By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of FOX Sports’ series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted into law on June 23, 1972. The series tells the stories of significant women in sports today, both celebrating the progress that has been made and recognizing the barriers that still remain.
Becky Hammon is thrilled to be where she is. She wants me to know that. She wants you to know that. She wants everyone to know that.
“I mean, I can’t believe that people would think I wouldn’t go back to the WNBA,” she told me over Zoom. “Why wouldn’t I? That’s where I came from. That’s my roots. Like, the fact that people would think that is, quite frankly, insulting and ignorant.”
It was March, and Hammon was working double duty. She was still a full-time assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs — with whom she spent the past eight years — but was also laying the foundation for her new job as head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, a move that was announced around the new year.
“It’s been nuts,” Hammon said. She had been alternating between scouting Spurs’ opponents and studying up on the Aces and the WNBA as a whole. “My main focus right now is learning everybody’s tendencies and skill levels and trying to then put in a system that will fit that along with my idea and my vision of what I want the team to look like.”
But Hammon still thought there was room for improvement.
“Especially on offense,” she said, “I think it will look a lot different this year than they have in years past.”
The announcement that Hammon was taking the Aces’ job was met with a mix of reactions — and kick-started an entire take cycle. Some were thrilled that one of the WNBA’s greatest players and a barrier-breaking coach was returning to the league in which she built her name. Some were surprised that someone who’d clearly had her sights set on becoming the first woman to be an NBA head coach had seemingly decided to give up on that chase. Some viewed it as a dispiriting sign — that if the woman who was closest to shattering that glass ceiling was bolting, then clearly the NBA hadn’t made as much progress as it and its loudest promoters liked to claim.
It’s difficult to make out where Hammon stands on all this. Which is understandable. She’s someone who has spent the past few years of her life hearing her future discussed on other people’s terms. She said it can be tiring but then added what it seemed she felt she is supposed to say.
“That’s the job. It’s what we all sign up for.”
And yet, there was this from later in our conversation:
“If everybody was so over the moon about women being in the NBA, there would be more women in the NBA.”
*** *** ***
Some players make natural coaches. Becky Hammon was not one of them.
“I never thought she’d have the patience to teach,” said Vicki Johnson, Hammon’s longtime teammate and current head coach of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.
It’s not that Hammon wasn’t willing to do the work. You don’t go from lightly recruited out of high school and undrafted out of college to six-time WNBA All-Star without breaking a sweat.
It’s just that, like so many other star athletes, she was one of those players who struggled to comprehend how others couldn’t see things on the court the way she did. It’s one of the reasons she was able to thrive, despite standing just 5-foot-6, and why she fit in so well with the veteran-laden New York Liberty team that signed her in 1999 and reached the Finals in three of Hammon’s first four seasons.
It wasn’t until Hammon was traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2007 that the seeds of her coaching career were planted. San Antonio was coming off four consecutive losing seasons. The team was young and inexperienced. Hammon, according to Dan Hughes, the Stars’ coach at the time, would often “get very frustrated with teammates who weren’t reading the game the way she was.”
The Stars made the Finals in 2008. They followed that with consecutive losing seasons. Hughes said that around that time, Hammon approached him to discuss how she could be a more effective leader. “She always had a brilliant mind about the game and a presence about her,” Hughes said, “but she started to realize that the first step to communicating was to build trust and a relationship.”
The Stars made the playoffs the next two seasons. By that point, Hammon had become a quasi-player-coach. On the days when she didn’t like her teammates’ spirit, she’d pop her head into Hughes’ office before practices and hint that the group could use a kick in the ass.
In August 2012, while on her way home from the London Olympics and waiting to board a connecting flight from Atlanta, Hammon ran into Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. The two sat next to each other on the plane. They talked about their families and Hammon’s stint playing in Moscow. Before the end of the flight, Popovich brought up the idea of Hammon joining his staff.
The next year, Hammon tore her ACL. With more free time on her hands, she asked Popovich if she could spend some time around him and the Spurs. “From the start, she was a magnet,” said Chad Forcier, a Spurs assistant at the time. “She works as hard at the craft as anybody I’ve worked with. She’s fun, energetic and brings juice to the gym every day. The players really took to her.”
