The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Becky Hammon is a coaching trailblazer, but the NBA’s glass ceiling wouldn’t break

Becky Hammon talks with Tre Jones and Derrick White of the Spurs during a December game. (Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
6 min

Becky Hammon finally will be a head coach. The Las Vegas Aces, an organization in the WNBA, gave her an overdue opportunity, and she will have the control and the support needed to build a championship contender.

The news, rightfully, was met with its share of congratulatory praise, which grew louder this week when Hammon hit the right notes during her introductory news conference. Yet beyond the genuine warmth and happiness for Hammon achieving a career goal, there was a conflicting emotion: an unshakable feeling of disappointment.

It appears Hammon will not be the first woman hired as the head coach of an NBA franchise. Instead, Hammon, an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014, will settle for being a footnote as the first woman to serve as an acting head coach in the regular season. (Last season, she stepped in midgame for Gregg Popovich after he was ejected.) She will be the understudy who came close, who represented hopes for gender equity in the NBA and among head coaches. While men routinely coach women at basketball’s highest levels, the same opportunities do not exist, yet, in reverse.

The glass ceiling remains intact, and any small cracks made over the past 7½ years are now just sad, visible reminders that a historic first remains a distant vision.

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Ultimately, her dream has been deferred. Maybe even permanently because, after years of pursuing the prime seat on an NBA sideline, Hammon instead chose five years in Las Vegas. She took the safest and surest route to becoming a head coach after learning firsthand that change comes slowly, even in the NBA.

For anyone who views the league as a bastion of inclusivity and acceptance and applauds its reputation for being the most progressive of the top four American professional leagues, everything about Hammon’s departure should be disappointing. Relationships with the right people still can trump a good résumé. After she leaves this season, there will be six women on NBA coaching staffs, a statistic moving in the wrong direction after a league-record eight teams employed women during the 2019-20 season. And if the most qualified woman in the league can’t get a head coaching job, then who can?

Or is it less disappointing and just a shame, not on Hammon but on us and our expectations, that her rise was only a matter of time? Commissioner Adam Silver had openly advocated for this, but hiring decisions ultimately belong to team owners and general managers. And though the idea of bucking tradition sounds fashionable, the truth is a woman is no closer to becoming an NBA head coach than Tristan Thompson is to being faithful to Khloé Kardashian.

It’s not happening “sooner than later,” which was Silver’s prediction from nearly five years ago. If that was true, if a woman truly was standing right beneath that glass ceiling and holding a hammer, then Hammon would not have had to listen to potential employers tell her that being in one market for her entire coaching career and not having experience running a team of her own were knocks against her — as if spending all those years learning from the greatest NBA coach of the modern era somehow makes a candidate less qualified.

Popovich brought in Hammon not because of her gender but for her basketball acumen. After a series of firsts that made Hammon the answer to NBA trivia questions — Who was the first woman to serve as a head coach in the summer league? The first named to an all-star coaching staff? — by the 2018-19 season, he made her his top assistant.

“There’s no difference between a woman who knows the game and a man who knows the game,” Popovich said last year. “It’s just another prejudice that probably has to be overcome, just like a lot of other prejudices in the world become less and less as people pay attention to them.”

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In the past, the seats next to Popovich have doubled as catapults. Assistants such as Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, James Borrego and Jacque Vaughn sat there before becoming head coaches of their own teams. After Hammon moved to the front of the bench, she reportedly received interviews with at least three NBA teams (the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic), but in two cases the jobs went to men who had previous ties to the men with hiring power. Nate Bjorkgren knew fellow Iowan Chad Buchanan, the Pacers’ general manager, but lasted only a season before being fired. And first-year Trail Blazers Coach Chauncey Billups enjoyed a close relationship with Neil Olshey, who brought him in but was recently dumped as GM.

Hammon could have waited for another round of summer interviews, but instead she chose an organization that made space for her.

“I feel like I’m ready to have my own team. And this is the organization that made it very, very obvious they wanted me really, really bad,” Hammon said Monday. “And so it’s always good to be wanted.”

In many ways, her decision to return to the WNBA, where she spent 16 years as a player, is not so different from the Black high school senior who only applies to HBCUs or the small-town Southern kid who cut her teeth in the big city but moves back home at the peak of her career. This is not to self-segregate but rather to feel safe and accepted — and especially wanted.

NBA jobs are elusive, but Hammon deserved the same opportunity that anyone with her credentials would get. She had earned the chance for stat geeks to marvel at her in-game adjustments — or for obnoxious and impatient fans to call for her firing after a losing streak as long as basketball — and nothing else — remained the focus of their ire.

The desire for many members in minority or marginalized groups is not simply to be “The First,” in capital letters, but an equal. Hammon didn’t find that in the NBA, and it’s no longer clear when anyone will.