Half an hour before tip-off in the December 10 matchup between the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs, assistant coach Becky Hammon was at work on the floor of the AT&T Center passing basketballs to Spurs players. Hammon, a star in the WNBA for sixteen years who has never lacked for confidence—a necessity, perhaps, given that she stands at a modest five feet six inches—moved nimbly around the court. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing the broad smile of someone clearly in her element.
Though it was thirty minutes before game time, most of the 18,500 seats were already filled with exuberant Spurs fans, dressed in silver and black. San Antonio, unlike Houston or Dallas, doesn’t have a major league football team or baseball team or hockey team. It’s a one-team town. And the fact that the Spurs have been arguably the dominant team in the NBA only adds to the intensity; it’s San Antonio’s small revenge for living for so long in the shadow of Texas’s better-known cities.
On this night, though, Coach Gregg Popovich ran the risk of alienating even his most die-hard boosters by benching the team’s biggest stars, some for injuries and others for rest. There would be no Tim Duncan. No Tony Parker. No Manu Ginóbili. No Kawhi Leonard. On Twitter, Knicks fans wisecracked about the lameness of the Spurs’ starting lineup. And then there was this tweet from New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton: “Spurs should have dressed Becky Hammon tonight.”
By then, Hammon had already gotten used to that sort of attention. Four months earlier, the 37-year-old made history when the Spurs hired her as the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history. Barack Obama tweeted his good wishes: “Congrats to @BeckyHammon . . . When #WomenSucceed, America succeeds—and we know the @Spurs will, too. –bo.” ESPN’s Skip Bayless raved on Twitter: “One day, I believe, Becky Hammon will be the NBA’s first female head coach. That’s how much Pop thinks of her. This was no PR move. Legit.”
Hammon understands the significance of her hire. She is the first full-time salaried female coach not only in professional basketball but in any major American male sports league. Yet though she’s gratified that her hiring has shattered stereotypes, she doesn’t want to be known as a female coach. “I’m happy that Pop hired me because of what I bring to the game, not because I’m a woman,” she said during an interview at the Spurs’ training facility a few days before the Knicks game. “I don’t want an opportunity because I’m a woman. I want an opportunity because I’m qualified.”
While the majority of the responses to her hiring have been positive, some have been irritating. Before her first game, one reporter mentioned a critic who had called her appointment a publicity stunt and had suggested that NBA players would listen to her only if she were explaining how to bake cookies. Hammon took the high road. “I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie,” she said. A few reporters, including me, have raised the issue of how she handles being in the Spurs’ locker room. “It’s a silly question,” she replied. “I’ve been coached by men my entire career. I’ve never had a locker-room incident. Flip the question around. It’s like asking a male chef why he’s in the kitchen.”
Hammon has been playing basketball since she was a young girl growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the eighties. As a girl, she shot hoops with her father and her brother, Matt, who is two years older. “My whole family was athletic,” said Hammon. “Matt was a great player, always better than me—until he wasn’t.” That happened when Hammon became a star player at Stevens High School. As a senior, she averaged 26 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game and was voted South Dakota girls’ basketball player of the year.
Hammon was in elementary school when she watched her first NBA game on television. She asked her father if she could ever play in the NBA. “Oh, sweetie, no,” he said. “You’ll never be able to play in the NBA. But if you’re really, really good, maybe you can get a college scholarship.”
In time Hammon did get a scholarship, to Colorado State University, where she played point guard and set numerous records, including total points, points per game, and three-pointers. After graduating, in 1999, she signed with the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Her spirited, hard-hitting play made her a favorite with fans. The San Antonio Stars acquired Hammon in 2007, and during her eight seasons there her ability to score in the clutch earned her the nickname Big Shot Becky. In 2008 she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team but didn’t make the cut. So she became a dual citizen of Russia—she had already been playing for Russia’s CSKA Moscow team during the off-season—and represented the Russian national team, which won a bronze medal. She played for the Russian Olympic team again in 2012. “Nothing in my life has ever been easy,” said Hammon. “I’ve always been someone who did it uphill. That’s how I’m built.”
