Once all of the press conferences are over and the interviews slow down, Becky Hammon’s real challenges will start. As the first full-time, paid female assistant coach in the NBA, she’ll face harsher judgment from commentators and fans than men in the league. There will be other NBA coaches who are envious and will gripe that she has not paid her dues. Amid that, she’ll also have the task of becoming one with male players in an environment created for men.
All of these things threaten to tarnish Becky’s historic moment. But they don’t have to. I know because I’ve been through this.
In 2009, I was asked to become the first woman ever to coach a professional men’s basketball team. Donnie Nelson, owner of the Texas Legends — the Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, met me –outside of a Starbucks in Plano, Texas. With a strange look on his face, he said, “We need to talk.” He wanted to offer me the job, but had some concerns. We expected to face skeptics in the media, in the stands, and in the locker rooms. Ultimately, it didn’t happen that way because we were proactive. I discovered that, when you’re a first, you have to go the extra mile to earn respect while also projecting normalcy. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s key to cultivating confidence and calming potential critics before they can bring your readiness into question.
For example, as soon as I became head coach of the Texas Legends, I met with the wives of my assistant coaches. I knew there would be times when the coaches would be in my room past midnight, going over scouting reports and reviewing video from our games. That’s not unusual for coaching teams and I couldn’t let it be a problem for us, so I had to make sure the wives were comfortable with me. I included them in our retreats and team dinners and invited them into the office. I took those extra steps and it made our environment more normal. My job was to be just another coach in the league, not to be a woman coaching men. Yes, I had to think about my uniqueness, but to overthink it would have threatened the team’s unity.
That’s another thing: Unity. Having a solid team behind me was integral to avoiding the obstacles of being a first. Strong leadership, in particular, helped inspire confidence and build trust in me both inside and outside of the organization. Donnie Nelson believed in the skills I had developed as a two-time Olympian, three-time All American and two-time collegiate national champion, and that confidence filtered throughout our organization. As with many things in life, having the right support system makes an incredibly challenging job a little bit easier.
Becky has that network. I’m proud of the San Antonio Spurs. Coach Gregg Popovich isn’t the type of guy who’s looking for media and press clippings; he’s looking for results. Can she manage working with his guys? Can she be an asset to the coaching staff? Does she have a high basketball IQ, and a personality that will forge a strong interpersonal relationship with the team? Undoubtedly, he answered “yes” to all of these questions. When Becky interned for Coach Popovich last year as she was recovering from injury, it must have been a perfect audition, though she probably did not realize the trial at hand or what the future could hold. I’m not surprised that she won everybody over with her basketball acumen and her understanding of the game, along with the respect she commanded from the players.
But skills aren’t the end of the story for women working in male-dominated athletics. Becky will have to deafen her ears to the noise that will surround her. People will tug at her and place endless demands on her time. The team will have to protect her from the constant media attention and requests to talk to her wherever she goes. On top of that, maintaining confidence in the face of criticism is something everyone in this league must master, but women especially because the questions ring even louder. And just like all coaches, men and women, she’s going to have to be concise, know when to talk, know when to stop talking and know how to be a great leader on the bench and in the locker room. With her personality, her likeability, her hard work, and her ethics of being prepared every day, Becky has all of the tools she needs to gain the respect she deserves both on and off the court.
I have no doubt that the Spurs and Becky will be able to handle all of this. They are trailblazers. This is a very important time in the history of the NBA and a very important time for women. It opens the door and opens the mind to knowing anything is possible given the opportunity. There are girls whose plans for their future will no longer be restricted to coaching women. I suspect that more teams will take a hard look at adding a female coach to their bench. I, too hope for an opportunity to do teach and coach at the NBA level one day. And if I do, I will thank Becky Hammon for the door that she has opened with her relationship with the Spurs and Coach Popovich.