In the NBA—similar to other professional sporting leagues—coaching trees play a large part in the successful matriculation of promising talent to revered head coach positions. But the social capital and credibility needed as leverage to attain such lofty goals has been out of reach for most female coaches in the NBA. For Becky Hammon, who’s associated with 5-time NBA Champion Head Coach, Gregg Popovich, access to his coaching tree has put her in a position that many female coaches can only dream of.
In 2014, Hammon was hired by Popovich as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. This monumental hiring made her the first “full-time” female assistant coach (second overall to Lisa Boyer, who was a volunteer assistant coach in 2001 for the Cleveland Cavaliers under John Lucas) in any of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States. Additionally, Hammon also has the dubious distinction of becoming the first female acting head coach when she replaced Popovich on December, 30th 2020, after his ejection from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Hammon’s reputation around the NBA is that of a “sharp mind” on par with her contemporaries around the league. Former NBA Champion and All-Star, Pau Gasol’s endorsement of Hammon was a hot topic in the 2018 NBA coaching carousel when he treated her with the same esteem as the greats, comparing her mastery of basketball strategy to 11-time NBA Champion coach, Phil Jackson. In spite of this, when nine new coaches were hired during the 2018-9 NBA coaching cycle, Hammon was not one of them. While Hammon was able to secure an interview with the Milwaukee Bucks (before they hired Mike Budenholzer) it’s ambiguous if she was in serious contention. Despite endorsements from her fellow coaches and players, not one of the thirty NBA franchises was willing to give her a deserved shot.
Access to the Inner Circle
Greg Popovich’s substantial influence in the NBA has led to opportunities for coaching luminaries such as Steve Kerr (Golden State head coach), Monty Williams (Phoenix head coach), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City GM), Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee head coach), Mike Brown (Sacramento head coach), Doc Rivers (Philadelphia head coach), Ime Udoka (Boston head coach), Taylor Jenkins (Memphis head coach) and Sean Marks in the front office (Brooklyn GM). I find it appalling that, for all of the influence Popovich clearly has around the NBA, Hammon was unable to get an opportunity as an NBA Head Coach.
During Becky Hammon’s apprenticeship under Popovich, she was named Head Coach of the San Antonio Spurs NBA Summer League team in 2015. Gregg Popovich’s allyship with Becky Hammon can only go so far, as he has provided multiple opportunities to showcase her immense talent and development. I am glad that Hammon eventually took control of her destiny by agreeing to coach the Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA (Womens National Basketball Association). She could have rested on her laurels and complained about gender inequity in the NBA head coaching ranks. Instead, she took matters into her own hands by removing the final hurdle of “prior head coaching experience.” I believe wholeheartedly that this could be the last missing piece of her puzzle that will legitimize her NBA head coaching candidacy.
The Power of “Head Coaching” Experience
Hammon was a six-time WNBA All-Star and Olympian (Bronze Medalist for Russia in 2008). Additionally, she coached on the San Antonio Spurs staff for eight seasons (2014-2022). Before taking the head coaching job for the Las Vegas Aces, Hammon interviewed for the head coaching jobs for the Portland Trailblazers and Orlando Magic in 2021, but did not receive an offer from either organization. I believe Becky Hammon taking the Las Vegas Aces job has provided her with the platform to demonstrate her skills in that top position. Hammon was named the WNBA’s 2022 Coach of the Year, which shows that her bet on herself is already paying off as she competes for the 2022 WNBA championship. Personally, Hammon views this opportunity with Las Vegas Aces as a “step forward, and step in the right direction” towards her development and future as a coach, but I see this as the last, significant hurdle in her quest to be seriously considered as an NBA head coach.
Hammon’s fortitude and inner strength to still pursue this dream despite being unfairly overlooked for so many years is a true story of grace and perseverance. Becky Hammon should not have had to prove herself in the WNBA when she already was a proven commodity in the NBA, but by doing so, she’s checking this final box of having “head coaching” experience on her resume, which should lead to different outcomes. As an exemplary coach and leader in professional basketball, she’s well overdue for a fair shot. At this point, there is no excuse for an NBA franchise to not give her a legitimate opportunity to be the head coach.
NBA Head Coach Job Descriptions
The list of NBA Head Coaches who were never players continues to increase yearly. From Greg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Lawrence Frank, Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel, Steve Clifford, and Mike Malone, to Nick Nurse, the requirement of playing in the NBA has not limited their access to the top coaching jobs in the league. This seems like a stark double standard—none of the aforementioned coaches have the playing career credentials of Becky Hammon, yet have received opportunities that she hasn’t. The bottom line is that NBA team owners and general managers can right this wrong in the next coaching cycle (2022-23) and should seize this opportunity to make Becky Hammon the NBA’s first women coach.
In reality, there are only 30 head coaching positions in the NBA, and the competition for these is fierce. I strongly believe we are past the point of seeking a token opportunity for Becky Hammon, as she has proven herself a winner at all stages of professional basketball. I am hopeful that an NBA owner who seriously wants to win will be able to appreciate her talent and credentials—because winning games is the only thing that should matter.