Partly because she was wired like them.
“She’s super competitive,” said Kyle Anderson, then a forward for the Spurs. Hammon often challenged the players after practices to shooting games, sometimes from half court. “And if she lost,” Anderson said, “somebody was getting cursed out.”
Hammon loved the job. She just wasn’t sure whether coaching was the path she wanted to follow. She tried her hand at broadcasting, too.
One night, while on set after a Spurs loss, a colleague turned to her with what he thought was a sales pitch.
“‘This is why TV is the best,’” Hammon recalled hearing. “‘You never have to leave the gym a loser.’” But, Hammon thought to herself, that means you never leave the gym a winner, either.
A year later, she retired from the WNBA and joined the Spurs’ coaching staff, making her the first woman to hold a full-time coaching position in the NBA. That night in the studio had left a mark.
“I knew right then,” she told me. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be talking about the fighters.’ I want to be in the fight and like that camaraderie, that feeling of being on a team and being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
*** *** ***
The spotlight was on Hammon from the start. It wasn’t just that she had broken a barrier. It was that she was doing so as part of the NBA’s most revered organization and for a head coach whose assistants were regularly hired by rivals.
It didn’t take long for Hammon to be anointed as The Chosen One by the public. She’s a respected player and full-time assistant and works for a legend in Gregg Popovich. CLEARLY, Becky Hammon is on the verge of becoming the first woman to be an NBA head coach.
The fire was further stoked by NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“There definitely will,” Silver told ESPN in May 2017 when asked about a woman becoming an NBA head coach. This was two years after he said, in response to a question about Hammon at a conference, “I think that’s another ceiling, another barrier that will be broken. And it takes women like Becky being out there.”
As the years went by and her role with the Spurs grew, Hammon set her sights on a head-coaching job. “That was definitely a goal of hers,” said James Borrego, who as a Spurs assistant shared an office with Hammon.
She wasn’t willing to settle for just any head-coaching gig, either. In 2018, for example, Colorado State, her alma mater, approached her about leading its men’s team. She declined.
“She was always talking about being a head coach in the NBA,” Johnson said.
Hammon’s first shot came in May 2018. The Milwaukee Bucks were in need of a replacement for Jason Kidd and were looking to pluck an assistant off Popovich’s bench. They wound up hiring one of Hammon’s former colleagues, Mike Budenholzer, but Hammon left a strong impression.
“She interviewed incredibly well with us,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “Her energy and intelligence were — and are — off the charts.”
Over the next three years, Hammon interviewed for three more NBA head-coaching jobs. All three teams — the Indiana Pacers in 2020 and the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers during the 2021 offseason — went in different directions.
“Some teams, I think, were serious about it,” Hammon told me. “Some teams I don’t think were.”
I asked if she could elaborate.
“When you get the call that they’re not going to go with you because they’re concerned that you don’t have any head-coaching experience,” Hammon replied, “it’s like, ‘OK, but you knew that before we interviewed, right?’ So that’s a tell.”
Later in our conversation, she added, “Everybody says the right thing in front of the camera, but not everybody’s about the right thing.”
Becky Hammon on Portland head-coaching search
Becky Hammon sits down with Charlotte Wilder to discuss the process of interviewing for the head-coaching job with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The interviews boosted Hammon’s profile. And not everyone around the NBA was thrilled. “I get put on ESPN for freakin’ drawing up a clipboard or calling timeout,” she told me. “Other assistants don’t.”
Secondhand rumors started making their way around league circles, calling into question her work ethic. These rumors were made public in a June 2021 Bleacher Report story claiming that “when Portland reached out for intel from San Antonio figures, the background on Hammon was not nearly as complimentary pertaining to various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities.”
The next day, according to Hammon, some Spurs executives called her into an office. “They wanted to let me know that this did not come from us or any of our people,” she told me.
I asked executives from two of the teams that interviewed Hammon if they received similar reports from the Spurs.
“We heard nothing but positive stuff from them,” one said. The other echoed that claim. (A Spurs spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple email messages seeking comment from the team and Popovich.)
In the year since, Hammon has repeated a line when asked if she has grown frustrated with striking out in the NBA or how the conversation about her candidacy often gets hijacked.
