Much in Hammon's favor as coaching potential increases
So, is she ready?
One must be careful not to get caught up in the tide when discussing Becky Hammon's successful run as coach of the Spurs' Summer League team in Las Vegas, and what it portends for her future as a coach. First, she's not campaigning for a gig, and when others start speaking for someone, trouble is not usually far behind. Agendas are not part of Hammon's makeup, and while she knows that it's important that she's the first woman to be seriously considered by the NBA's cognoscenti for a head coach job, she's made it clear she wants to be judged on her merits alone.
Second, there are a lot of NBA assistant coaches who've been patiently waiting their turn for a head coaching position for a long time. Guys like Memphis' Elston Turner, who's been an assistant coach in the league for 18 years; Miami's Dave Fizdale (12 years, the last seven with the Heat) and Charlotte's Patrick Ewing (10 years). It's not fair to them to anoint Hammon as the next coach in waiting, nor is it fair to criticize teams that may hire someone other than Hammon in the next year or two to run their squad.
Third, it's not a criticism of her abilities to say that after just one year as an assistant coach -- even in San Antonio, in Gregg Popovich's shop -- that Hammon, like any young coach, is not yet done developing her voice or her beliefs, and while she has great potential, she may not be ready this morning to take over an NBA team.
Hammon's job with the Spurs in Vegas was first-rate, and the 38 year old was in her element in driving San Antonio's rookies and young vets to the Samsung title. She was clear-eyed and focused, she designed some really good looks out of timeouts, and the Spurs' young players got better and better as the tournament went on. She yelled at the refs and demanded her players "bring the juice," and they responded.
For those of you who moan that this is not a big deal, that this is PC run amok, well, Hillary Clinton didn't Tweet congratulations to then-Kings coach Mike Malone when he shepherded his team to the 2014 Vegas title. Don't be obstinate. A woman coaching men trying to make an NBA team is a big deal. It does not necessarily follow that a Summer League coach becomes a head coach down the road -- let's be real, a lot of teams are very happy when their teams lose in the Summer League, so they and their players can get the hell out of Vegas. But Hammon displayed many of the traits that a successful coach needs.
"I think she has the ability to be a head coach in the NBA but there are only 30 such jobs and it is extremely competitive to get one no matter if you are male or female," said Lakers Executive Vice President Jeanie Buss, one of the highest-ranking female executives in sports, via text Sunday.
"If that is her desire I encourage her to follow that path," Buss said. "Being a woman is not a reason to stop. Continue doing outstanding work and the opportunity will come."
As far as the historical significance ... well, let Pop explain it.
"It's a societal sort of thing," he said last week on the "Mr. T and Ratto" Podcast out of San Francisco's KNBR AM last week (Mr. T being former NBA player Tom Tolbert; Ratto being longtime Bay Area columnist and current CSN Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto).
"In America, we are great at sticking our heads in the sand and being behind the rest of the world in a whole lot of areas," Popovich continued. "We think we are this big democratic, fair place. But you look at our world now, whether it's gender-wise or racially or religiously, there's all kinds of stuff going on that is not the way it's supposed to be.
"I think a female coaching a team these days has got a lot to do with the people on the teams maturing as individuals, as members of a society understanding that it's not about any of those things. It's about talent. It's about respect. And I think people like Becky, over time, who gain respect and people understand that this is possible, it can happen. Just like women getting the vote. How many years did that take? It's ridiculous when you think about how many decades and centuries in some cases (it took) before change was made.
"But I think since 2000 changes have been pretty damn lacking in a lot of ways. I think people are fed up with it, injustice, and people not respecting other people's space and who they are. So I think it's a step in the right direction."
There are all manner of issues that would surround Hammon getting an opportunity down the road. Most are in her favor, though there would no doubt be questions both she and the team that hires her would have to sort through first:
She obviously can handle the Xs and Os. The most important thing the Spurs have done by hiring Hammon and putting her into the potential head coaching mix is lay fallow the notion that Hammon's years as a star WNBA player somehow weren't the same as an NBA player's experiences. The mechanics of a pick-and-roll are the same when run by Briann January and Tamika Catchings as when run by John Wall and Marcin Gortat.
