Hammon is interviewing for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching job. Hughes, Hammon’s coach with the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars, realizes she may not get this job but knows her day is coming. “I’ve been telling people for a long time it’s going to happen,” he says.
Long before almost anyone else, Dan Hughes saw the signs of a great coach in Becky Hammon.
Not a great woman coach, or a great coach of women. A great coach, no qualifiers.
She was smart, with an inherent knowledge of the nuances of basketball. She was resourceful, figuring out a way to become a legendary WNBA player despite being just 5 feet 6. She was tough, both mentally and physically. And Hughes, Hammon’s coach and mentor for eight years with the San Antonio Silver Stars, saw something else, an X-factor.
“I would have to tell you, and I‘ve been around a lot of people in a long career, there’s no greater presence than Becky Hammon,’’ said Hughes, 63 and the new coach of the Seattle Storm.
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Now Hammon could be on the brink of an epic pioneering moment in sports history. After four years as an assistant to Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs — the first female full-time assistant in NBA history, since joined by former Storm coach Jenny Boucek with the Sacramento Kings — Hammon is interviewing this week for the Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching job.
And in Seattle, where the Storm is preparing for its season opener May 20, Hughes is watching this development closely, and proudly. He realizes Hammon might not get this Bucks job, based more on her relative coaching inexperience than her gender. But he also realizes her day is coming, almost inevitably.
“That will be a wonderful, wonderful day for me,’’ he said. “Because I think it’s going to happen. I’ve been telling people for a long time it’s going to happen.”
Also watching closely in Seattle is Sue Bird, one of the WNBA’s elder statesmen as well as a long-time friend of Hammon. Bird, too, has observed over time that Hammon has not just the analytical and teaching chops, but the demeanor to handle what would certainly be the most scrutinized coaching job in pro-sports history.
“To be on the short list of people interviewed — whether or not she gets the job — I think from a woman’s standpoint, from a societal standpoint, it actually doesn’t even matter,” Bird said. “The fact she’s on that list, I think anybody who knows basketball knows that’s a big deal.”
I can’t think of a single reason Hammon shouldn’t get an NBA head-coaching job, other than sexist drivel. She’s learning at the feet of a bona fide genius, Popovich, who extols her virtues in every aspect of coaching. She has earned the respect of Spurs players as well as superstars such as LeBron James, a strong Hammon advocate. And when given the Spurs’ Summer League team in Las Vegas in 2015 to run, she coached them to the championship.
Sure, there will be those who won’t be able to accept a woman in charge of a men’s team (though the opposite has been acceptable for years at the college and pro level). Just check the online comments section on any recent story about Hammon — or maybe even this column — to see the backlash that Bird knows will be there.
“To use an analogy,’’ she said, “if (Warriors coach) Steve Kerr has a bad game, I’m sure there are trolls on Twitter saying, ‘Steve Kerr doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ If it’s a woman, it’s going to be that, and, ‘Put her back in the kitchen’ and all the other BS they like to say. There’s always going to be that, unfortunately, but to me it says more about those people than it says about anyone else.”
Like any first step across a barrier, it will take someone in management with the guts to make the call despite inevitable criticism. The NBA, of all the pro leagues, seems the most progressive in that regard.
And it will take a person with the unique temperament to handle all the myriad challenges of being the first woman leading a team in a men’s sport. If she faltered or proved vulnerable in any aspect, it could set the cause back for years, even though scores of men have failed in their first job.
Hughes has no doubt that Hammon, now 41, is that person. In fact, he was instrumental in helping Hammon connect with Popovich in 2013 while she was rehabbing a knee injury with the Silver Stars and asked Hughes if he thought the Spurs would let her watch practice.
“I knew Gregg Popovich really enjoyed her as a basketball player, because we had had several conversations,” Hughes recalled. “So I said, ‘I’ll go over tomorrow.’ I went over and I saw Pop and I saw (Spurs general manager) R.C. (Buford) and said, ‘She wants to go into coaching.’ They were just phenomenal. They opened the doors to a great experience.”
Indeed, Popovich and Buford let Hammon inside their operation, observing her as much as she was observing them. And when she retired after one more season with the Silver Stars, Popovich was ready with a job offer. And now Hammon is on the verge of history.
“What Becky is getting the world to understand is something I knew right away: It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It matters if you can coach. It matters if you can get the trust of people,” Hughes said.
Hughes sees a person he came to regard as a coach on the floor now imbued with the knowledge bestowed by a Hall of Fame NBA coach — “an incredible combination,” Hughes calls it, one that transcends gender boundaries.
To the ultimate question of whether there’s any reason women can’t coach in the NBA, Hughes replies without hesitation, “None. Absolutely none. Especially one who has devoted herself to learn the game and has been under a coach like Gregg Popovich and a system like the Spurs’.
“Absolutely no reason. Knowing her and coaching her for eight years — there is no doubt she is ready for that moment. When life presents it to her, she’ll realize it well.”