Becky Hammon: I want to be the best coach possible
By Steve Almasy, CNN
When Becky Hammon was growing up in South Dakota, she presumed the basketball part of her life would end after college. And it almost did. The women's professional league, the WNBA, was young when she graduated in 1999. She went undrafted despite her great college stats. She notes that at 5 feet 6 inches tall she was smaller and slower than most pro players. Few people thought she'd make it in the WNBA. She went on to become one of the best players ever in the league, finishing her career with the San Antonio Stars in 2014. Known as a gritty competitor, she was selected to the league's list of 15 greatest players in 2011. After retiring, Hammon couldn't stay away from the game, especially when an opportunity arose with the other basketball team in San Antonio, the NBA's Spurs. This season, Hammon is working on the bench of the five-time NBA champions, the first woman to be a full-time paid assistant coach in the league. Hammon, 38, recently spoke with CNN anchor Poppy Harlow about making history, her future and the future for women in male-dominated fields. She also talks about working for San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who has overseen all five Spurs championships and has four former assistants who are current
POPPY HARLOW: You have clearly made history as the first female assistant coach in the NBA, and you're making history here at the All-Star Game (February 14). Did you think you'd be the one pounding on this glass ceiling?
BECKY HAMMON: No, I didn't. I was living my dream as a WNBA player. My whole childhood I grew up wanting to be a professional basketball player. I asked my Dad when I was younger if I will even be in the NBA, and he very politely told me, "No." At that point, there was no professional leagues. He told me if I was really good, I could get a college scholarship because, really, this is as high as it can get at the point. And then the WNBA comes along (in 1997), and really, I was living my dream. I had a fantastic career. I loved being a professional athlete. ... And so for me, to be the one breaking this glass ceiling, I was prepared well for it through all my experiences.
HARLOW: You work for and with a man, who does not mince his words, (Spurs head coach) Gregg Popovich, and here's how he put it, "Our guys just respect the heck out of her." He said you have solid notions about basketball, and he went on to say, "I don't even look at it as if she's the first female." And that made me think, Becky, do you wish more people looked at it the way he does? Just at skill?
HAMMON: I wouldn't be the first one if more people looked at it the way he did, if more people had to think out of the box, and don't think traditionally. Because, traditionally, women have not had a fair shake. Minorities have not had a fair shake. So, for a guy to come along and say, "I don't really care. She's good at her job. She's got a great basketball mind." I think it took somebody like a Gregg Popovich.
HARLOW: Do you want to be the first female head coach in the NBA?
HAMMON: Right now, it's funny because everyone is asking me, "What's your endgame? What do you want to do?" And I'm telling everybody that right now, I am in a great learning space. All I want to do right now is try and train to be the best coach possible. I can't open doors that aren't open. But if a door opens, I would be happy to walk through.
HARLOW: So that's a yes?
HAMMON: Yeah ... somebody else is going to also have to take the approach, and take a chance because it has never been done.
Hiring more women
HARLOW: So, how do we make it better for women by 2026? Ten years from now.
HAMMON: Well, I think it is important that people are hired on their merits. I don't think I should be hired because I am a female. I'd like to think and I know that, because of the organization and because of the person that Gregg Popovich is, I was hired on my merits. He is not about stories. In fact, he does not like that side of the job. And I think as long as people are open-minded, and hired on their merits, the end of the day I still need to do a good job. I need to be the best coach I can be. ...
As long as we go into the operating room or the political spectrum or we go into war because women are in war now, we go into whatever business we are in, we've got to do a good job. You can't just get in there because you're a woman.
Treatment by others
HARLOW: How has the response been from the players, the guys who you coach and from players in the league?
HAMMON: The guys have been great. And what's funny was when I was a player in the WNBA, guys would come over and say, "Man, I love watching you play. I love the way you play. You've got this style. Magic Johnson, whatever." I mean they watched. They watched the WNBA. So, it is beyond me how these guys from the NBA respect how the women play the game. But Joe Schmo down the street think it's terrible.
Equality for women
HARLOW: So, how do you think it should be done? President Obama came out a few weeks ago, and proposed a rule change that would make big companies show their pay for men and women in equal jobs. And if there was a disparity, they would be held accountable, and get their name published. Do we need the government or companies to mandate something to make this happen?
HAMMON: I hope the government doesn't have to mandate the individual person, the individual company, the private owner. And maybe that's my wishful thinking. ... I hope the government doesn't have to intervene. I think the less the government intervenes, the better. That being said, people know their jobs. People know what their companies need. ... Now, as it would be, it is a proven statistical fact that with more women in the board room, companies tend to do better.
HARLOW: Gregg Popovich is going to be the next Team USA coach, are you going to be standing there by his side at the Olympics?
HAMMON: I don't know. I actually haven't asked him. It's four years down the road. I'm sure he is going to bring the best possible assistants that he can. And the door will be open, I am sure.
HARLOW: Would you like to coach an Olympic team?
HAMMON: It is not my ultimate goal. If I have got to go and get those experiences, maybe I go and coach Russia. Who knows? You know, I always like to keep an open mind to every situation.
Other coaching opportunities
HARLOW: I wonder if you would ever consider leaving the Spurs for a head coaching job in the WNBA, meaning do you want to work up to that goal that no one has done of being a woman coach in the NBA or is just about being a head coach?
HAMMON: I can tell you right now it is about learning. It is about being a sponge and soaking everything up. I think that door will open for me. I'm not necessarily going to say I'm going to walk through that door. I can tell you I like the path I am on right now in the NBA. I like being around basketball junkies. I like having three or four games every week because I think there is a lot to learn. We don't practice as much as we would probably in other (sports) leagues. But, the NBA has taught me a lot, and I am looking forward to continuing down that road.
HARLOW: What has Gregg Popovich done to influence you the most?
HAMMON: Well, obviously the opportunity of hiring me is a huge opportunity. But the second really big opportunity he gave me was to coach our summer league team (which won the championship). So, those are our young guys. Those are the future. Guys that we are trying to shape and hone to come and be impact players for the Spurs, to give me the responsibility to lead those guys. ... And he kind of threw me into the pile. I've never been to a summer league. I am normally playing in the summer. So, that was a huge opportunity and experience and responsibility that he gave me. And I think the one thing he said going into (Las) Vegas (site of the summer league) was, "You be yourself. Yourself is good enough. Be who you are, and don't try to be me. Be you." And I thought those were simple but profound words.