So, when Popovich brought Hammon in during her final season as a WNBA player, in 2013, as she rehabbed a knee injury, she talked about basketball with Popovich and President of Sports Franchises and General Manager R.C. Buford. And her knowledge about the game was clear.
But that doesn't mean she was a yes woman.
"If she literally spoke the exact language, Pop probably wouldn't have brought her in," Buford said by phone Saturday. "She had her own ideas. She knew how to handle herself, and as Pop said, she knew when to speak and when to shut up. You have to have both to be successful."
But knowing the game is obviously not enough.
Hammon was not one of Popovich's top three assistants last season in San Antonio -- they were Jim Boylen (who has since taken the top assistant's job in Chicago with Fred Hoiberg), Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina. Those three assistants sat alongside Popovich; NBA teams can have up to three assistants on the bench. They can have any number of assistants sit behind the bench, which is where Hammon sat during the season.
"I'm not even sure she handles game scouts yet," one general manager said Sunday, referring to the traditional role almost all assistant coaches have -- writing the scouting report for an upcoming opponent, which details that team's strengths and weaknesses, favorite plays, etc. Traditionally, the scouts are divided up among the assistants during the season.
The experience gap is something Hammon will no doubt close quickly. But, today, it's still there.
But, she's as experienced as, say, Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Danny Ainge. The Warriors hired Jackson out of the TV booth in 2011 despite his never having had previous coaching experience at any level, and after three seasons, they fired him and replaced him with Kerr, who also came out of the TV booth and also didn't have any previous coaching experience. The Suns hired Ainge as coach in 1996, just a year after he'd retired as a player. And the Nets hired Kidd just days after he officially retired as a player in 2013, after 19 seasons. None of them had ever coached at any level.
"I believed I could do the job," Ainge, now the Celtics' president of basketball operations, said by phone Friday. "I believed it would be hard. But I believed I could do it. I was ready to take a challenge. I was excited about the opportunity. All of us need an opportunity, whether you're a player, or a coach, or in business. People who have had success, somewhere along the line, someone gave them an opportunity."
Coaching hires tend to be cyclical. For a long time, coaches linked to Howard Garfinkel's legendary Five Star Camp coaching/counseling tree held sway. Chuck Daly, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, Brendan Malone, Brian Hill, Ron Rothstein and Lawrence Frank all ultimately got NBA coach jobs, as did Rick Pitino and John Calipari after star turns in college.
Former players were all the rage in the 90s; teams wanted coaches who could relate better to the ups and downs of their players. John Lucas, Mike Dunleavy, Dan Issel, Doc Rivers and Rudy Tomjanovich all got calls.
The former video guys have been in vogue lately: Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer, Mike Malone and Frank Vogel all got their starts in windowless rooms, doing 72-hour shifts making cutups and packages for coaches who didn't want excuses, only results. And now we're back to former players.
"Guys like Doc Rivers, or Derek Fisher, or Jeff Hornacek, I don't think it's a stretch to think they'd be successful," Ainge said. "It wasn't a stretch to think Brad (Stevens) would be a success, after taking Butler to two straight Final Fours. In Becky's case, I don't know her. But in her case, given the people that do know her, I don't know why it would be a stretch. I don't know why a woman couldn't be a successful head coach. It sounds like someone will give her an opportunity somewhere down the road."
Ainge got his shot, in part, because of his relationship with former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.
"It took Jerry Colangelo, who I knew, and played with for two years, and negotiated a contract with him, we knew each other. I don't think it was a stretch from his perspective," Ainge said. "It's just going to take somebody who knows Becky."
