When the San Antonio Spurs signed Becky Hammon this summer as an assistant coach, she became the first woman to hold a paid full-time coaching position with the NBA—or any of the Big Four professional sports leagues, for that matter. Part way through her first season on the job, Hammon talked with The Post about the experience.
A former point guard, and one of the 15 all-time top players in the WNBA, Hammon has transitioned from being the star on a court full of women to a court-side leader in a men's game. In this interview, edited for length and clarity, she talks about her techniques for staying disciplined, the salary differential between the NBA and WNBA, and what she is learning from the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history.
Q. You’re now the first woman with a full-time paid coaching role in the NBA. What has it been like, and are you getting tired of the focus on that?
A. I don’t think the Spurs ever set out to hire a woman. It just happened. And it was never really a goal of mine to be a female assistant in the NBA. But, through the course of getting to know Coach Popovich and the staff and the players, they decided I was the right person for the job. I don’t really think gender had any role in them hiring me. I think it was, “Does this person fit in? Does this person bring something to the table that could help our team win?”
I’m a little uncomfortable with people saying “trailblazer” and this or that, because I know somebody else blazed the trail for me to even have the opportunity to play basketball. I never want to lose sight of the women who came before me and laid the groundwork for me to be able to walk through this door. If I can in some way make a path for somebody else to walk through—maybe it’s your daughter or your aunt—that’s the bigger picture, and that’s really what makes everything all worth it.
Q. What challenge or surprise has come with being the only woman in the room?
A. The only surprise would just be how natural it is for me. I grew up chasing around my brother and my dad, playing sports and hunting and fishing, so I’m used to being around a lot of guys. You learn to keep up, because you if you’re not tough, you get injured; and if you’re not holding your own, you get left behind. It’s so funny, when I look back over the course of my life, how many things like that built me up for this moment.
Q. What do you think was key to your leadership and success on the court, as a player?
A. Habits are the biggest thing. Good daily habits eventually lead to good days, good weeks, good years. As an athlete, a lot of those habits are physical. You get up and you discipline your body, you go through reps. You get recognized on the court, but all the work is done behind the scenes when no one is looking. When I was younger, I would get up early to shoot a couple hundred shots before school, then a couple hundred shots after school.
Basketball’s a team sport, and people follow people who can deliver. The greatest thing about sports, to me, is just the crossover into everyday life. On the court, we talk in terms of winning and getting the best out of your teammates. Yet things that work in sports you could use in whatever business you run.
Q. What techniques do you have for staying disciplined and motivated day after day, practice after practice?
A. Getting my workouts in in the morning. I know if I wait too long throughout the day, I may not get it in. I want to make sure to prioritize my time.
At the end of the day, the best leaders really know how to manage time. Yes, they know how to manage people—but you can’t do any of that if you don’t know how to manage yourself. So for me, it was a matter of getting up and not hitting the snooze button ten times.
Q. There must be times, though, when you want to hit the metaphorical snooze button. Did you develop some method for motivating yourself? How do you stay fired up about a long-term goal amid daily routines?
A. Oh, for sure, there are days you want to hit the snooze button. But you make a habit of it and your body gets used to it, your mind gets used to it, you start adjusting.
First of all, I loved the game I was playing, so that was always motivating. I grew up in South Dakota and I remember distinctly thinking, even at a young age, maybe I’m the best in South Dakota, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best. I haven’t played against the players in Chicago, or New York. I always had a bigger-picture mentality, and I don’t know quite where I got that.
I’m small for a basketball player. I don’t look like a basketball player. I’m a typical underdog story. My journey has been one of a lot of doors being closed, a lot of people saying I wasn’t able to. Yet if you know me—my character, my personality traits—you know I love challenges. I love proving people wrong. Just trying to be the best that I could possibly be was a big enough motivating factor for me. It got me through a lot.
There’s also a mental component of studying yourself, studying your team, studying your opponents. It’s universal: CEOs of businesses go into a boardroom the same way. It’s all about finding solutions and getting the people around you to buy in to what you’re selling, but it always starts with yourself.
Q. What would you do when you hit a wall, whether it was physically, emotionally or mentally?
A. As an athlete, I’ve had some devastating injuries. I’ve blown out my knees, broken fingers. When you get physically knocked down, it also takes a toll on you mentally. My last ACL surgery that I had was at 36. To try to come back and play in a league that is full of 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds, as a 36-year-old coming off a major surgery, was certainly challenging.
But I thought: I’m going to get up everyday, go to rehab, do my reps and do the best I possibly can. When you’re able to have that discipline physically, you train your mind mentally. And being strong in your mind is probably, first and foremost, the thing that a great leader possesses.
Q. Your ACL injury was in many ways what led you to sit in with the Spurs and form a relationship with their coach, Gregg Popovich. I imagine that was a lesson in finding the bright side of something negative.
A. Injury just so happens to be that thing with athletes where you take a step back and say, “Okay, what can I be doing here to make the most of today?”
You’re absolutely right that, with my last ACL injury, the silver lining was forming relationships with the Spurs. It’s pretty remarkable to be heading in one direction and then something happens and, boom, now you’re in this other direction. But it’s always been for the better. What I’ve learned is just to walk through those challenges and take advantage of those opportunities.
Q. Let’s talk about the transition from being a player to being a coach, and the different skills you need to draw on to lead a team in one role versus the other.
A. As a player, you feel like you can go out there and make an impact and change things. As a coach, you relinquish that control. You try to provide the tools and information to be successful, but you’re depending on somebody else going out there and doing the work in the moment.
