How To Win At Your Summer Vacation: The Becky Hammon Story
All her life, Becky Hammon has wanted to be first. At everything. But even she never dreamed she would become the first female assistant coach in the NBA, much less the first woman to coach an NBA team to the Las Vegas Summer League championship.
"She just wanted to beat her brother, and his friends," says her mother, Beverly. "I remember one day her brother came home with them. One of them had just won the state wrestling championship. Becky pinned him."
Hammon's spunk and daredevil approach to life were crafted in the rugged hills of Rapid City, South Dakota. Her parents still live in the same house on the outskirts of town, as they like to call it, near a forest filled with trees and ditches and rivers and giant rocks.
"It was a great way to grow up," Becky says. "We'd ride three-wheelers. We'd cross creeks, we'd go fishing, we'd go tubing."
"They'd hit every puddle they could, out for hours," says Beverly. "They'd come home and were covered with mud. They'd take their glasses off and that was the only white you'd see.
And there was basketball. Lots of it. Becky and her brother, Matt, tagged along to their father's city rec-league games, just itching to get on the court.
"When there was a timeout or something, they'd run out and throw up shots," Martin Hammon says. "They'd be playing behind the bleachers."
And there were endless games in the driveway. When it would snow, they'd simply shovel it off and start up again. Often it was Becky and her dad against Matt and one of his friends. And more often than not -- and not just because of her dad -- Becky would win.
As she got older, she was told she was too short to be a serious player. And then all she did was become South Dakota's player of the year for Stevens High School. Hardly recruited, she signed with Colorado State University and became an All-American. She went undrafted by the WNBA, then signed as a free agent with the New York Liberty and became an All-Star. When she wasn't on an initial list of players invited to camp to try out for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, she became a dual citizen of Russia, where she played for a club team, and went on to play in two Olympics for that country.
"Becky always did things people were telling her she couldn't do," Matt Hammon says. "And that just made her try harder."
Her NBA adventure began in the summer of 2013, when Becky, who had been traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars, suffered a torn ACL. Instead of just sitting around rehabbing, she asked if she could observe arguably the greatest NBA coach in history, Gregg Popovich, and his staff at practices. She thought she'd pick up a thing or two because the Stars and Spurs run similar offenses.
Popovich had watched Hammon as a player and recognized her knowledge of the game. He immediately agreed to welcome her to the team, inviting her to sit in on all the meetings and to travel with the team to get the full idea of what life was like for an NBA coach. He insisted she contribute verbally.
"I told her, don't even come if you're not going to participate or disagree or whatever," Popovich says. "You've got to say, 'I like that idea,' or, 'I think that idea stinks.' 'Pop, that's wonderful,' or, 'Pop, you're an idiot.'"
She took him at his word.
"The first day of training camp he said, 'Look how great that player is,' and I said, 'I think he's terrible.' Pop says to me, 'Look at you, first day on the job and all of a sudden I'm full of crap.'"
By the end of training camp, Hammon knew she didn't want to play anymore. Popovich put her on salary and remodeled the restroom in the media workroom into a women's locker room. Hammon sat behind him at all games and formed a great friendship with fellow point guard Tony Parker, who would jokingly insist that she was really the one in charge, not Popovich.
She was very detailed. She didn't try to be the big voice, didn't look intimidated. She got her point across to us.Kyle Anderson, Spurs' summer league MVP
Hammon gained the trust of the others on the team, as well. In early July, Popovich selected her as the team's summer league coach, the first female to hold that role. She quickly earned the respect of her players on that team, as well.
"She was very detailed," says Kyle Anderson, who was named summer league MVP. "She didn't try to be the big voice, didn't look intimidated. She got her point across to us."
The Spurs lost in Hammon's debut, 78-73 to the New York Knicks, and she didn't sleep that night, agonizing over the defeat. She hadn't realized the jump from assistant to head coach would be so daunting.
"Making substitutions, calling the plays, it's completely different for a head coach and it caught me a little off guard," she says. "I couldn't believe the way my mind was reeling. As a player, you're very cool, calm, you know your job. It's one job. It's not managing 15 people and then analyzing what might work, what might not work."
Popovich stayed away from the games, but kept in close contact.
"He was home eating some cheese and wine, and then would call me after the game," Hammon says. "I know he watched a good majority of the games."
Her Spurs didn't lose another game, topping the Phoenix Suns by three points in the final. The summer league title solidified her reputation as a coach with an incredibly bright future. Might she become first, again, as a female NBA head coach? Maybe even Pop's successor?
"Why not?" Hammon says, a sentiment Popovich shares.
"Why not? You know, everything changes in the world," he says. "You can look at what's happened in America socially in the last five or 10 years, and nobody would have guessed that these changes would have come so quickly. So why can't it happen in something as mundane as basketball?"
Coaching is coaching to Hammon. It's never been gender specific. But leading an NBA team would be an unprecedented leap for a woman.
"Maybe next time we talk we'll be talking about another first," she says.
Why would anyone ever doubt her?