When Gregg Popovich hired Becky Hammon to be the first full-time female coach in any major American male sports league last year, the news attracted both headlines and skepticism. As Jan Jarboe Russell chronicled for Texas Monthly in March, in between the supportive tweets offered by everybody from Barack Obama to Skip Bayless, Hammon had to face undue criticism. Before her first game, a reporter relayed the words of a critic who said that players would only listen to her if she was telling them how to make chocolate chip cookies. (“I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie,” she retorted.)
Her work with the Spurs that season was part of the team’s eighteenth consecutive playoff season, and as the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas approached, Popovich tapped Hammon to serve as head coach of the Spurs’ assembly of rookies, free agents, and second-year players. Monday night, Hammon’s Spurs won the title in a 93-90 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Even if summer league basketball isn’t the most-watched game in the world, the players and coaches go at it as hard as they would any other championship, and every win in pro sports is hard to come by. But much is still being made of Hammon’s gender. On the one hand, that’s fair: Whenever a glass ceiling is shattered, we should talk about it and celebrate it. On the other hand: Sometimes it leads to writing like the Guardian published Monday about Hammon and the coaching philosophy she brings to the Spurs. An example:
Hammon’s lines are straight. They are neat. They don’t zig and zag and head off the edge of the board into an abyss. When someone is supposed to run to the right, she draws a thick line going to the right. When someone is supposed to throw a pass, she adds a dotted line between the two X’s.
Nobody asks what they are supposed to do.
Nobody asks where they throw the ball.
There’s a definite line between celebrating the successes of a woman in a male-dominated field and showering her with such low expectations that the mere fact that she’s competent at her job gets mythologized like she just parted the Red Sea. The Guardian’s take on it is definitely an example of the latter. The writer seems shocked that Hammon didn’t diagram the play in lipstick, and thrilled that she coached the players in basketball, rather than knitting or sewing or painting each other’s toenails on the beach.
In two weeks Hammon has made dozens of adjustments. Once, in a game where the Spurs defense was having trouble with an opposing team’s screens, she told the players to switch the way they were playing the screens. The next several possessions the opponent got nothing.
If Hammon hadn’t made in-game adjustments, she’d have proved herself woefully under qualified for the job as head coach of the Spurs’ Vegas summer team. All coaches make adjustments — treating that like a groundbreaking display of basketball savvy reads a lot like gushing that Hammon didn’t just tell the guys to beat the screens with feelings.
The Guardian’s piece on Hammon is just one piece of writing, of course, but it definitely provides an example of the sort of challenges that many women face when they advance as leaders. We don’t need to make special note of the fact that Hammon does things that literally every other basketball coach does (diagram plays, make in-game adjustments, coach players who listen to her) when we can instead make note of the fact that she’s a good enough coach to win a friggin’ championship.
As long as the conversation is about the fact that Hammon does things as well as a male coach might, we’re missing the point that she did everything better. That’s why the Spurs took home a trophy last night and all the fellas who coached the other teams — who would never be the subject of breathless profiles that feature headlines like “he’s the coach, we just listen,” like Hammon — went back home empty-handed.
Ultimately, the day will probably come when Becky Hammon’s success becomes typical. Maybe it’ll be after her third, or fourth, or fifth Summer League trophy. Or maybe it’ll be after Popovich eventually retires and she gets tapped as his replacement to keep the dynasty rolling. Maybe it’ll be after Miami Dolphins executive Dawn Aponte breaks a similar barrier if and when she’s eventually hired as a GM in the NFL, or after Mo’ne Davis gets her first Major League Baseball strikeout. And when that day comes — when we no longer have to read obvious pieces that insist that a woman actually can do things that men can do — it’ll be a victory that deserves a bigger trophy than the one Hammon hoisted last night in Vegas.
(AP Photo/John Locher)