How Becky Hammon proved us wrong

Becky Hammon was wearing a cream-colored suit. She was in a hallway at Madison Square Garden, on her way to sign autographs after a New York Liberty game.

This was June 1999, and Hammon was a kid from Rapid City, South Dakota, transplanted to the mega-metropolis. And I recall thinking then that it was really a shame she probably wouldn't get much of a chance to play enough to prove herself in the WNBA.

It's one of those vignettes that has stuck with me all these years, and I laugh when I think about how completely wrong I was.

Wednesday, Hammon announced this WNBA season -- her 16th -- would be her last. She has been one of most popular and productive players in the establishing years of the WNBA, first in New York, where she started her pro career, and then in San Antonio, where she will finish it.

A lot of athletes will say they've done what many people didn't expect them to, and have overcome plenty of obstacles along the way. That's a bit of self-indulgence in some cases. But it's absolutely the defining narrative of Hammon's long, successful and inspiring basketball journey.

She'd been a dynamic scorer at Colorado State, with a quick release as a 3-point shooter and a knack for navigating through traffic in the lane against the trees. It wasn't that I doubted Hammon had enough talent to play professionally. I just didn't think she'd get much opportunity.

Hammon wasn't drafted out of college, but that is a bit deceiving because the ABL had folded at the start of 1999, meaning veterans from that league were in the WNBA draft. Hammon signed as a free agent with New York in May 1999.

The Liberty won the East that year and made it to the WNBA Finals, losing to Houston. New York was a veteran team then, with the likes of guards Teresa Weatherspoon, Vickie Johnson and Sophia Witherspoon. Where was Hammon going to fit in?

That year, she mostly observed and learned, averaging just 6.7 minutes. But what the Liberty, the rest of the WNBA, the fans and the media were going to discover about Hammon was that she was as tough and determined as anybody in the league. She expected to be underestimated. She fed off that.

And in her second season, Hammon was anything but an observer. She started half of New York's games, averaging 26.1 minutes and 11.0 points. This was a time when the Liberty had as engaged and as passionate a fan base as any team in the WNBA. There was an energy and optimism at the Garden that made games practically a spiritual experience.

And among the most devout of that Liberty fan base were folks that we in the women's basketball world began to good-naturedly refer to as "Hammonites." Some of them were so devoted to her that they changed allegiance to San Antonio when she was traded there before the 2007 season, a deal that the Stars "won" in a landslide.

Hammon was 30 when she arrived in San Antonio after eight seasons in New York. She'd come back from an ACL injury that limited her 2003 season to 11 games. She was clearly still a very good player in 2007, but it's fair to say New York didn't come close to realizing just how much Hammon had left in the tank.

It turned out her San Antonio years were the best of her career. In the six seasons from 2007-12, she averaged 16.9 points and 5.2 assists. She was a legitimate MVP candidate, including in 2008, when she helped San Antonio make the WNBA Finals.

That year was also when she played for Russia in the Olympics, realizing a lifelong dream -- albeit not with the team that the little-kid Hammon ever would have imagined playing with. But things never worked out between Hammon and USA Basketball, and when the chance came to get the Olympic experience with another country, she seized it.

While she took some heat for that, in the end she saw it as a victory for diplomacy and connecting with another culture. She never wavered on her decision or second-guessed herself.

Last year, Hammon suffered another ACL injury after getting a late start to the season because of a broken finger. She ended up playing in just one game, and the Stars missed the playoffs for the first time since Hammon arrived in San Antonio.

If you know Hammon, you felt sure she wouldn't end her WNBA career like that. So she came back, at age 37, for one more go-round. I talked to her in June, and she acknowledged she was feeling some physical and mental weariness. It was time to let some younger players carry bigger loads.

During the winter, Hammon shadowed the NBA's Spurs, and you get the feeling that the experience helped in the decision to wind down her playing career. She knows there are several avenues to be explored in the next phase of her professional life, including coaching -- maybe even in the NBA.

The Stars are in third place in the West with a .500 record and look poised to make the postseason again. So Hammon still has basketball business on court to take care of. However this season finishes for her and San Antonio, this is a happy ending for Hammon.

She has had a brilliant career. Hopefully those folks who got an autograph that June day 15 years ago from a little-used rookie had the foresight to hold onto it. Because it turned out to be the signature of a superstar.