“If you’re looking for a reason to not hire me, you’ll be able to find it,” she said. “But if you’re looking for a reason to hire me, you can find that, too.”
*** *** ***
There was one team that was indeed looking to hire Hammon.
In September 2021, the Aces — who in 2018 moved to Las Vegas from San Antonio and changed their name — retired Hammon’s No. 25 jersey at halftime of a game. It was part of an initiative by Mark Davis, the owner of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. Davis had bought the Aces earlier that year and was working to reconnect the team with its alumni.
Davis decided soon after meeting Hammon that he wanted her to be his head coach. The Liberty did as well.
One morning, after returning from a meeting with the Liberty in New York, Hammon was greeted by Popovich in her office. He wanted to hear the latest on the interviews and her thoughts on the jobs.
I told Hammon that the Popovich part of this is of great interest to many people. It’s fair to assume that Popovich, now 73 years old, will retire soon. With that being the case, couldn’t Hammon have stayed with the Spurs another year or two and then moved into that job? Was she leaving because she was told she wasn’t next in line?
“They never said, ‘You’re not going to be the next head coach,'” Hammon told me. “Were there discussions? Not really. It was kind of like, you know, I think they want to keep their options open. And I was like, ‘That’s fair.’ And I just said that, ‘You know, this opportunity with the Aces is over here.’ But there was nothing promised, and there was nothing broken.
“And that’s not to say I’m the right person or not the right person. What I do know is they’ve invested a lot of time into me and helped my journey, and I’ve grown a lot. And also, Pop doesn’t know if he’s coaching another year or another two years. I said to him, just being very blunt, I was like, ‘I don’t know if you’re retiring or not retiring, but what I do know is these opportunities are too good for me to pass on.’”
Hammon spent some time weighing her options and deciding how she wanted to spend the next few years of her life. She realized that she was craving all the responsibilities and challenges that come with being a head coach. Putting together a training camp calendar. Mapping out a practice. Being the final call on key decisions.
She loved how talented the Aces were and that joining them would bring the rare opportunity to be a first-time head coach taking over a winning team.
But most importantly, “The Aces saw me as a head coach now,” Hammon told me. “And I see myself as that, too.”
*** *** ***
Hammon strolled into the locker room with a printed-out box score in her hand, ready to address her team. It was early May, and the Aces had just run the Phoenix Mercury off the floor, giving Hammon a win in her head-coaching debut.
Hammon’s entry was met with a scream. Her players leapt up from their lockers and doused their coach in water. A giant smile stretched across Hammon’s face.
“What made it really cool for me is I could feel their energy for me. I could feel how bad they wanted it for me,” Hammon told reporters afterward. “So that was probably the most special thing about it. They know there’s a spotlight, and eventually, I’ve gotta move out of it, and they’ve gotta move into it. It’s about them. They’re the ones getting stops and buckets out there. I’m just there to help them.”
The Aces won their next game as well. Their offense looked fluid and explosive. Their players were relishing the freedom and spacing handed to them by their new coach.
“She does a really great job of letting us be ourselves and play our game,” veteran forward Theresa Plaisance said.
Even as a coach, Hammon still looks like a player on the sideline. She bounces more than she walks, her knees sometimes slightly bent, her stance wide. She’s not a screamer, though during the Aces’ third game, a matchup with the undefeated Washington Mystics that ended with Las Vegas’ first loss of the season, she did urge her players to push the ball after misses — even nodding in approval after Plum turned the ball over by forcing a three-quarter-court pass. She had no qualms chastising officials, either. “Wow, Randy, you’re 0-for-5 right now,” she barked after an out-of-bounds call went against her team.
But the moment that stuck out most occurred a little more than 90 minutes before the game on the Mystics’ practice court. Hammon had walked in searching for a spot to hold her pregame session with reporters. There, drifting side to side at one of the hoops, was Mystics star and two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, one of the few remaining players who competed against Hammon.
Upon seeing Hammon walk in, Delle Donne paused her workout and jogged over. The two embraced.
“It’s great to have you back,” Delle Donne said.
“It’s great to be back,” Hammon replied.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
Get more from Women’s National Basketball Association Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more