The Spurs were not quite groundbreakers in hiring Becky Hammon as an assistant coach Tuesday. The Cavaliers had hired Lisa Boyer as a voluntary assistant in the early 2000s. She will not even be the first woman coaching for pay in a NBA-affiliated league. Groundbreaking women’s basketball player Nancy Lieberman coached the Texas Legends of the D-League in 2009.
This is not to say Hammon’s hiring is not groundbreaking. She is the first full-time paid assistant for the defending NBA champions.
This is to say that Hammon is as qualified and ready to coach a NBA team as any other recently retired player. She just happens to be one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time rather than a former male NBA journeyman. This is just another hiring that makes a ton of sense from an organization that rarely makes mistakes. Who cares what gender that hire happens to be?
It would be just like San Antonio to turn the latest trend of hiring players right off the floor — recently Jacque Vaughn, Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher got head coaching jobs within two years of retirement from playing in the NBA — and turn it to their uses and liking. Hammon is of the same caliber of player and basketball smarts as those three NBA players with the only difference being she never played in the NBA.
Instead, Hammon became one of the great point guards in WNBA history. Her career averages are relatively modest — 13.1 points and 3.8 assists per game over her 16 year career dating back to 1999 with the New York Liberty and San Antonio Silver Stars. At her height she was a superstar. She was more or less the Steve Nash of the WNBA, adept at keeping her dribble alive even when it seemed impossible to find that perfect passing angle or put up that perfect shot. Her teams, like Nash’s ironically, never found the postseason success her talent maybe deserved.
That is one reason Hammon will work in the NBA. She understands the grind.
Hammon was largely ignored coming out of tiny Colorado State, hardly a women’s basketball power. She was ignored by Team USA despite all her accolades — four All-WNBA appearances including two first team selections. She latched on where she could and made a name for herself. Playing in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, she gained Russian citizenship and led that country’s women’s basketball birth.
She understands in a very real way just what it takes to play at the top of your profession and the twists and turns it can take.
The reason she was able to succeed was her supreme basketball smarts. To become the female Steve Nash, you have to understand passing angles, driving lanes and, most importantly, your teammates like no one else can. Kate Fagan of ESPNW has a great story on exactly what Hammons’ basketball instincts mean:
My very first practice with the Colorado Chill, a semi-pro women’s basketball team that folded in 2006, I was on the same team as Hammon during a scrimmage. (She played three seasons for the Chill, in a league that ran opposite the WNBA season.) Hammon had no clue who I was; I, of course, knew exactly who she was, as she’d just recently exploded with the New York Liberty, earning a spot in the 2003 WNBA All-Star Game after going undrafted out of Colorado State.
About three minutes into the scrimmage, during a break in play, Hammon walked over to me and said the following, pretty much verbatim: “So it seems like you’re most effective as a spot-up shooter. Why don’t you start on the wing and find the open space when I drive — I’ll get you the ball.”
In that split second, I realized that she had scouted my game and processed exactly how I might be most effective and also exactly how she could take advantage of my strengths. Translation: In just a few minutes, she knew about as much about my game as I knew.
That is an innate basketball knowledge that is really tough to replicate. It comes from just having a sense for the game. And, as a point guard, Hammon has been able to share that with teammates.
It is not like this will be Hammon’s first go-round with the Spurs either. Hammon, having played for San Antonio’s WNBA team since 2007, has worked with the Spurs as a consultant while she was rehabbing from injury in 2013. Her work there likely impressed the Spurs brass and convinced them that she would be a good fit with the staff and with the team. In effect, she was already doing the job she is doing now. The title is just official now.
She has worked with this team before and already has a relationship with them. The Spurs clearly liked the work she did and wanted to bring her on full time.
Will there be things Hammon has to learn? Absolutely.
The NBA game is different than the WNBA in several ways.
But in many ways it is not. Professional basketball is professional basketball. The game rarely changes. And the Spurs system is so ingrained that Hammon’s biggest task is learning the culture and system the Spurs run and helping guide players through the different variations off of that then actually learning the NBA game.
Hammon has knowledge to impart. The life of a WNBA player is not easy — many play year-round in Europe during the WNBA’s offseason and actually Hammon made most of her money with CSKA Moscow.
Hammon is a truly gifted player. One of the best of all time in women’s basketball without doubt. There seems to be little reason for this not to work and plenty of reasons it will.
Once again, the Spurs have outwitted their opponents and brought in a rising star to further cement their organization.