Select Team David Aldridge Weighs in on Becky Hammon's Hiring

By: David Aldridge,

You spend a minute around Becky Hammon, and you're hooked.

Legendary coach John Madden used to talk about "bright-eyed" players when he was an NFL television analyst. Guys, he'd say, that were full of energy and life and positive feeling. That's what Hammon has been throughout her WNBA career, during which she was a seven-time All-Star and named one of the top 15 players in league history.

But, that was the WNBA. This is the NBA. There's a reason why it was such big news when the Spurs announced last week that they were hiring Hammon as a full-time assistant coach. If it wasn't a big deal to hire a woman, someone would have done it by now. (John Lucas had Lisa Boyer on his Cavaliers staff in 2001, but Boyer was a volunteer assistant who didn't travel with the team or sit on the bench.)

The dean of my old journalism school put it succinctly many years ago: We do not do stories on cars that drive on the right side of the road, or leaves that fall from trees.

"I think I'm comfortable with my basketball IQ, stuff like that," Hammon said at an introductory news conference in San Antonio last week. "And I think the coaching stuff just kind of comes naturally to me. This is obviously a huge opportunity, but again, it is basketball. I'm very confident in that area."

As ever with the Spurs, Hammon was already part of the family. The Stars, like the Spurs' NBA Development League affiliate, the Austin Toros, are part of San Antonio's overall basketball program. Ideas flow from one team to the other. Hammon had interned with the Spurs last summer, when she spent time with coach Gregg Popovich and the rest of the staff.

"She was around our team all year long," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said Sunday. "She was rehabilitating an ACL injury so she didn't play overseas. She spent time at the coach's film sessions. She spent time at team practices and team meetings. She sat behind the bench at many of our games. It was clear she had a lot to offer."

Hammon's mastery of Xs and Os impressed the Spurs organization. If you give it 10 seconds of thought, it's not a heavy lift; do women run a pin-down any differently than men? But no one pulled the trigger until now.

"I think it's great," said Theresa Grentz, the former University of Illinois and Rutgers coach. She, along with her Immaculata University teammates that won AIAW titles from 1972-74, were enshrined in Springfield last week.

"I salute Popovich and the Spurs for doing what they're doing," Grentz said. "Now, she has to step it up, and she will. And I think that's going to open up some doors."

Women have made inroads into the basketball operations side of NBA teams over the last few years. Natalie Nakase, a former UCLA player, was the Clippers' video coordinator last season -- the same job path that several NBA coaches, including Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Indiana's Frank Vogel took en route to their current jobs -- and was on the Clippers' bench as an assistant coach during the Las Vegas Summer League. The Bulls hired Jennifer Swanson as the team's Director of Sports Performance last season, putting her in charge of Chicago's athletic trainers and strength coaches.

Buford, a former Kansas assistant coach on Larry Brown's staff, surely knows the impact that Kansas' Andrea Hudy has had on his alma mater. She was hired as the Jayhawks' strength coach in 2004 and is now the school's assistant athletic director of sports performance.

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But for all the talk about chemistry among players, there is almost never thought given to the dynamic among coaches. They are on the road just as long as the players; they meet more often. They often, naturally, differ on strategies, rotations. And, until now, they've all been guys. A group of guys, no matter how forward-thinking in all other ways, acts differently when there are no women around. (Trust me on this.)

And the Spurs' bench has been in transition during the last year, with longtime former assistants Budenholzer and Brett Brown leaving for coaching jobs in Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively.

Former Spurs players Ime Udoka (2012) and Sean Marks (2013) had joined Popovich on the bench. But without Budenholzer (Popovich's right-hand man for almost two decades) and Brown (who'd been in San Antonio since 2002), there was a different dynamic than there's been in many years.

The Spurs fulfilled a long-desired goal to bring legendary European coach Ettore Messina into the organization for next season as an assistant, replacing Marks. (Marks' job on the bench was always going to be temporary; his long-term plans are for front office work.) Messina's life and coaching experiences would be good for Popovich, the staff and the team. Hammon, though, is still a player. But the Spurs liked having her around, though they didn't really have a job in mind.

They had thought about ways to use her after Budenholzer and Brown left. But when Hammon went to Popovich during the summer and said she would definitely retire as a player if there was a job available with the team, the Spurs didn't hesitate figuring out the best way to use her. Owner Peter Holt was quickly on board as well.

"It's more a function of Pop's participatory mindset, and I think we viewed this similarly to [current Orlando Magic coach] Jacque Vaughn, when Jacque was at the end of his [playing] career," Buford said.

"We didn't have an opening or a specific need at that time, but here is a player who's a good player and a good leader who is a good basketball player. We'll figure out what we need, but it's clear they can contribute and be helpful. As we viewed Becky, it was a similar introduction that we felt when Jacque joined our group."

Popovich does not want shrinking violets on his staff. He encourages educated disagreements. Like any assistant, Hammon will have to find her voice quickly.

She said she expects to do what the other assistants do -- dividing up opposing teams for advance scouting, developing game plans and the like. And with the Spurs' emphasis on player development over the years, with Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier among the most important people in the organization, Hammon's knowledge of the game will be beneficial. There is a reason she has been compared with Steve Nash over the years.

"Since we moved into the practice facility, I think development has become a big part of it, but it's become more important as Pop has tried to manage the minutes of our best players," Buford said. "Our coaches and our players have grown that development atmosphere through that. How Becky will engage in that, first, Pop has got to establish the roles when they go on their coaching retreat. I'm sure a lot of attention will be put into that."

Hammon's ascension could also impact coaches outside of the pros.

It drives women coaches crazy that men continue to coach women's college basketball teams in overwhelming numbers. According to the University of Central Florida's 2013 Racial and Gender Report card for college sports, only 38.7 percent of all Division I women's basketball teams are coached by women. And women comprise less than half of all assistant coaching jobs on women's teams across all college divisions.

"Perhaps some [college] ADs may even look at this and go, 'You know, maybe we jumped the gun a little bit giving all these jobs, when we should be looking at and giving jobs to women,' " Grentz said. "'If the NBA can hire a woman, why can't a university?' We've went the other way, and it seems to go in cycles. Hopefully this announcement -- and that's the first thing I thought of -- will make people say, 'There's women out there who can coach. Give them an opportunity.'"

But Hammon can only coach the Spurs. That remains a remarkable, powerful change -- one that reaches back into history as well as reaching to the future.

"It was Geno [Auerimma, the Hall of Fame University of Connecticut basketball coach], when he gave his speech, and he had a player win an award, and he certainly had a lot of players win a lot of individual awards, he said would always look and say, 'You know, I think I had a little something to do with that,' " Grentz said. "So, basically what he was saying to his players who were there that night, when he was being enshrined, was you can say, 'I think we had something to do with this guy winning this award tonight.'

"With Becky, moving forward, the great players of the past, the '50s and the '60s, that might not be recognized, the Redheads [the All-American Redheads, who barnstormed the country for 50 years playing against mens' teams] that went in a couple of years ago, all of those who've been enshrined previously, all those great people, that I'd like to think, that somehow, some way, they have a little bit to do with that announcement this past week. And in 30 years, Becky Hammon is going to tell her story, that she was the first full-time female coach in the NBA. And who knows what will have blossomed from that? But I'd like to think, maybe, if I would, even just a little bit, that the Mighty Macs had something to do with that."

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