After Rivers left Boston in 2013 to coach the Clippers, Ainge didn't wait long before hiring Stevens. The interview process confirmed what Ainge already thought, but even though Stevens was highly regarded in college basketball, he needed someone to believe he could make the transition to the pros.
"It happened pretty fast," Ainge said. "I think it was probably the first training camp, our first training camp, when you knew he just really knows what he's doing. He's got such humility. He knows that if he does make a mistake or he can do something better, he's the first one to recognize it. He looks at life and approaches it as what can I do to make us better, and make that person and that player better? I got to know Brad and there never was any concern. I guess that's why I gave him a six-year contract. I never did have any concern. It had more to do with who he was."
Someone will have to likewise believe in Hammon.
She's likeable. I am reminded of the scene at the end of "Ocean's Thirteen," when Willy Bank (Al Pacino) confronts Danny Ocean (George Clooney) after Ocean's gang has helped clean out Bank's casino, to the tune of half a billion dollars.
"I know people -- highly invested in my survival -- and they are people who really know how to hurt, in ways you can't even imagine," Bank says.
"Well, I know all the guys that you'd hire to come after me," Ocean says. "They like me better than you."
Don't underestimate this. Likeability is a big deal. People, for example, like Rivers. They like Kerr. It's not the most important weapon in a coach's quiver, but if you have a choice of being with two people for nine or 10 months, in close quarters, often disagreeing about strategies or playing rotations, chances are most people would rather spend that time with the agreeable person rather than the disagreeable one. It has nothing to do with Hammon's coaching chops to say she's a very pleasant person to be around. She's got "it." She has that incredible, rare gift of being able to talk to just about everyone where they are.
"Everyone likes her because most were a fan of hers before she started coaching and respected her game, respects her input," Spurs guard Danny Green said Sunday. "And she's a player's coach."
She's in the perfect place. If any team can afford to be bold and think outside the box, it's San Antonio. Five championships since 1999 build up an awful lot of capital, and Popovich and Buford are as respected as any coach-GM tandem as has ever been around. But every franchise isn't run as, let's say, efficiently as the Spurs run theirs. If Hammon were to leave San Antonio for a coaching opportunity elsewhere, she could be walking into a very different situation.
"Reality...is that most coaching vacancies are with bad teams," a former GM texted Sunday, "and those circumstances would be dramatically different as to level of player, professionalism of player, support of management, etc. The biggest question is how would she deal with real life scenarios."
San Antonio works because there is no space between Popovich and Buford. Players can't go to the GM if they don't like what the coach is doing, and they certainly can't get an audience with owner Peter Holt -- who would tell them, politely, that they're in the wrong office. Other franchises don't work that way. Office politics could be as difficult for Hammon as they are for most people. A lot of smart people haven't been able to navigate them.
But, Hammon played professionally for 16 years. She certainly had her share of run-ins with players and coaches and opponents and referees in the WNBA, and the guess is most of that experience is transferable. But if she got a head coaching gig, yes, she'd have to do something that no other woman has ever had to do -- she would, at some point, have to cuss out a zillionaire, highly Q rated, multi-time All-Star for something or other. And none of those zillionaires has ever been cussed out in that setting by a woman coach. It would, simply, be a new and different dynamic. There is nothing wrong with newness. People adapt in their lives every day. Would there be something so tragic about a coach and a player maybe not screaming at each other in a locker room? Or, for that matter, a woman coach screaming at a male player if it was warranted?
In that sense, Hammon would be right at home, having blazed the trail she has already. One does not get the sense that Hammon, who was undrafted coming out of Colorado State yet wound up being named one of the top 15 players in WNBA history, is a shrinking violet.
And there is no rush. This isn't a race. Becky Hammon will, and should, continue her apprenticeship with the Spurs next season, a young and talented coach who may well break the NBA's glass ceiling in short fashion, knowing the task ahead and the stakes that will be at hand when she does so.
"Even though you may come in and show you can do the job, and get respect from the players," Ainge said, "every day, you have to prove it again, even though you may get it on day one."
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