SAN ANTONIO -- Becky Hammon describes her physical attributes as "very average," but she's acutely aware that served as part of the appeal for fans during a WNBA career culminating in the league announcing her as one of the 20 greatest and most influential players in its history.
A diminutive, 5-foot-6 former guard with the San Antonio Stars and current assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Hammon will watch the Stars retire her No. 25 jersey on Saturday, when they host the Atlanta Dream at the AT&T Center.
Hammon hopes to inspire in her second life as an NBA coach the same way she did as a player.
"Let's just face it: The average girl is not 6-3. I look very average," Hammon said. "So I was somebody that most people could relate to and kind of dream with and live through and inspire hope that, 'Hey man, if she can do it, maybe I can do it too.'"
A six-time WNBA All-Star and the Stars' all-time leader in points per game (15.6), assists (1,133) and 3-point field goals (829), Hammon sat down with espnW to discuss her playing career, her new life as an assistant coach with the Spurs and her prospects for the future, among other subjects.
Q: Your name is often mentioned as the first to do something: first to get your jersey retired by the Stars, first full-time female NBA assistant, etc. When all these things are happening, are they actually registering at those precise moments? When and how do you put it all into proper perspective?
A: It's a little bit mind-boggling, obviously, when you think about it all at once because I'm really just a simple kid from South Dakota. And to be on this kind of stage and to have the kind of journey that I've had, it's just unbelievable. I'll talk to my mom and my friends sometimes, and I'm like, 'Can you believe this?' (Laughs.) It's just really awesome to be rewarded for all your hard work; that people take notice of how I treated my teammates, how I was in my community. I think all of those things kind of factor into the equation as well as being a great basketball player. But really, I've worked my whole life to become a great basketball player. When I see that jersey go up, I'm sure I'm gonna have flashbacks to when I was 4 and 5 years old playing in my driveway because I loved it. I still love it to this day. It's been one of my first loves in life: basketball.
Q: So you're still pinching yourself a little then?
A: Well, the hoopla that came at the beginning was a little bit [hectic]. But again, it was like, 'Oh my gosh. I can't believe this.' I mean, it is a big deal. But it's kind of like I didn't know it was going to be such a big deal. Let's put it that way.
Q: Having done so much on the court as a player here in San Antonio, and then to transition over to coaching in the NBA, what has that been like for you, especially with you doing it all mostly in the same city?
A: Well, I knew my way to work the first day. (Laughs.) But it's been a learning experience; learning the NBA, learning the travel schedule and certain coaches, their styles, what they like to run out of timeouts, personnel, tendencies. There is a lot to learn with 30 teams as well as learning all our own systems. So I'm really thankful for that year that I was injured and I was able to be here. I think that was a huge factor in me being hired a year later. But it also got me a foundation to work with on our offensive philosophies, our defensive philosophies, and then moving forward to then learning the league at a much deeper level.
Q: It's often said that players experience their most significant development from Year 1 to Year 2 in pro sports. Can the same be said of coaching, or at least in your own personal experience so far in the NBA?
A: For sure I felt a lot more comfortable. I felt like I had a good footing. I felt like that first year coaching in the NBA, I was just kind of hanging on by the seat of my pants. (Laughs.) Last year, I felt a lot more comfortable. Every year, you become more familiar with the league, the personnel, the coaching tendencies. The more comfortable you are, obviously the more confident you get. So I'm just building on my knowledge, on my experiences, and just looking forward to what the future holds for sure.
Q: You don't seem to be lacking any confidence out there.
A: (Laughs.) I don't lack confidence. But how do you get more confident at the free throw line? Well, you go and shoot 100 free throws. You miss, you go back to the free throw line and you shoot 100 more. Now, does that mean if you miss one you lose all confidence? No. You're still confident. But you've got to have that rhythm. You've got to have that feel. And so maybe rhythm and feel of the NBA would be maybe the more appropriate terminology.
What are your thoughts about the opportunity you have to defend your summer league championship?
