A Legacy of Inspiration

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009.

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She used to shovel snow to play basketball. She had to dodge a metal pole that stood between her and the hoop. When darkness descended in Rapid City, S.D, she turned on the floodlights at home to illuminate the path to the basket.       

That’s how it began for Becky Hammon. Before first grade, she possessed a heart that burned for the game in the dead of winter.

At 37, Hammon can peer through the fog of time to the bright light of her youth: shooting instruction from her father, pick up games with her siblings, hours and hours of practice that would elevate her to an improbable place on The List.

She will retire from the Stars at the end of the season as one of the 15 Greatest Players in WNBA history. Hammon stands out on The List for her height -- the shortest at 5-foot-6 -- and pedigree. Every one of The Greatest arrived in the WNBA as a high first-round draft pick or as an international or American Basketball League star -- except Hammon.

She went undrafted out of Colorado State. She went unnoticed at Stevens High. Two Division I schools called to say she wasn’t good enough. Hammon pressed on and earned some looks at a camp where she won the Most Improved Player award.

“I called it the ‘Most Unknown Player’ award,” she says. “I was well hidden in the cornfields and hills of South Dakota.”

That she rose from obscurity to become the face of a WNBA franchise is her legacy. Hammon persevered through rejection, pushed and spun past doubt. She became the smallest of stars, finding creases to the basket, firing no-look passes, draining 3-pointers. She made impossible plays, sank impossible shots and her popularity exploded. Hammonites across the league dropped their jaws and rose to their feet in awe.

Stars coach Dan Hughes uses an NFL metaphor to explain Hammon’s touch. “Becky’s passing ability is like Peyton Manning dropping a pass over coverage to a specific spot only that receiver can catch,” he says. “She’s not the tallest. She’s not the quickest. But she has some incredible skill. She inspires people.”

Hammon stands in front of a small gathering of media, eyes welling, throat tightening. Practice has just ended and Hammon is asked why she has decided to retire. She looks into the cameras, balls bouncing on the gym floor behind her, and offers a simple answer. It is time.

After 16 seasons, 440 games and 5,756 points, seventh in league history, her body is breaking down. She suffered a torn ACL -- the second of her career -- last July. At her age, it’s tough to recover. She’s a step slower, her teammates a generation younger. When Hammon tells them she started  in 1999, some say, “I was 8-years-old.” Kayla McBride, the rookie from Notre Dame, was 7.

There was no WNBA when Hammon was growing up. There was no ABL. If there had been, it’s not likely anyone would have imagined her playing pro ball. For all her drive and skill, Hammon was an undersized guard in a state largely ignored by college recruiters. “There is no way anybody could have foreseen what God had in store for me,” she says.

It took the eyes of an unusual coach, a prospector digging for treasure, if you will, to make the discovery. It took Hammon leaving home. At a camp in Terre Haute, Ind., she dazzled and won that Most Improved Player award. An assistant coach from Colorado State approached her in wonder, like a miner who’d stumbled upon gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

“You’ve got magic,’” Kari Gallegos-Doering told her. “You’re going to be Colorado State’s first All American.”

The prophecy unfolded exactly so. At Colorado State, Hammon set scoring and assist records. She made All-America. She earned the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation’s best senior under 5-foot-8. Hughes is certain she would have been drafted except for timing. The ABL folded in 1999, which made a slew of veteran talent available for the WNBA draft.

She watched the draft in tears. “I’ve always been the person that wasn’t picked,” Hammon says.

The New  York Liberty signed her as a free agent.Hammon liked her chances. The Liberty did not. While waiting with Hammon at baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport, an assistant coach told her not to worry, another team would surely pick her up. Hammon expected to be cut any day. Two weeks later, head coach Richie Adubato called: “You’ve made the team, Becky.”

Sixteen years passed. The wonder of her journey has not worn off. She still pinches herself. Did this really happen?

In a small town known as “The Gateway to the Black Hills,” a girl began shooting at age 4. As she grew, the arc of her shot glistened like gold against the backdrop of snow. The spin on the ball was NBA-tight. Its accuracy landed her in Guinness.

At the 2008 NBA All-Star Jam Session, Hammon sank 38 of 42 shots to set the world record for most free throws in one minute by a woman. While the feat has become a footnote in a stunning career, it serves as a fitting metaphor.

When the shortest of The Greatest found her rhythm, she rose above the company of giants.