Under any normal circumstances, and unless you’re the most NBA-addicted fan, there should be little compelling reason why Summer League hoops should grab more than a momentary slice of your attention. The season starts about five minutes after the Finals conclude, is over in a blink and barely contains any players of note. Aside from the sporadic sighting of a first-round pick looking to shake off some rust, it’s an amalgam of has-been’s and never-were’s playing a kind of basketball far below the standard in-season variety.
And then the San Antonio Spurs put assistant coach Becky Hammon, fresh off her first full season on staff under head coach Gregg Popovich’s tutelage, in charge of the team’s Summer League squad. And she coached them to six straight wins after an opening-night loss. And she coached them back from a 15-point third-quarter deficit in the semifinals to win by seven. And then she coached them to a 93-90 win in the Summer League title game on Monday night. And maybe the most remarkable thing about the accomplishment was how it was both a Big Moment and also something very familiar.
Hammon, a 38-year-old former Colorado State star who went on to play in the WNBA and in Russia, whom she played for in two Summer Olympics (after not being invited to try out for the U.S. team), represents the future of an NBA we all should embrace. The Spurs were lauded – and deservedly so – for bringing Hammon on staff last August, and by her own admission, this past season was very much a learning experience where she was still finding her way.
But the idea that placing her in charge of the Summer League team was some sort of experiment, as if cooked up in a focus group more interested in #branding than the development of young players, is insulting to her experience and ability to help the team improve. The Spurs enter the 2015-16 season as the typical “win now” squad. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili took steep pay cuts to return. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard surely left dollars on other teams’ tables to stay with San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge, who just turned 30, left the familiar confines of Portland to come win a title with the Spurs. They are operating within a limited window in a conference far tougher than the one on the other side of the championship bracket. So if there are any nuggets of gold to be sifted from the Summer League roster, those need to be found, to help the team gain any further advantage it can in the West.
Of course, we’ll need to play the regular season first to see if any gains carry over, but Hammon accomplished the goal with which she was tasked, as you would expect from any successful coach, man or woman. She has earned the respect of not only the Spurs players and coaching staff, but the wider league itself. That her name will come up as a legitimate head-coaching candidate – perhaps for the Spurs when Popovich retires, perhaps some other franchise (because Popovich may very well coach until he’s 90) – seems less a matter of if but when.
And what a moment that will represent for the NBA. In some ways, it’ll be an extension of what we’ve already seen from a sport that has been progressive on this front. Last year, Michele Roberts became the first woman to be elected head of a major American sport’s labor union. Three women have already worked as full-time referees, which is exactly three more than have ever been hired to work an in-season MLB game. (The NFL just hired its first full-time female official in April.) And if there’s any justice, ESPN’s Doris Burke should be promoted from the sidelines to actual play-by-play commentary. In professional basketball, all that matters is if you can coach, you can ref or you can call games.
Maybe she needs another year or two, but Hammon is on a road to something we’ve never seen before, and while it deserves to be celebrated for what it is, we should also recognize it for what it doesn’t feel like. These sorts of milestones feel ingrained into the NBA culture of inclusion and advancement. Yes, it will be a huge moment when Hammon becomes a head coach, one that is worthy of all due praise, but what it won’t be is terribly surprising. There’s a lot to be said for how that mindset rises to acceptance in one professional sport but not another.
The NBA might have gloom on the horizon, but there is also so much to look forward to witnessing. Becky Hammon’s first game as an NBA head coach will be one of them, and I bet we see it sooner than later.