The San Antonio Spurs made history Tuesday by hiring six-time WNBA all-star Becky Hammon as an assistant coach, making her the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports.
Hammon, a two-time first-team all-WNBA player who had spent the past eight seasons with the San Antonio Stars during a 16-year career in the league, served as an unofficial coaching intern last season with the reigning NBA champion Spurs.
“Obviously, this is a big deal. The bigger deal is I feel like there’s been greater pioneers to even get to this point,” Hammon, 37, said during a teleconference Tuesday. “In some ways, it is trailblazing, but there have been so many other women doing really great things, and I’m just following in their path.”
University of South Carolina associate head coach Lisa Boyer was the first woman to serve on an NBA coaching staff, assisting then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas in 2001-02, but she was paid by the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers and did not travel with the Cavaliers or sit on the bench. Last July, the Los Angeles Clippers made former UCLA star Natalie Nakase a summer league assistant, but she will return to her position as a video coordinator during the regular season.
Hammon, though, will be a full-fledged assistant on Coach Gregg Popovich’s staff.
“It’s a great thing, a great day in women’s basketball,” Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta said before Tuesday’s game against the New York Liberty. “And you know what? You’re going to have some people just waiting for her to fail. Then you’ve got her whole WNBA family that knows she’s going to succeed. That happens. I just know she’s going to do well.”
Forced to confront her basketball mortality after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee last season with the Stars — an injury she now calls “one of the biggest blessings in disguise” — Hammon observed practices, sat in on coaches meetings and film review sessions and watched games from behind the bench. Popovich would occasionally ask Hammon for her opinion and was impressed by both her mind and her moxie.
“Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs,” Popovich said Tuesday in a statement.
Hammon’s hiring in San Antonio comes on the heels of Michele Roberts, a Washington-based attorney, becoming the first woman to be named executive director of the NBA players’ union late last month.
A native of Rapid City, S.D., Hammon was lightly recruited out of high school, undrafted out of Colorado State and she made a controversial decision to become a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 so that she could play for the country’s national basketball team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
“I think those things are the fibers of what I’m made up of,” Hammon said. “Nothing in my life has ever really been easy. I’ve always done it pretty much uphill . . . Throw out the female or male part of it, this is a great challenge for me.”
Ann Meyers Drysdale, the president and general manager of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and vice president of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, hailed the Spurs for making a bold move for the NBA and women.
“It takes somebody with courage and common sense to hire somebody that’s qualified — and that’s exactly what the San Antonio Spurs organization did,” Meyers Drysdale, the first woman to sign a contract with an NBA team, when she tried out for the Indiana Pacers in 1979, said in a telephone interview. “Her work ethic — I don’t think she’s second to anybody. She was a special player. She had ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. She was an exceptional player who didn’t let anyone tell her what she couldn’t do. Bottom line is, she knows the game. It doesn’t matter the gender. She’s an asset.”
The Spurs claimed their fifth NBA championship with a five-game series win over the Miami Heat in June and have been at the forefront of several trends throughout the NBA in recent years — from embracing international players to using advanced analytics, moves made to give the Spurs a competitive advantage. This hire is no different.
Hammon connected well with the players and considers herself good friends with Spurs all-star point guard Tony Parker. Popovich has already compared her instincts as a coach to previous proteges Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr and Mike Budenholzer.
“Pop said I’m hiring you because you're a good fit here and you just happen to be a woman,” Hammon said. “Obviously, this is a world-class organization and they really base themselves on excellence and demand excellence and that starts in leadership. I think they think outside the box. I think they're very forward-thinking. It had more to do with them feeling that I was qualified . . . there's a lot of things that go into it besides, ‘Oh, this would be a cool idea.’ ”
In making the announcement Tuesday, the Spurs didn’t mention Hammon’s gender in the news release, sending a subtle message about how Hammon should be viewed going forward: as a coach.
“I hope little girls can say, ‘Hey look! People can do whatever they put their mind to.’ It's so early to tell the kind of impact it's going to have, but we'll just take it day by day,” Hammon said. “I'm just so grateful that they value my experience as a basketball player and threw the gender out the window.”
Hammon also considered going into broadcasting, something she had done on the side in her times away from the game, after her playing career was over. But he mind was made up even before the Spurs decided to give her a shot.
“When you do TV, you never have to leave a gym a loser,” Hammon said a broadcasting partner once told her. “I thought, ‘Yeah, but you never get to leave a winner, either.’ I'm up for challenges, I’m up for being outside the box. I’m competitive and I love challenges. And I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. It’s a pretty magical thing that I’m walking out of a playing career and into a coaching opportunity.”
Gene Wang and Marissa Payne contributed to this report.