Sometimes in the course of the game we’ll go through film or talk to players about different things we’re seeing out there that can help them in the heat of the battle. There are so many scenarios that the coaches are going through behind the scenes and in meetings, whether it’s assessing offensive strategy or the mind frame of individual players. As a player, I didn’t realize how much these coaches wrestle with decisions that they’re making for everyone.
Q. Popovich is revered as one of basketball’s great coaches. From working closely with him, what do you think makes him such an effective leader—as well as someone who gets incredible loyalty from his players?
A. First of all, he has a very brilliant mind. The fact that he is five steps ahead of everybody else makes it a little easier to follow him. He also has an ability to relate with individual players and takes an interest in them, their character, what’s going on in their family life. Those connections with players get lost a lot in professional sports.
What R.C. Buford and Popovich have been able to build in San Antonio is stability. It’s unheard of for guys to play on the same team, with the same coach, for so long. It just doesn’t happen in professional sports very often. Even when tough times came, everybody still stayed.
Pop knows what buttons to push with guys. He really has that mastered. Plus, he’s been in the NBA for 20-plus years. That’s a lot of time outs, end of quarters, playoff games, wins and losses, video sessions and everything else. There are days when I come into the meeting room with a pen and paper, because I’m going to be taking notes like I’m listening to a college professor.
Q. What’s it like being an assistant coach, especially when the person above you has such a huge stature? Do you find that his assistant coaches tend to mimic the style he sets at the top?
A. He wants feedback. He wants people to disagree with him. He wants that dialogue, that push and pull, so that we come up with the best solution possible. In leadership, it’s not about you and it’s not about having any kind of insecurities. It’s about what can we do for the team and what’s best for the guys. You learn to get over yourself. He’s somebody who definitely models that every day.
Q. What advice would you offer someone outside of sports who is charged with building a team and dealing with different personalities? How do you juggle building a cohesive team while also fostering strong one-on-one relationships?
A. You have to take a hard look at character, whether it’s a sports team or a boardroom. There has to be enthusiasm and energy to compete in whatever field you’re in, but character is the greatest determining factor for success. You need to make sure the people you put around you are the kind who will stay and fight when it gets hard, people you don’t have to babysit, people who are going to do the right thing when no one’s looking. Be careful of that when you’re hiring.
Q. You moved from the WNBA to the NBA, do you have a new perspective on the difference in salaries between the two?
A. It’s interesting, you know, because a pick and roll is a pick and roll. And a good leader is a good leader, whether female or male. There are some huge salary discrepancies, and there’s a huge area for growth on the women’s side. That won’t come, though, if people don’t get out and support it.
The biggest thing for me is just changing the cultural idea that women can’t be entertaining as professional athletes. A guy like LeBron James can come up to me and say, “I appreciate the way you play the game.” The guys in the NBA watch the WNBA all the time. But that appreciation for the hard work that women have been putting in needs to start paying off, so that the discrepancies become less and less. It’s a big difference, and it’s very shocking. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the basketball itself—that’s the funny thing.
Q. What do you think could close the gap?
A. One of the things that’s changing, even just in my generation, is that there are women as role models. There was no WNBA when I was growing up. My dad told me if I was really good, maybe I could go to college on a scholarship and that was kind of the end of it.
Just the idea of little boys and little girls growing up with strong, professional female athletes—and CEOs and surgeons—changes the mentality. Right now, the industry tends to be driven by what men are interested in. Yet women make the majority of household decisions about money and entertainment, so I think when women start paying more attention to sports, and seeing how beneficial it is for their daughters to participate, it’ll start to change.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
A. Just to treat everybody how you would want to be treated. I mean, it’s basic: Everybody’s got a story and everybody’s got value. To value human relationships and people goes a long way, and others can authentically feel it.
Q. What’s been the toughest challenge in your career, one that taught you some personal lesson?
A. One of the hardest decisions I ever made was to play for Russia in the Olympics. It was always my dream, obviously, to play in the Olympics for the USA. But even coming off my best year in the WNBA, I didn’t get a chance to be on USA basketball. I knew I would be judged very harshly for playing for Russia, and I went through all that turmoil—wrestling to do it, not to do it—hoping the USA squad would come back around and give me a legitimate chance to make the team. All these things were swirling inside me.
It was a really hard, hard decision. But once I made it, I was very resolute. I was taking the opportunity that was given to me. I remember being on the bronze medal stand and looking back, realizing I was a lot stronger and I could take a lot more than I ever thought I could take. It changed me, and it settled me in a way. When you know you’re doing the right thing in your heart, you can take a lot of crap. The areas when you grow the most are the hard parts, not the easy parts. It’s the hard parts that nobody sees and the struggles that you go through behind closed doors that nobody has any idea about.
That was one of those decisions that was life-changing, and it was also another decision that led me down the path to Coach Pop. Coming back on a plane from the London Olympics, I sat next to him and that was our first one-on-one interaction.
Q. What is it that you love about basketball?
A. For me, the best sound is the ball going through the net, especially when you’re in an empty gym and you hear the ball bouncing, your sneakers are squeaking and the net is swishing. Those might be the three best sounds on the face of the earth.
The biggest thing I love about basketball is something that I still carry with me, since being a child, and it’s just the ability to dream. Michael Jordan was probably the first basketball player that I can remember made me want to dream. The excitement, the passion that he played with—I felt I had that fire in me, too. I’ve loved basketball my entire life and it’s loved me back very well, so it’s been a good relationship.