Impact 25: espnW Woman Of The Year Becky Hammon On The Opportunity Of A Lifetime

What a year for Becky Hammon, the WNBA great who became the first full-time, female assistant in NBA history when she was hired by the Spurs this summer. Hammon, espnW's Woman of the Year, sat down with Doris Burke for ESPN The Magazine's Interview Issue.

Doris Burke: OK, Becky, so you're three months into what is uncharted territory as the first full-time, female assistant in the NBA. What's been the easiest part of the first few months?

Becky Hammon: Probably the basketball part has been the easiest and most relaxing. There are so many other things coaches worry about that you never worry about as players. But going to practice, being in the meetings -- that has been the most fun part of the job and probably the easiest part of the job.

I think probably people would be curious, if you're going to start your career as a coach, why you'd pick the NBA as your jumping-off point. Because obviously, there would be attention there that maybe you wouldn't have if you started women's college basketball or the WNBA. Why that place as your jumping-off point?

I think, for me, it was just the best opportunity available and the opportunity to learn under arguably the best coach in NBA history. If he's not the best, he's certainly top three. To be able to sit there and be a student and just listen, I learned so much last year, just when I was there kind of coming in on my own terms. I knew this was somebody that could teach me a lot, not just about basketball, but about life. And to me, there is always a bigger story than just basketball. This is one of those opportunities that is kind of bigger than life, like, 'Wow, pinch me.' For me, to step into that kind of learning space was a no-brainer.

Give us some sense of what Gregg Popovich is like, both as your boss, but also as a man.

I don't want to let the rabbit out of the hat. He is a brilliant mind. I think first of all is his mind. Second, his worldview, his progressive thinking -- mainly on social issues. He, as an individual, has a great worldview and a great understanding of people and societies. You've probably heard of Pop's famous dinners. We'll get into different things, talking and ...

You're drinking much better wine now.

[Laughing] Absolutely. I'm getting an education in wine -- that's for sure. But he's just a brilliant mind and very compassionate person.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

It depends. Scouting is divided up, so I have my teams that I scout. When you have a scout coming up, you're immersed in film, studying numbers and video, trying to get your scout tape and the scouting report. Pop likes to take a lot of input from everybody. We have our little meetings, and everybody gives their opinions. Maybe one person knows more about this team than the other one, so we just kind of dialogue. Those meetings and the video sessions without the players, those are the funnest ones.

You're sitting in your first meeting with Gregg Popovich, and you have to say something. Take me back to the first time you said, "You know what? I can pitch in here."

Well, my first approach was I didn't speak unless spoken to. [Laughs] Last year, I was just kind of interning, I call it, even though they don't like me to call it that. They had called and said, "You know, you can come in anytime you want." So I took advantage of that. The first time he asked me my opinion was in regard to who I thought won the starting backup point guard job last year. So I gave my input. He went around the room and asked everybody's opinion. ... And then, you know, he makes the decision. Ultimately, he makes the decision.

How much does it help that you were a fixture in San Antonio because of your WNBA history?

I don't want the WNBA to get pushed aside here in this story. Because without the WNBA, Pop doesn't get to observe me with my teammates. He doesn't get to observe me in the community. He doesn't get to observe me in those kind of settings. I think him watching me play was, for him, like, "Hey, this girl, she thinks the game. She's small." I'm kind of cut from a similar cloth in the fact that he likes the underdogs. He likes the guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder -- the last kid picked at recess, you know? I think he just maybe saw something in my game and in me, as a person and as a leader, that he identified with and said, "Hey, you know, that girl knows her stuff." But without the WNBA, I never get this opportunity to learn basketball at a very high level.

When you're coaching guys such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, these are guys who are all probably going to be Hall of Famers, how do you know they're accepting your coaching?

I've heard every reason I shouldn't be successful. And yet, you just take that all in. I always say you should be very careful with the voices you listen to. My closest voices have always told me, 'You can.'
Becky Hammon

Obviously, there has to be some trust built up. I'm sure they've watched me and observed me. But they had to get to know me. And that was a process, to build a relationship. Some of coaching is X's and O's, but a lot of it is just people management and trusting, buying into what that person is telling you about how they're going to help you win games. So for me, this is a situation when you're talking about the greatest power forward to play the game -- I'm learning from him. Are you kidding me? If I see something in the mix of a game, if I can give him or Tony one or two tidbits, that's the role I take. It's been a process building relationships, trust and rapport with all those guys. But I think we've come a long way. And it's a great work environment for me now. All of them have been so respectful and receptive to anything I've said.

