Monday, August 3, 2015

From WNBA All-Star to championship-winning coach, Becky Hammon continues to rise above

Becky Hammon addresses crowd during New York Liberty Ring of Honor ceremony at Madison Square Garden. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)

BY RAY FLORIANI

NEW YORK CITY ­- She is well known for her pioneering exploit. The first female to coach on an NBA staff. How she got there, not many are aware. It is a story spiced with an appreciable touch of irony. Becky Hammon, the take-charge, hustling, perpetual motion player since her earliest days in South Dakota, was inactive. A torn ACL while playing for the San Antonio Stars against Los Angeles in July of 2013 put Hammon out of action.

A year of rehabilitation was one thing. That time spent away from the game was not an option she wanted to face. “I went to Pop, (San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) and asked if I could attend practices,” Hammon recalled. “He was very receptive, and as a basketball ‘junkie,’ I wanted to do something to stay close to the game.”

Hammon recounted the story on a day she joined the New York Liberty Ring of Honor. Watching practice soon evolved into short discussions with Popovich. The discussions grew frequent and lengthier. Eventually, she was asked to sit in on coaches' meetings and film sessions. It all came to fruition when Popovich asked Hammon to join the Spurs staff. Hammon excelled at making decisions on the court, this one off of it was handled with similar ease as she accepted.

Popovich is a connoisseur of fine wines, the Spurs mentor who cut his coaching teeth as a head coach at Division III Pomona­-Pitzer. Lessons learned at that level taught Popovich more than Xs and Os. It was about relationships. Popovich is widely revered for his expertise in selecting the right people for his program, on the floor and on his bench.

In Hammon, he saw someone who scored over 2,700 points at Colorado State, yet went undrafted by the WNBA. Hammon simply joined the Liberty in 1999 to try out. From her earliest days in practice, she was challenged, responded and made an impression. In drills, conditioning, anything asked of her, she gave 100 percent. The 5­-6 undrafted player from the Western Athletic Conference became a WNBA All-Star and one of the Liberty’s most effective and dynamic players. She finished a stellar career with San Antonio. Besides the ‘W’ were a few stops overseas. From her young days at age five in South Dakota, she loved basketball and constantly played the shooting game ‘around the world.’ “Little did I know that one day I would literally be playing around the world,” she said.

This summer posed another challenge, as Popovich asked Hammon to be the head coach of the Spurs' Summer League entry in Las Vegas. Moving from assistant to final decision maker was a significant step. The rest, as they say, is history. With Hammon at the helm, the Spurs captured the championship. The first game was an adjustment. “For years, when coaches diagrammed plays, I was in those diagrams and executing on the floor,’ she said. “Now I am doing the diagramming. But just like playing, there might be a bit of nervousness at the beginning, but once the ball goes up, you get into the game and make your adjustments,” she said.

Hammon was asked and said it was not difficult to accept instruction from a new coach, a female mentor in relatively uncharted waters. “The NBA players like LeBron (James) love the game, she said. “They are WNBA fans, because in their offseason those are the only games to see. So the players I coached knew I could play, plus if you have the ability to help them improve day to day they will be receptive and respect you.” The San Antonio culture of having players receptive to coaching played no small order. To little surprise, Hammon constantly referred to ‘Pop’ for giving her a chance. “He (Popovich) had a vision, and I am grateful for that,” she said.

Hammon remarked about Nancy Lieberman’s hiring on the Sacramento Kings staff. “She will do fine,” Hammon said. “Coaching is about knowledge (of the game) and leadership. All coaches need those qualities. If you have them, you can coach, so there is no reason women cannot get these opportunities to coach.”

Hammon took the opportunity to elaborate on a few added topics. “When I was young, there was no WNBA, so I told my dad I wanted to play in the NBA. He said you can’t, just work hard and get a college scholarship.” She did and excelled during her collegiate career. Hammon also discussed cohesiveness. “It (chemistry) does not come overnight,” she said. “Again, look at LeBron. When he went to Miami, it took a little while before the Heat jelled, chemistry just does not automatically happen.

Becky Hammon’s travels and achievements have been extensive. There are more chapters of her story to be written. Still, it comes back to the Garden. She told the adoring fans during her halftime ceremony on an afternoon in which the Liberty defeated Seattle: “When I came to New York, I knew this place could overwhelm and run me out or make me. It made me and I have you, the fans, to thank for this.”

Becky Hammon has a valuable message. Her life has been an exemplary example of this: Not just women aspiring to run a basketball program, but to all in various walks of life. “If you really want, bad enough, to do something, you can do it.”

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