On the court and along the sidelines, Becky Hammon has moved in tandem with history her whole basketball life.
Her time in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs was marked by firsts, starting with her arrival in 2014, when she became the first full-time female coach in one of the major North American men's sports. In the intervening years, she never really stopped finding ways to do what had never been done before.
The year after her hiring, she became the first female head coach in the Summer League and the first to win the league's championship; as part of the coaching staff for the 2016 NBA All-Star game, she assumed a role no woman before her had; in the final days of 2020, her seventh season with the Spurs, the team's head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected during a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and Hammon took over, becoming the first female acting head coach ever in the NBA.
"We didn’t hire Becky to make history. She earned it. She is qualified. She’s wonderful at what she does," Popovich said this past January, when asked about Hammon assuming in-game control of the Spurs. “I wanted her on my staff because of the work that she does. And she happens to be a woman, which basically should be irrelevant but it’s not in our world."
At the time, seeing Hammon at the helm of the Spurs didn't feel like a crescendo. It felt like the opening notes to a long-awaited song. It felt like, soon enough, Becky Hammon, NBA Head Coach would be the only correct way to refer to her.
Picturing a post-Popovich future in San Antonio has always strained imagination -- multi-decade success has that effect -- but there she was. Ready and waiting, maybe so ready and waiting that it was inevitable, maybe so ready and waiting that the Spurs should have moved quicker.
Because, for now at least, the next history Hammon is set to write isn't as Popovich's successor or as the first female head coach in NBA history, but with what is believed to be a record-setting contract to lead the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces.
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon talks to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. (Darren Abate/AP)
The same corners of the internet that derided her hiring with the Spurs as a publicity stunt will, in all likelihood, seize on this move as a moment to say "I told you so" — as though a promotion is proof of a shortcoming; as though the WNBA is somehow any less of a world-class league.
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) December 31, 2021
Leading the Aces isn't settling. It's a long-overdue chance for Hammon to showcase the specific greatness she's been refining the last seven years in south Texas.
“This is where I come from, and I wouldn’t be me without the W," Hammon said in a statement. "I’m thrilled to be able to give back and lead this next group of women.”
Before the Spurs offer in 2014, while recovering from a torn ACL which derailed her fabled WNBA playing career, she started sitting in on San Antonio's practices. She attended coaches' meetings and film sessions and, by the end of the season, was debating the minutiae of ball movement and floor spacing with Popovich.
"She's a hooper," Tiago Splitter, a former player for the Spurs, told The Guardian in 2021. "She knows the vocabulary, she knows how to treat the guys. From Day 1, she was one of us. She was ready to talk and give her opinion, and everyone respected her. She is a great communicator and knows basketball.
“She was learning, but you could see all the talent and knowledge that she had. And she’s showing right now that all the talent she had for playing basketball, she has on the coaching side.”
Who Hammon is as a coach is inextricably connected to who she was as a player, someone who understood from her youngest years that the way she loved the game also meant having to do the work.
Her basketball story started in South Dakota, where she learned to dribble as a toddler and, by the time her age reached double digits, her parents had to install floodlights for the driveway so that games wouldn't be confined to hours with daylight. When her high school career ended, she was its all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals, earning South Dakota's Player of the Year award and didn't stop there — even though, as an undersized guard, there was no obvious path to a collegiate program.
An invitation to an elite training camp in Indiana led to a full scholarship with Colorado State, where she became — among other accolades — the all-time leading scorer, male or female, in Western Athletic Conference history.
Still, when it came time for the WNBA Draft, she was overlooked, going undrafted and instead having to accept an offer from the New York Liberty to attend their training camp on a tryout basis. She made the team, she made it to four WNBA Finals by playing with an on-court genius rivalled only be her fearlessness, and went on to make six WNBA All-Star teams too before knee injuries caught up with her.
“I’d watch the game, and the only thing I could see — it’s an exaggeration, I mean, but — was Becky’s aura, her leadership, her effect on teammates, her effect on the crowd, the way she handled herself,” Popovich told The New Yorker in 2018. “She was, like, the ultimate leader. Energy, juice, vitality. At the same time, she was doing intelligent things on the court, making decisions that mattered.”
Becky Hammon became the first woman in NBA history to serve as acting head coach in a game. (San Antonio Spurs/Twitter)
During her eight-season run with the Spurs, when NBA coaching vacancies opened up, it wasn't uncommon to see Hammon publicly floated as a candidate who was being considered. The Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic are all organizations which have, reportedly at least, had interest in her as a coach.
In San Antonio, Popovich never concealed his belief in her and what she could achieve and neither did Spurs players. Perhaps the most famous endorsement she received came from Pau Gasol, who spent parts of three seasons in San Antonio from 2016 to 2019.
Gasol remembered one moment, among the countless they'd shared, that stood out. During a practice, Gasol and Dejounte Murray were working on a routine passing drill where Murray would deliver either a bounce pass or a chest pass to Gasol, depending on the situation. Mid-motion, Hammon stopped them. Out of the corner of her eye, she had noticed the smallest of details, that Murray's bounce passes were reaching Gasol too low for him to properly finish at the rim. She saw the problem, she communicated the solution.
"I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich," Gasol wrote in an open letter for the Players' Tribune. "And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period."
None of that interest or belief ended in job offers, though. And none of those vacancies that were filled by a man begin to cover all the other openings that have appeared on the NBA's coaching carousel for which Hammon wasn't considered.
Explaining why is more of a Rorschach test than a fact-based endeavour.
Maybe, for all the firsts Hammon had already achieved in the NBA, that final first behind the bench required more progressive willpower than could be mustered. Maybe, right or wrong, teams deemed another candidate to be a better basketball fit. Maybe Hammon didn't feel any of those teams fulfilled what she was looking for as a coach.
"I think you can throw the female, male thing out the door. There's 30 jobs. They are incredibly hard to get. And when I say 30 jobs, not all 30 are available, right? So there's like maybe four or five that are available," Hammon told Sports Illustrated in August. "My primary focus has to be to become the best coach that I can be, and be there for my players, for whatever organization is the right fit for me."
Seeing that fit happen in San Antonio was always tantalizing because there's an allure to witnessing history. Who knows, someday it may still happen. But Hammon isn't a paragon for barrier-breaking, she's a person, with dreams and hopes and desires like the rest of us.
With the Aces, Hammon's found a fit that'll let her chase those. Soon, she will have the chance to find out exactly what the best version of her coaching self looks like, and do it with a team that — unlike the Spurs — is relevant to its league's championship picture.
Becky Hammon, Head Coach. The moment, no matter the league, was overdue.