When the San Antonio Spurs announced the hiring of WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon as an assistant coach on Tuesday, it sent a ripple of affirmation and positive vibes through the basketball world.
Just a day after Amanda Hess’ Slate article outlined how the NBA has been consistently at the forefront of hiring women in the sports world – from union leaders to referees to coaching in the Summer League – here they were doing it again, with the Spurs (naturally) leading the way as one of the most forward-thinking franchises in any sport.
But then just as quickly came the #wellactually crowd, pointing out that Lisa Boyer, now an associate head coach at the University of South Carolina, had been an assistant under John Lucas with the Cleveland Cavaliers way back in 2001-02. But then the #wellactually folks got #welltechnically’d by Deadspin, who linked to an article from 2002 that described Boyer as a “volunteer” assistant coach who didn’t travel with the team. At the time, Boyer was also an assistant coach for Cleveland’s WNBA team, the Rockers.
Frankly, the whys and wherefores don’t really matter. Women have worked in different roles in the NBA for years, including Natalie Nakase’s recent stint as the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers’ Summer League team. It’s not like there’s been a crushing influx of assistant coaching jobs for women in the NBA since Boyer was in Cleveland. Hammon’s hiring is significant for several reasons, obviously, including the fact it involves the Spurs, and comes at a time when, in spite of the explosion of advanced analytics and high-level thinking about basketball strategy from outsiders and newcomers, the NBA coaching club has appeared more and more like an old-boy network.
The Spurs don’t traffic in photo ops or clickbait when it comes to any part of their operation. Mark Cuban talking about drafting Brittney Griner was a stunt; if the Spurs talked about it, every other team would start seriously scouting the WNBA and women’s college game. San Antonio is a bellwether in the NBA. They’re like the cool kid in school deciding to peg his jeans. A jillion other losers could be doing it but the second that one kid does it, everyone else pays attention. The Spurs have gone well beyond a “system” of basketball and are now approaching something closer to an ecosystem: a meticulous-yet-organic machine that feeds back into itself, constantly adjusting to outside forces while maintaining a self-sustaining integrity.
At the same time, this hiring doesn’t feel all that out-of-step with other recent coaching moves around the league. Last year we saw the Brooklyn Nets gamble on a just-retired Jason Kidd in the head coach position. This year we’ll see how Derek Fisher does with the Knicks just a season removed from playing the game in Oklahoma City and also how Steve Kerr – an old hand in front offices and the announcing booth but a greenhorn on the bench – will do in Golden State. Like them, Hammon will be fresh out of a 16-year professional career that saw her garlanded with awards, including being named one of the top 15 WNBA players in history in 2011. She’s seventh in all-time points (5,809), fourth in all-time assists (1,687) and sixth in games played (445).
She’s also never coached.
After Hammon tore her ACL in 2013, she spent a lot of time with the Spurs, studying the game and eventually convincing them that she would make a good coach. The fact remains, though, that her hiring came as much through personal history with the franchise as Kidd’s or indeed Fisher’s with Knicks president Phil Jackson.
Then again, this is an assistant coach position, long the favored route into head coaching gigs for former players. That alone might be enough to explain why it wasn’t Nancy Lieberman – former head coach of the D-League’s Texas Legends and the first woman to coach men’s basketball at the professional level – who first broke into the NBA’s coaching circles. As a coach, she’s essentially overqualified to take on an assistant role, while Hammon fits that role better, regardless of gender.
Which brings us back to the Spurs. Head coach Gregg Popovich signed a multi-year extension this offseason so he’s not going anywhere soon, but eventually he’ll leave, and the Spurs’ press release on the hiring makes it clear that he’s believes in Hammon’s abilities. “Having observed her working with our team this past season,” said Popovich, “I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”
When and if Hammon is tabbed as Popovich’s successor on the Spurs bench several years from now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The biggest step for women in the NBA might be if it actually doesn’t.