Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A tremendous challenge, a tremendous responsibility

Becky Hammon / "There have been so many other women that are doing
really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

Last week, the San Antonio Spurs showed why they're trailblazers in American professional basketball by announcing they've hired six-time WNBA All-Star point guard Becky Hammon as the first full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

The reigning champion Spurs have been innovative, outside-the-box leaders in bringing in internationally-talented players for the past two decades -- France's Tony Parker, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Australia's Patty Mills come to mind -- and, earlier this summer, hired European coach Ettore Messina to join head coach Gregg Popovich's staff. So, it was not surprising that fresh off winning their fifth NBA championship, the Spurs would add to their history of forward-thinking moves by hiring Hammon. 

Becky Hammon / She's a trailblazer on court.
Now, she's a joining the San Antonio Spurs as 

the NBA's first full-time female assistant coach.
At age 37, the 5-foot-6 Hammon is retiring this month from a 16-season playing career in the WNBA in which she ranks fourth in career assists and seventh in points scored. The South Dakota native starred collegiately at Colorado State where she was a three-time All-American point guard, then became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 and represented the Russian national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She becomes the second woman to serve on an NBA coaching staff -- the first was Lisa Boyer, who was a part-time, non-paid member of the Cleveland Cavaliers staff in the 2001-02 season -- but the first who has been hired to a full-time, paid position.

"It's a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility," said Hammon. "There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

During the 2013-14 season, not only did Hammon attend Spurs practices, coaching meetings and film-review sessions, she also sat behind the bench for the NBA champions during home games while coming off a knee injury.

"I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," said Poppovich. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Hammon said it was made clear to her by Poppovich that her hiring was strictly related to her qualifications in basketball. "He says, 'It just so happens you're a woman,'" said Hammon during a press conference.

In an interview with Jeré Longman of The New York Times, Hammon "called her role as a pioneer 'a tremendous honor.' But, she added of Popovich: 'Honestly, I don't think he gives two cents that I'm a woman. And I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman.' The important point, Hammon said, was 'I'm getting hired because I'm capable.'"

Another basketball trialblazer, Nancy Lieberman, who is the assistant general manager of the Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, told The New York Times that Hammon's hiring "was a crucial step for the NBA and for women.

"First and foremost, this means respect," said Lieberman. "She did not get hired just because she is a woman. She was hired because she was qualified, because they know her personality, how she interacts with players, how she understands X's and O's."

"I think it's no surprise to anybody that they think a little bit different down here," said Hammon of the Spurs. Indeed, and as espnW columnist Kate Fagan wrote: "A very high, very thick glass wall cracked.

"Realistically, the league had no model in place for hiring a female coach; a team neded to be the first, to prove it could work. And it makes sense that San Antonio, the reigning NBA champs, a franchise that has always marched very effectively to the beat of its own drum, has stepped forward and done just that."

Other media reaction has largely been positive. San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion wrote: "The Spurs are an organization that doesn't need fake publicity or splashy headlines. Hammon wasn't hired for looks or her Nike endorsement or her name; name many people outside hard-core WNBA fans and former Colorado State fans even know who she is.

"She was hired by the best head coach in the league. Gregg Popovich is a man who doesn't suffer fools, media, phoniness or distractions gladly. He hired Hammon because he thought she would do a good job. Period."

Killion's colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, NBA columnist Bruce Jenkins, said of Hammon: "She could not be more ready to become the first female assistant on an NBA bench."

In his New York Times story, Longman noted that around the NBA, Hammon's hiring "has been met with wide congratulations. 'Very bright basketball mind,' Kobe Bryant posted on Twitter."

Even President Obama took time out to congratulate Hammon. The White House tweeted: "Congrats to @BeckyHammon, @NBA's first full-time female coach. When #WomenSucceed, America succeeds -- and we know the @Spurs will, too. -bo"

While naysayers might think of the Spurs hiring of Hammon as a publicity stunt, I don't. It's obvious that her hiring came after extensive research and interviews, and that the rest of the Spurs' staff would be amenable to what Jenkins labeled as Popovich's "brave new world."

Hopefully, Hammon's hire will open doors for other female coaches and prove there shouldn't be gender barriers anywhere. Kudos to the San Antonio Spurs. After all, they're a team that's ahead of the NBA in a league that's ahead of the game when it comes to racial and gender inclusiveness.

Photos: Courtesy of NBA.com and WNBA.com.

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