Becky Hammon Says NBA No Longer 'Preposterous' Path For Women

Lucy McCalmont

Basketball looked a lot different for Becky Hammon as a young girl growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where she once had dreams of actually playing in the NBA.  

"My dad really told me straight up, right from the beginning, 'You will never do that,'" Hammon told reporters ahead of New York Liberty's game Sunday, during which she was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. "So he said, ‘But maybe if you are really good, you can get a college scholarship.’"

But the basketball world is tremendously different today from when Hammon first walked onto a court as a child, and much of that is due to her own recent success in breaking down barriers for women in the NBA. Finally, womens' basketball dreams don't have to end with just a college scholarship or a just career in the WNBA.

“I think you’re going to start seeing more and more women break into the men’s world," Hammon said.

"[Professional sports] is so male-dominated, but we’re not asking the man to get up and leave his seat. We’re just saying, ‘Scoot over a little bit. Make a little room at the table for the ladies,'" she said.

Hammon is credited by many of her peers as being the woman who could finally get the men to "scoot over," as she puts it.

But it's been a long, hard-fought path. Hammon started as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State before heading to a 16-year career in the WNBA, after which she made history as the first woman to be hired full-time as an NBA coach with her addition to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.

Through it all, Hammon has been at the forefront of change for women in basketball. The WNBA's founding in 1996 gave her the opportunity to actually play professional ball in the U.S. Now, as an assistant coach for the Spurs, she's already making history -- again -- as the first woman to lead an NBA team to a Summer League championship, which she did this year. 

She may have forgone her childhood dreams of playing in the NBA, but Hammon found herself sitting at a press conference on Sunday, being asked whether she could one day be a head coach in the league. It's a far cry from a young girl with a love of hoops with limited opportunities beyond college.

It's been quite a summer so far for women in a range of pro sports, with female athletes and coaches making inroads in both men and women's leagues. Hammon, of course, led the Spurs to their Summer League victory; the Women's World Cup raked in record ratings (and a U.S. Women's National Team trophy); Serena Williams is continuing her dominance of women's tennis on her way to possibly securing the first Grand Slam in nearly 20 years; and Ronda Rousey extended her undefeated streak in the UFC.

There are also two women joining Hammon in making history on the sidelines of the men's game. One is Jen Welter, who will be the first woman to coach in the NFL, joining the Arizona Cardinals as an intern for training camp and preseason. The other is Nancy Lieberman, who will join Hammon in the NBA as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings.

Hammon attributed the catalyst to one man: Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich.  

"I don’t think any of these other girls [would] even get in if Pop did not pull the trigger on me," Hammon said. "Because now they say, ‘Oh, maybe it can be done.’" 

She continued, "Pop [is] progressive, he’s open-minded, he’s forward-thinking, he thinks outside the box and he’s not afraid to a take chance on somebody.”

Hammon said plenty of NBA players watch the WNBA and know of the player's talents, so whether she could coach for the men's league was not a question for them -- but it did take someone to step up and make a change.

“Someone had to be brave enough to do the right thing and not care about gender," Hammon said of Popovich bringing her on board. "So when leaders start promoting and giving opportunities to capable people, then we can really start to make progress, not only in the basketball world, but in general, the world that we live [in]."

Hammon also emphasized the importance of the WNBA as well. A point guard for 16 seasons -- eight with the Liberty and then another eight with the San Antonio Stars before she retired in 2014 -- she was welcomed by a standing ovation from the crowd at Madison Square Garden, who saw their team defeat the Seattle Storm, 78-62.

"Without the WNBA, without me even stepping foot in the Garden in 1999, probably none of us are sitting here," Hammon said, adding that she hopes her own success will bring more growth and recognition for the women's league, which has seen an increase in attendance in the last few years. 

"If you’re a basketball fan, or hell, even if you have a daughter or know a woman in your life, it’s worth supporting because of the bigger pictures, and implications and opportunities it will lead to down the road for your little girl," Hammon said.

"I think it’s an option now. Before, it really wasn’t," Hammon continued. "Now I hope people do dream about it, because now it’s possible."

That doesn't mean it's been an easy path for Hammon, which she called a "hell of a journey." The coach noted that there's still "silly theories that people have" --  questions about the locker room, for one, which she said were never asked of her male coaches in the WNBA. There are some people, she said, who are reluctant to see change.

“Which is fine," she noted. "I’m not in charge of changing everybody’s mind. I’m in charge of being myself and doing the job to the best of my ability. Let the finds fall where they may."

Hammon's journey could be far from over, as the major U.S. men's professional sports leagues have yet to see a woman as a head coach. When asked whether she could reach that level eventually, Hammon said "anything’s possible."

"Even just two years ago, the question would probably be preposterous … Just because it’s something that’s never been done," she said. "Just because something’s never been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done."

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