Eight years ago, Becky Hammon broke a glass ceiling when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hired her as the first full-time female assistant in the NBA.
Last week, she surprised the basketball world again as the woman whom everyone assumed would become the first female head coach in the NBA, walked away and returned to her WNBA roots to become a first time head coach.
And perhaps we should’ve expected nothing less, that Hammon — a WNBA golden child in the coaching profession — would come back to the W to take a job that was never really open. But that’s how good she is, and that’s how much Las Vegas wanted her as its head coach.
For the next four months until the Spurs season ends, she’ll balance her duties as an NBA assistant with her role as the Aces head coach. In between coaching the Spurs games this week, she’ll start watching every Aces game from the last few seasons. She’ll need to hire a staff, and when the Spurs welcome the Clippers to San Antonio in 10 days, Hammon will have begun WNBA free agency in earnest, helping put together a roster that she suspects will shoot a few more 3s.
If all of this sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But Hammon is a consummate point guard, a multitasker with her head on a swivel. Many would say that kind of ability, that kind of balance amid the chaos, are the kind of attributes that will make her very successful as a WNBA coach. And traits that would have made her very successful as an NBA coach.
But as Hammon learned through interviews in NBA coaching searches, that almost unworldly ability to be in two places at once wasn’t what NBA franchises were pursuing.
“I sat in a lot of (NBA) head coaching interviews,” Hammon said. “One or two things that people always said: You’ve only been in San Antonio, and you’ve never been a head coach.”
Certainly, that argument would hold more water if two of Popovich’s former assistants — former 76ers head coach Brett Brown and current Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer — hadn’t both found themselves in head coaching positions after only being in San Antonio and never being an NBA head coach before (Brown did coach several years in the NBL). Meanwhile, Chauncey Billups, whom Portland hired after interviewing Hammon, spent one season as an assistant with the Clippers.
But I digress.
She had never closed her mind to the idea of returning to the WNBA, as far-fetched as it seemed from the outside over the last couple years as she appeared to be inching closer and closer to landing an NBA head coaching job.
The one thing about getting closer and closer is that certain things come into focus. And maybe something did for Hammon. Perhaps those interviews rang in her mind, though she’ll probably never publicly say as much. Maybe that future of the NBA being ready to hire a woman head coach is close, maybe it’s not. Hammon isn’t going to waste time wondering.
But when she was asked about how much those NBA interviews — ones that didn’t end in job offers — played into her decision to leave the league, Hammon paused. “That is a loaded question,” she said, and uncomfortably laughed, undoubtedly knowing the line she needed to walk. “Thank you for that.
“This was not about the NBA or the WNBA. This was about me, personally, being ready to have a team and wanting to have a team and wanting to sit in that chair.”
She’ll return to the league that didn’t want her at first as she went undrafted out college, while she leaves the league that couldn’t see her as head coach. For Hammon, these slights follow her and push her. But ask anyone who ever defended Hammon in the WNBA — letting her get free is a mistake for anyone who takes their eye off her — and you’ll learn she has a tendency to overachieve and make anyone who loses track of her look silly.
So, if the Aces raise a championship banner alongside her retired jersey with the San Antonio Stars, it would be both for and because of every person who doubted her or believed in her. But the important part for Hammon is, she’ll find success from the head coaching chair, which is exactly where she belongs.
The NBA will quickly realize their mistake and Hammon will return to the NBA, but in the head coaching seat, not aiding Gregg Popovich. Who knows maybe it will be to replace Popovich when he is ready to hang it up.