Hammon readies for second act

SAN ANTONIO -- When Becky Hammon arrived in the Alamo City seven years ago after a trade from New York, one of her first "greeters" was a scorpion she found in her room. Welcome to Texas!

Maybe the little critter just wanted to make her feel like a true San Antonio resident right off the bat. That's certainly what Hammon became.

"I had a great run in New York, and that's who supported me first," Hammon said. "When I came down here, it just felt like home. I knew this is where I was going to finish."

Saturday, the Stars and the WNBA said goodbye to Hammon as a player, and it was emotional the way such farewells to special players always are. The happy part for the city of San Antonio, though, is that she's not going anywhere. Hammon's second act in basketball -- as an assistant coach for the NBA's Spurs -- will be starting soon.

And who knows? A basketball brainiac, Hammon may end up making an even bigger impact as a coach than she did as a player. Although what Hammon has meant as a player has been monumental.

"She was part of that group that really ushered in the WNBA," said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, whose Lynx ended Hammon's career with a 94-89 victory in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. "But I also think she represents the 'underdog' WNBA player.

"She didn't play at a big-conference school. When you look at her, you're not intimidated by her size or speed. She's a champion of the savvy, intelligent, crafty basketball style. Becky's 'want-to' and her 'know-how-to' are off the charts."

The Stars threw everything they had at the WNBA's defending champions. But the Lynx withstood that and eventually wore down the Stars with their general awesome ability -- including a magnificent game by point guard Lindsay Whalen, who had 31 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists.

But when the game was over, all eyes were on Hammon ... and her eyes got a bit misty. She had 12 points and four assists in her last game, concluding a 16-season career that included four trips to the WNBA Finals.

Hammon grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, and played basketball in the driveway no matter how cold it got. She put Colorado State's program on the map in college. Then, in what Reeve calls "one of my favorite WNBA stories," Hammon went undrafted in 1999, but caught on with the New York Liberty.

"I remember Tom Collen going around saying, 'Somebody give this kid a chance. Just get her into camp, you'll see,'" Reeve said of Hammon's college coach. "She became a rock star at New York, and then the rest of the story was written here."

And what a story it's been. The Stars franchise had moved from Utah to San Antonio in 2003 and missed the playoffs its first four seasons in Texas. Then Hammon came in 2007, and the Stars made the postseason every year but last season, when Hammon was injured.

Coach Dan Hughes, who engineered the trade that brought Hammon to the Stars, was sure she was going to help the organization in ways beyond the basketball court, too.

"You knew you were not only bringing in a player you thought fit, you were bringing a face to a franchise," said Hughes, comparing Hammon's value to the Stars to what legends like Tim Duncan brought to the Spurs. "You're not only investing in the player, but investing in the person. And, boy, she's delivered in incredible doses. And I never dreamed that we'd also see her springboard into her next career here."

Hammon's transition to working on an NBA coaching staff is something her fellow players admire. They also look up to Hammon for what she's done as a friend and colleague to them.

A symbol of the respect Hammon has throughout the WNBA? At the end of Saturday's game, the Minnesota players waited for Hammon to finish her television interview and huddle with her team so that the Lynx as a unit could then pose for a picture with her.

"I've had the opportunity to play with and against her; overseas we played two years together," said Minnesota's Seimone Augustus, who shared a heartfelt hug with Hammon when the game ended. "Just to watch her play ... she's very effective getting to the basket, creating for her teammates, every year reinventing herself to become a better player.

"And off of the court, she's just a great person. Now she's a pioneer as an assistant coach [in the NBA]. That's groundbreaking for women. I just congratulated her and said that I love her, and thank you for everything that you did for women in sports."

Hammon said she had no idea when she finished her Colorado State career in 1999 that she'd somehow still be playing basketball 16 years later.

"I had dreams, but back then I looked up to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," Hammon said. "It's the beauty of the WNBA that now little girls have big girls to look up to. I've always been telling the younger players to honor that, take care of that, and respect it."

Hammon joked that her teammates are probably sick of the number of "teachable moments" she's pointed out to them. But if you ask them, they'll say they cherished the time they've spent with her.

Now, though, Hammon says she ends her playing career with no doubt it's the right move.

"I see a Maya Moore practically jumping over my head -- it's time to go," Hammon joked of the Lynx's 25-year-old star, who is this season's MVP. "For me, it's always been about finding a way, even though physically sometimes I was limited. And as you get older, you get more limited and have to be more cerebral.

"The kids get faster, and I get slower. I've always said that I want to walk away on my own terms, when I could still play and compete. I don't want to be just hanging on and the last person on the bench. I started as the last person on the bench. I moved up. I don't want to go back the other direction."

Instead, the direction she goes is to a whole other league: the NBA. Gregg Popovich of the NBA champion Spurs gave Hammon a chance to essentially "intern" with his team last season, and then hired her recently to become an assistant coach.

"I know we'll be going to work very quickly. I'll have to talk to Pop, and get on the same page with him," Hammon said of how soon the transition will be. "I'm going to be super-green on that end, just feeling my way through at first. I really look forward to jumping into the next venture and being challenged on a completely different level.

"I always love word games, mind games, reading. Anything that has the thinking aspect of things. I'm going to enjoy that, and give my body a break."

For all who've watched Hammon for two decades at Colorado State and the WNBA, we're left with the distinct images that made Becky Hammon who she was. The clutch 3-pointers. The fearless drives to the basket and the "spinning, twirling, whirling, good-English-off-the-backboard way she could do it," as fellow guard Whalen puts it.

When we think of Hammon, we'll see her working that ever-present chewing gum, grinning at her teammates, pulling everybody together.

"I've loved being a basketball player; it was always just in me," Hammon said. "I think there's nothing more beautiful than seeing someone in their natural element. I've just enjoyed it. It's been so much fun."