Something great happened Tuesday when the San Antonio Spurs announced that they were hiring Becky Hammon as a real, true assistant coach. One with a contract, and an office, who would actually be paid by the organization, rather than just tossed a few words of recognition as a volunteer.
With the introduction of its first full-time female assistant coach, the NBA raised a revolutionary possibility: that Hammon doesn’t have to be an anomaly. There can be more women just like her, and there should be.
Being The Only — as Hammon currently is — can be isolating, because when you’re The Only, it makes it difficult to find someone else to talk to who understands precisely what you are going through. And even if the NBA and the Spurs roll out the welcome mat to make Hammon’s transition as smooth as possible, bumps are inevitable. There will always be loud troglodytes who will question whether Hammon has the ability and the qualifications to coach men, just as there are loud troglodytes who say they wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam.
When I covered sports full-time, I used to encounter these types everywhere — at ballparks, in my e-mail and voicemail inboxes, even within professional organizations.
But what’s more pervasive, and far more destructive, are petty, sexist workplace microagressions that always seem to find women in male-dominated arenas. I could tell you how sportswriters in certain press boxes refused to even acknowledge my existence if I wasn’t accompanied by a male colleague.
When you’re in an environment where you’re the only one experiencing such nerve-grating trivialities, it makes it that much more difficult to cope through tough days, which makes it that much more difficult to remain and to thrive. And that’s what you want to see — pioneers who excel, not just take their lumps for the people walking through the door after them.
Welcoming one through the door is an admirable start, and it shouldn’t be discredited. But how about this: Let’s have a wider door, one that accommodates not just a trickle, but a steady stream, maybe even a deluge. What if NBA commissioner Adam Silver instituted something akin to the NFL’s Rooney Rule for women? What if next year, the Spurs play some other team and Hammon can look across the court to her team’s opponents and see another woman working just as furiously as she, to win?
Let’s also hope that Hammon’s ascendance does not further evince the idea that the WNBA is the NBA’s neglected sibling, and that the two will never be seen as equals. Never mind becoming a head coach, or even an assistant in the women’s league, Hammon has a legitimate job assistant-coaching men, some might say. And given the comparatively paltry WNBA salaries, she’ll probably earn a lot more money than she’d make as a WNBA head coach, too. We don’t know for sure — the Spurs declined to publicize the details of Hammon’s contract. If the best coaches leave the WNBA to coach men, where does that leave the league?
Still, if the NBA wants to scoop Hammon up and send a message that she’s valued for her athletic I.Q. and her basketball pedagogy, by all means, let them. Let 16 years of playing in the WNBA be as equivalent a prerequisite for a coaching gig in the NBA as Jason Kidd’s career. Let there be a respected, high-profile woman in a male sports league whose assumed value or competence doesn’t rest on her looks. Let there be five. Let there be 10.
Let there be whatever number it takes to make it normal.