game 3 was tied 78-78 with the series on the line, and Hughes called timeout before the final possession. He simply told Hammon, “go make a play.”

Becky found Vickie Johnson for a wide-open layup with 0.5 seconds left, and the Silver Stars advanced.

“I didn’t really know anything about San Antonio other than the Spurs and the Riverwalk when first I got here,” Hammon said. “Within the first week, it felt like home. The people, the organization, its service-based leadership and the fact that they cared about character were all factors. My game really blossomed when I got here, and I grew as a person as well.”

Stars forward Jayne Appel-Marinelli calls Hammon one of the best teammates she’s ever had. She recalled a moment in her second WNBA season, when she wasn’t getting much playing time. Hammon pulled her aside and told Appel-Marinelli how much she meant to the team.

“That means a lot to hear from your superstar, and it motivates you to continue to fight every day,” said Appel-Marinelli, now the longest-tenured Stars player. “She sets the tone for what a professional athlete should be. She knows the names of everyone in the arena and truly cares.”

Many throughout San Antonio took notice of Hammon’s leadership, including Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

In 2014, the Spurs hired Hammon as an assistant coach. Hammon coached the Spurs’ Summer League team in 2015, guiding them to the championship.

“She was smacking that gum so confidently, pointing and leading and getting everybody together,” Popovich said of Hammon as a Stars player. “You just knew there was a chutzpah there that could not be compared to anybody else. She exuded leadership and a real presence.”

Hammon’s basketball career continues in San Antonio, but Saturday’s jersey retirement marks the culmination of her playing career. She said the Hammon name rising to the top of the AT&T Center is also for her father, Marty Hammon, and her brother, Matt Hammon, who taught her leadership on a driveway in Rapid City. It’s for all those teammates and coaches who helped her back up after she got knocked down.

“It’s a peak of a mountain,” Hammon said. “This is for all those mentors, all those people who have invested in my life since I was 3 or 4 years old. They have rebounded for me or broken down film with me. There can be thousands of names right next to mine.”

The world has changed, but conventional wisdom is often still catching up.

In Dallas, an eighth-grader grew up on the playground like Hammon, getting constantly knocked down by her brothers and getting back up. Though she was dominating youth camps and AAU games, she was told she would be too small to play college basketball.

She met Hammon at a basketball camp in 2009 and they took a picture together. The too-small eighth-grader stood nearly as tall as the too-small WNBA All-Star.

When Hammon grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, there was no WNBA blueprint for her. There was no WNBA.

Now, Hammon is that figure for young basketball players everywhere, including the Dallas eighth-grader who went home determined, and got to work on her crab dribble and her first step.

Moriah Jefferson was good enough to play college basketball. She was good enough to win four national championships at the University of Connecticut.

“I still have that picture with Becky,” said Jefferson, the Stars’ rookie point guard. “I heard quite a few times that I was going to be too small for college. Becky’s been a real inspiration for me and so many more. She’ll always be an inspiration.”