A: I'm looking forward to the opportunity to work with the guys again. I really, for my own self, I thought it would be great practice. It's not so much about defending the title. We're gonna go in there, and we're gonna try to win. But the main thing is our guys get better, we don't get injured. For me, I need that work of managing that game, holding the clipboard, calling timeouts, dialoguing with these guys. That's all great practice for me, too. It's not about me going to defend my title. (Laughs.) Honestly, I don't think the organization could care less. They do not care, believe me. It's fun though, and I love Vegas. So it's a win-win.
"I'm really just a simple kid from South Dakota." Becky Hammon
Q: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich seems like a different type of dude. You'd think that basketball coach would be the last occupation that would fit him because he's into so many other things. Does any of that rub off on you and the coaching staff, and if so, how does it affect how you as a coach?
A: He's cut from a different [cloth]. I think that's why he's great. He thinks a little bit differently. His experiences are a little different. What I love about him is his world perspective. He always has a great way of breaking things down. It doesn't matter who he's talking to. He could be talking to a group of kindergarteners and he's going to break it down to where they can understand it. And then, he could be talking to a 15-year veteran, and he's going to break it down to where they can understand it speaking their language. I think all his world travel, his experiences; if you want to talk about wine, history or politics, whatever you want to talk about, he knows something about everything it seems.
So we have a lot of dinners. And although we might talk some basketball, mostly it's about other things. So to sit there and listen to some of his experiences and he's also asking you about your experiences. So he's a really great guy to go to dinner with. He's a lot of fun. I think you get to know him more as a person, which I think helps you understand more of what he's doing, what buttons he's pushing, the way he thinks, the way he approaches things. Anytime you get to know the person behind what they do as an occupation I think is always an advantage. So if he lets you into that space, that's a very private space because as we all know, he's a very private person. But there's a lot going on ... in that head of his.
Q: Reportedly, general manager R.C. Buford has said that some men's college basketball programs have reached out about potential head-coaching opportunities, and in the NBA, there's always so much coaching turnover. Is there any part of you that would like to be a part of all that -- to have your name mentioned and considered when there's talk about all these coaching vacancies?
A: Yeah, I think in due time it'll happen. What I have to do is be diligent in my work. I have to be who I am, work hard, and then things tend to work out. I'm gonna be very choosy, picky about what I do next. But right now it's about being patient, it's about learning, it's about every year gaining more experiences, gaining more knowledge. And I don't think anything is wrong with delaying some of that stuff, being a little patient. I think that builds a lot of other things in you along the way. It prepares you better.
"I think in due time it'll happen. What I have to do is be diligent in my work. ... I'm gonna be very choosy, picky about what I do next. But right now it's about being patient, it's about learning." Becky Hammon on eventually becoming a head coach in the NBA or men's college basketball
Q: Throughout this long basketball journey of yours, what has been the most important lesson you've learned?
A: That's hard. I've learned a lot of lessons. Basketball has taught me a lot. Basketball has taken me a lot of places. I think it's about people, about teams, the dynamics of teams. Obviously, I've learned how to run a pick-and-roll, read screens, call offenses and defenses, and read all those kinds of things. But I think for me, the greatest blessing of all of this has just been the people I've been able to meet, the friendships, the impact that I've been able to have in my community and with other people.
At the end of the day, there's going to be better basketball players. There's gonna people that shoot better than me. But I hope I'm remembered for what really matters at the end of the day, and I think I made people feel an emotion because I was small. Let's just face it: The average girl is not 6-3. I look very average. So I was somebody that most people could relate to and kind of dream with and live through and inspire hope that, 'Hey man, if she can do it, maybe I can do it too.'
Really, that was how my basketball career was. But it's also maybe the same in this coaching thing, too. 'Hey, if she can do it, [I can, too].' You can start to plant those seeds in the imagination. And those neurons that get sunk down into your brain, those are powerful things, and how you think and how you view yourself become very powerful in what you'll eventually become.
Q: Back in February, you said that life has a funny way of just getting better. What are your thoughts on those words now?
A: (Laughs.) They still are true. They still are true. This is an incredible honor from an incredible organization. So for the higher-ups and the decision-makers in this organization to say she deserves to have her name up there with those great, great athletes is anything beyond my wildest dreams. It's amazing.