The road to her breakthrough hire began while she was playing for the San Antonio Stars. The Spurs and the Stars have the same owner; both teams play in the same arena. Popovich, who seems to pay attention to everything, was impressed with Hammon’s game. “As a player, Becky was totally in charge of her team,” Popovich said, as we talked before the Knicks game. “She was the leader, the one teammates looked to. She ran the show. She’s feisty and has a lot of pizzazz. She’s a magnet for people. Beyond that, Becky had empathy for teammates in situations. She handled losses well and wins well. I know that sounds odd. I think a lot of people don’t handle either very well. If they win, they think they’ve discovered the cure for cancer. If they lose, it’s like the end of the world, with no perspective about it. It’s basketball, let’s move on.”
In July 2013, while Hammon was still playing for the WNBA, she tore a ligament in her left knee and had to sit out the rest of the season. Unwilling to spend months doing nothing, she sent word to the Spurs that she had an interest in coaching. Pop and R. C. Buford, the Spurs’ general manager, invited her to spend the 2013–2014 season as a coaching intern, where she worked with Popovich and his team of assistant coaches. “She was in all our meetings, basically every day,” said Popovich. “She gave instructions in practice. We heard her opinions and she didn’t hesitate to give them. During that process, I learned to respect her knowledge of the game.”
Over the course of the season, Popovich and Buford observed how Hammon handled herself with the players and how the players reacted to her. From Popovich’s point of view, her gender was irrelevant. She and her longtime friend Tony Parker are both point guards, and Popovich noticed that they approached the position the same way. “She did the same thing in the WNBA that Tony does—the same pick and roll, the same fast-break offense, the same defense. All the fundamentals that make you a good player are the same,” said Popovich. “It’s about the skills and the teaching of the skills. She passed every test.” Her history as a player gave her what Popovich describes as “great basketball IQ”—she knows the game inside and out and understands how the NBA works.
This is classic Popovich: stern-eyed, honest, and exceptionally fair. A former Soviet studies major at the Air Force Academy who speaks Russian and Serbian, he has a reputation for spotting opportunities that escape everyone else’s attention. The way he described his decision to hire Hammon made the move seem reasonable, not radical at all, much like his decision in the late eighties to travel the world in search of players for the Spurs. Unlike other coaches, with their laser focus on NCAA prospects, Popovich realized that foreign players were an untapped resource. At the time, the line on foreign players was that they didn’t speak English and weren’t as tough as American players. Popovich didn’t buy it. “I thought that was ignorant,” he said. He was right. Nine of the sixteen players on the Spurs’ current roster are from other countries. San Antonio is a profoundly multicultural city, and the Spurs have the most diverse lineup in the NBA. Last summer, Popovich hired Ettore Messina, a native of Catania, Italy, long regarded as one of the best European basketball coaches, as the team’s lead assistant coach. “Pop gets things other people don’t get,” Messina told me. “He doesn’t take it for granted that what has been done in America is more important. He sees the big picture.”
And Hammon’s hiring is starting to look like part of a very big picture. In September the Dallas Mavericks brought on Jenny Boucek, associate head coach of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, as a coach at their training camp. Since there were no openings on the team’s regular-season staff, Boucek returned to Seattle after the camp was finished. But she had made an impression. “She will be the next NBA assistant coach,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told the press. “Everybody is looking for the best people. Why should it matter if they are male or female?”
In San Antonio Hammon is fully engaged in her new role—writing scouting reports, diagramming plays, working with individual players. Nonetheless, she’s sometimes brought up short when she thinks about what she has left behind. “I have these profound moments of sadness knowing that I’ll never play basketball again in a meaningful way,” she said. “It’s like the death of my playing career and the birth of my coaching career.” But watching her on December 10, it was tough to see any sign of regret on her face. She sat in the second row directly behind Popovich, her eyes fixed on the game. Occasionally she scribbled notes on a pad.
When the buzzer sounded, the score was Spurs 109, Knicks 95, which surely quieted down those Knicks fans who had been serving up Twitter snark a couple of hours earlier. I remembered what Popovich had said about how Hammon knew how to win as well as to lose. After this victory, her face showed no emotion, only concentration, as if she was replaying the game in her mind, calculating what went right and what went wrong. She was already gearing up for the next one.