In just a few short weeks, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made two trailblazing recruiting moves.
In mid-July, the team announced that Euroleague legend Ettore Messina would join the Spurs as an assistant coach, potentially putting him in line to become the first European-born coach to lead a National Basketball Association team. Then on Tuesday, Popovich made a much more groundbreaking move, naming Becky Hammon as an assistant coach for the team, making her the first woman to become a full-time, paid assistant coach on an NBA roster.
Neither move was technically risky. Messina has been called — with the exception of Duke University's Mike Krzyzewski — the most "accomplished or respected coach in the world not currently heading up an NBA franchise." He has won four Euroleague titles and has been honored as one of the 10 greatest all-time coaches of that league. (Messina did also work as a consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers during the shortened 2011-2012 season.) And Hammon, a former six-time WNBA All Star, has been named one of the best players in WNBA history. She spent time working with the Spurs over the past season, making her a known quantity to the team.
But while both Messina and Hammon may be great bets as coaches, it still took someone of Popovich's stature to make it happen. Widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA, Popovich has five titles at San Antonio, the defending NBA champion, where he's built a dynasty. With 17 consecutive seasons at the top of the team, he is the longest serving head coach not only in the NBA, but among all major professional sports. Revered as a legend and known for his no-nonsense, unpompous style, Popovich has the record, the clout and the fortitude to do things others might see as risky.
Many coaches, less certain of their standing in a league where the average tenure for a pro basketball coach is just three years long, might be unwilling to bring in someone with Messina's record to work beneath them. One slip-up or one bad season, and they could be gone — with a respected replacement waiting in the wings. That's far less an issue for Popovich, who just signed a contract extension and whose standing with the team is cemented by his incredible record.
Other coaches might say they'd be willing to hire a woman to be a full-time, paid member of their regular season staff. But none have done it yet. Lisa Boyer worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers over a decade ago, yet she was not paid by the team and did not travel with them or sit on the bench. Natalie Nakase was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers during the two-week Summer League, but will be a video coordinator during the regular season. Whether it's questions about player acceptance, locker room camaraderie, or pure and simple bias that have kept more coaches from hiring women to those jobs, Hammon will be the first to be paid by a team to coach during regular season play.
Particularly with his decision to hire Hammon, Popovich reminds us how critical it is for leaders with his degree of prominence to be trailblazers. "If he can do it," other coaches could very well say, "we can too."
Barriers can't be broken by outsiders alone. They must be helped by leaders who are secure enough, and influential enough, to take the risks. What matters isn't just that a door is opened to a woman or another outsider. It's that the person who steps through it has a chance to be successful, so that door doesn't shut again before others can follow her. In the NBA, at least, there may be no better way to do ensure such success than sitting next to a legend like Popovich on the bench.