Popovich makes Hammon full-time assistant, as former WNBA star moves closer to breaking major sports barrier
One of the fascinating debates swirling around men’s basketball over the last decade has studied the question of when women might someday coach in their game.
This topic was always a favorite among those fortunate enough to grab time with the late Pat Summitt, Tennessee’s illustrious Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach.
Known for her technical brilliance and no-nonsense deportment, Summitt was frequently asked not only if she might someday coach a men’s team, but whether there would be acceptance in the game for a female head coach.
“The only time I ever coached boys was when I coached my son’s AAU team,” Summitt told Time Magazine in 2009. “People have asked me “Why wouldn’t you do this?” My attorney, he’s like “You’ve got to coach in the pros. You need to be the first woman to do this. And I said, ‘You know, my passion is coaching women’s basketball.’ I do believe that’s the place I can make the most difference.
“Watching some of these guys, I wouldn’t even want to deal with them. They play when they want to play, they make all this money. Though there’s a lot of teams and a lot of guys that leave it all on the court. And that’s true with women too. So no, I don’t really aspire to ever go in that direction.”
And then Becky Hammon came along.
A three-time All-American at Colorado State and one of the WNBA’s greatest guards over a 16-year career, Hammon’s point of view was never why, but why not?
So when San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history, offered Hammon a part-time assistant’s position in 2014, one of the most complex discussions in professional sports had its answer.
And it was yes – and it was about time.
Popovich took things to the next level this week by promoting Hammon to a full-time role on his staff. She will replace James Borrego, who left to become head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. Simply put, Hammon now moves from a seat behind the Spurs’ bench to one right next to Popovich.
Popovich apparently first became impressed with Hammon in 2012 when they sat together on a flight home from the Olympics in London. According to the New York Times, they chatted about politics, wine and the culture of Russia, where Hammon had played professionally and for whom she helped win an Olympic bronze in 2008.
In 2013, she hung out watching Popovich’s coaching staff during her recovery from an ACL injury suffered that summer while playing for the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Popovich then hired her as an intern during the 2013-14 season, a year the Spurs won the NBA championship. He invited her to coaches meetings and film sessions and he asked to offer advice at practices.
His confidence in Hammon was reinforced in 2015 when she coached San Antonio’s Summer League team to a championship. And any doubt about her future marketability was laid to rest when her name surfaced as a possible replacement for Jason Kidd in Milwaukee this season.
Many schools have tried to lure Hammon away from the NBA. In 2017, she turned down the University of Florida, who wanted her to coach its women. And she even said no to her alma mater when it offered her its head men’s basketball job.
Like most great coaches, Popovich’s coaching tree is extensive. Among former lieutenants who eventually became NBA head coaches are Mike D’Antoni, Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer and Mike Brown. And Ettore Messina, who took over the Spurs this season after Popovich’s wife died, was one of the other candidates interviewed by the Bucks, who eventually hired Budenholzer.
But perhaps the most profound endorsement of Hammon’s capability came from Spurs forward Pau Gasol in an article he wrote for The Players Tribune in May.
“She was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game,” wrote Gasol. “What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.
“The argument that I see most often is thankfully the one that’s easiest to disprove: It’s this idea that, at the absolute highest level of basketball, a woman isn’t capable of coaching men. “Yeah, female coaches are fine coaching women’s college basketball, or the WNBA,” the argument goes. “But the NBA? The NBA is different.”
“I’ve just got to tell you: If you’re making that argument to anyone who’s actually played any high-level basketball, you’re going to seem really ignorant. But I also have a simple response to it — which is that I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”
Now the big question: When will Hammon get her chance to be an NBA head coach?
“It’s going to take somebody who has some guts, some imagination, and is not driven by old standards and old forms,” Popovich told the New Yorker in May. “If somebody is smart, it’s actually a pretty good marketing deal — but it’s not about that. It’s got to be that she’s competent, that she’s ready.”