What is it about the Spurs' team culture that allows for this change to happen, first, but also gives you confidence that you can succeed with this change?

They value character, No. 1. When you have people of character, there's not a lot of backbiting or gossiping or the petty stuff that goes on. You buy into the team, and I'm not just talking about on the court. Everybody is open and honest. If they see something, they come up and address you directly. It's refreshing. When you did a good job, they tell you that you did a good job. And if you didn't do a good job, they tell you that, too. You can't be offended easily. You gotta take the criticism or the praise, and you learn from each experience.

What are the things you think Pop saw in you, aside from the basketball, that he thought, "OK, this could work?"

I think my story, just in general, is a story of someone who was overlooked, someone who was told they can't, someone who was told, "You're too slow. You're too short." I've heard every reason why I shouldn't be successful. And yet, you just take that all in. I always say you should be very careful with the voices you listen to. And my closest voices have always told me, "You can." I think that's the voice that I chose to listen to.

What burdens or challenges are you facing as you try to break the ceiling here?

First, I don't want to suck. [Laughs] I want to do a good job. I think it's as simple as that.

We can all relate to that.

I mean, there's some pressure to be successful. But I approach it like anything else. I'm accountable to God first. I know if I just walk the walk I'm supposed to walk and take care of things that I'm supposed to take care of and do what I'm supposed to do and be who I'm supposed to be, everything else kind of takes care of itself. When you're true to those characteristics, I think good things happen for you. I always talk about just taking advantage of opportunities. Even if it is the slightest little window, you walk through it. Maybe you pry your fingers in there, and then you throw that baby open. I love challenges. This was a challenge.

What will determine success for you in this place?

Everybody asks me, "What's the end game?" For me, right now, it's about learning. It's about becoming a better basketball mind. I'm in a situation right now, the best possible situation, where I can learn. I'm in an environment where the guys all are very respectful. You know, they call me Coach. They don't call me Miss Hammon or anything else. It's just Coach. It's just been a really good working relationship, and right now, I'm really enjoying that. And the endgame? I don't know. I don't know where that road is. Because if you would have asked me five years ago, you know, what was in store, this wouldn't be it. Even three or four years ago, I didn't think, "Hey, I wanna be a coach in the NBA." It was something that just happened very naturally. It all started with me just saying, "You know, can I peek my head in on a few practices because I'd like to see some of the stuff you're running and learn?" It just kind of steamrolled from there.

It is notable to me that Michele Roberts advances to a leadership position. Gillian Zucker -- same thing. And now your new position. What is it about the NBA that has fostered this atmosphere of being open to women in roles that maybe other professional leagues haven't quite gotten to?

Obviously, they have a progressive mind, starting with David Stern and the WNBA. The NBA really put its foot forward, footed the bill for the WNBA and put its money where its mouth was. I'm not sure why it hasn't happened in some other sport or at some other time. I'm not even sure in basketball why it hasn't happened. Because I know there's plenty of great basketball minds, and no one has pulled the trigger. R.C. [Buford, San Antonio's general manager] and Pop pulled the trigger. I think it's a nice step forward.

There are young women out there paying attention to this. What message do you think your hiring sends to little girls out there dribbling a ball, wherever they might be?

The mentality is changing. You know, if I had five dollars for every guy that walked up and challenged me to one-on-one, maybe I would have been retired by now and I wouldn't need a job. But the perception is changing. The scientific studies for this stuff are overwhelming -- sports are good for girls. You get better grades. You make better decisions. You're less likely to drink. You're less likely to get pregnant. I mean, you can read the statistics up and down. For me, that's always been the bigger message: that you learn to play on a team, to get along with each other, to enable each other, to make each other better, to not be threatened by one another, but that we can both be great together. And just the idea that you could do anything you want to do. I mean, the sky is really the limit. I'm doing basketball. You can be a CEO of a company. You might even be the president of the United States someday. I think women are just scratching the surface of what we can accomplish.

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