Hammon didn’t enjoy easy road to success with Stars

By Melissa Rohlin

Becky Hammon doesn’t take no for an answer.

She went from going undrafted in the WNBA to becoming one of its top players. She went from being overlooked by USA Basketball to becoming a dual citizen and playing for Russia twice in the Summer Olympics.

“There’s a physical and a mental toughness to Becky,” said Dan Hughes, who coached Hammon on the Stars for eight years. “When people or events don’t align, that does not deter her.”

Hammon, who retired from the WNBA in 2014, will have her No. 25 jersey retired by the Stars on Saturday night after the game against Atlanta at the AT&T Center. Her journey has been full of obstacles, but it has led her to where she is now — the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach with the Spurs.

After playing for Colorado State, she earned a free-agent shot with the New York Liberty in 1999, averaging just 2.7 points and 0.6 assists in 6.7 minutes her rookie season. Not getting the playing time she wanted, Hammon devoted herself to being a student of the game.

“It was an uphill battle for me,” Hammon said. “The first three or four years, every time I got back from training camp, I had to earn my spot. It builds character, perseverance, and those are the things that will serve you in life.”

Hammon went on to become a six-time WNBA All-Star, ranking fourth in the league in career assists (1,708) and eighth in points (5,841). On Tuesday, the league named her one of the 20 greatest and most influential players in its history. In 2011, she was named one of the league’s 15 best players ever.

Hammon transformed herself from being a skilled 3-point shooter who could make layups into one of the top ball-handlers to ever play the women’s game. In 2009, she averaged a career-high 19.5 points and five assists.

“Throughout my career, there have been times that I have been knocked down, but you just make a choice to get back up, and you do whatever it takes to get back up,” Hammon said.

Vickie Johnson, now serving as a Stars assistant coach, played with Hammon during her first season with the Liberty. Johnson said she never thought Hammon would turn into the type of player she did.

“I use her as an example for young players that feel like they’re not good enough,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t great at the beginning, but she added something to her game every year.”

Hammon said she inherited her toughness from being the youngest of two siblings. One of her hobbies is now swimming with sharks.

She’s listed at 5-foot-6, though Johnson said Hammon is actually 5-4½. According to either number, Hammon was clearly undersized for a professional guard.

That may have been part of her appeal.

“It gave the WNBA a feature player that people could bring inside their home and identify with,” Hughes said. “Her popularity was off the charts because people saw a little bit of themselves in her.”

“I compare her now to Steph Curry,” Johnson said of the Golden State Warriors’ NBA MVP guard. “When he first got into the league, he could shoot the ball, but he couldn’t handle it well. Now he can handle the ball very well.”

As Hammon’s career wound down, she was forced to take on a different role, one that would help her in the next stage of her life. She was playing alongside younger players and had to figure out a way to get through to various types of personalities.

“It became more of a mother-hen type of thing,” Hammon said. “I wanted to share everything I knew with them.”

Hammon would make her teammates put their cell phones away when she spoke to them. She would invite them over to her home for dinner. She became a mentor.

“She can relate to everyone,” Johnson said. “She can relate to the players that didn’t get drafted, she can relate to the players that don’t get a lot of playing time, and she can relate to the players that get a lot of playing time. She can relate to someone that was a star, and had to pass the torch on. She’s gone through a lot of stages in her life, and I think that prepared her to be a coach.”

Hammon actually caught the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich’s attention long before she had any interest in coaching.

“When I was around Pop, he would ask about her,” Hughes said. “He always admired the way she played.”

Hammon tore her left anterior cruciate ligament in July 2013. Unable to play overseas, she asked Hughes if he thought the Spurs would allow her to attend some practices and observe.

Popovich was intrigued and asked for Hammon’s phone number. She quickly became a mainstay at the Spurs’ practices, coaching meetings and games.

Hammon was hired as an assistant coach for the Spurs in August, 2014. The following summer, she was named head coach of the Spurs’ summer-league team in Las Vegas and led them to the title.

“He’s given me an opportunity of a lifetime,” Hammon said of Popovich.

Hammon’s former teammates said they expect her to be successful in her new role. Some even think she will become the first female head coach in the NBA.

But at the end of the day, she desires her legacy to have less to do with basketball and more with how she makes people feel.

“I hope I instilled hope and courage in people,” she said. “I would like to be known as a person who impacted lives.”

 

MORE INFORMATION

Becky Hammon

Age: 39

Position: Guard

WNBA teams: New York Liberty, 1999-2006; San Antonio Stars, 2007-14

College: Colorado State

 

Fast facts:

Named one of WNBA’s 20 greatest and most influential players on Tuesday and was selected as one of its 15 greatest players in 2011.

Six-time All-Star selection.

Won Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award in 2014, her final season.

In a 16-year career with the Stars and New York Liberty, finished with 5,841 points, 1,708 assists, 1,111 rebounds and 488 steals.

Her 89.7 career free-throw percentage is best in WNBA history.

Played in 450 games, logging 12,560 minutes.

Is the Stars’ career leader in scoring average (15.6), assists (1,133) and 3-pointers (498).

 

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