Progress, the saying goes, does not occur on a straight line.
When Becky Hammon was hired as the first full-time female assistant in the NBA, the first woman to be a full-time assistant in any of the major North American men’s professional leagues, it was a sea change for equality in sports. Never again could it be said that a woman could not coach men, that she wouldn’t be listened to or command the players’ respect.
It was only a matter of time, everyone agreed, before Hammon was running her own team.
That she will do it not in the NBA but the WNBA, where she’ll make her head-coaching debut Friday with the Las Vegas Aces, is not a setback. Rather, it’s a recognition that there is more than one way to disrupt the status quo.
“I’m still moving the needle, I’m just doing it on a different road,” Hammon told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday, a day before the Aces open the regular season against the Phoenix Mercury.
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This, the 26th season of the WNBA, is perhaps its most pivotal since the first days of the league. Sponsors, investors and broadcasters are waking up to the fact that not only is interest in women’s sports on the rise, there’s money to be made there, too.
Anything, and anyone, who brings more attention to the league and its teams furthers the growth of both the WNBA and all women’s sports. Hammon does that.
Hers is a name recognizable to all basketball fans, and her résumé – she’s a protégé of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and coached the Spurs’ Summer League team in 2015, 2016 and 2019 – is as good as there is. Her eight years as an assistant with the Spurs, and the interest that generated from other NBA teams, also earned her a seven-figure contract with Las Vegas, unheard of in women’s sports.
While that raised some eyebrows in a league where the largest player contract is just under $230,000 and teams are still flying commercial, it will have a ripple effect. Aces owner Mark Davis is willing to spend – and spend big – on his team and, as is the case in the NFL and NBA, other owners will find that they can either keep pace or they’re going to get left behind.
“It’s a process,” Hammon said. “I’m certainly happy to be on board and be pushing the load in the right direction to get the quality that’s needed, to get the treatment, the respect – everything that comes with being the best of the best.
“If you’re best of the best,” she added, “you should be treated as such.”
Coaching the Aces was not something Hammon expected. She went to Las Vegas last year to have her jersey retired – she played for the San Antonio Stars, who moved to Las Vegas in 2018 – and was impressed with what Davis and Aces president Nikki Fargas were doing with the team.
The Aces are not a vanity project for Davis, a novel way for an NFL owner to show he cares about women. He’s a longtime women’s basketball fan – something else he inherited from his father, Al – and is passionate about elevating the league.
He’s been advocating for higher player salaries since before he bought the Aces. He’s building a state-of-the-art training facility for the Aces in a complex they will share with his other team, the NFL’s Raiders. He rebuilt the team’s front office.
“I believe women today are going to be the driving force throughout not only sports, but the economy and everything else,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports after he bought the Aces. “I just think it’s time for women. And I’m proud to help, any way I can.”
So going after a big name, and paying her accordingly, fit perfectly with Davis’ plans.
In early December, Hammon said a friend told her that Fargas was interested in talking with her. When Hammon asked why, the friend said the Aces wanted to gauge her interest in coaching.
“That got the ball rolling,” she said.
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Though Hammon had interviewed with several NBA teams, and was a finalist for the Portland Trail Blazers opening last year, she had never gotten an offer. There are “100,000 reasons” why, but the biggest is that head-coaching jobs, in any league, are scarce.
“Male or female, you still have to be the right person for the job,” Hammon said.
The job has to be right for the person, too. For Hammon, coaching the Aces was – and that mattered more than what league they’re in.
“I know I’m ready to be a head coach. This is the team that wanted me,” she said. “This team made it abundantly clear they wanted me to be their head coach.
“To me, it wasn’t just about leaving the NBA,” Hammon said. “I told Pop, ‘I can’t pass this up. What they’re giving me and what they’re telling me and the potential with the team I’m inheriting, I’m not passing it up.’ “
The Aces reached the WNBA Finals two years ago, and have a loaded roster that includes 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and rookie sharpshooter Kierstan Bell. Hammon said the team has come together more quickly than she’d expected, picking up the schemes she’s brought and adopting the terminology for them.
The team’s chemistry is good, too, and Hammon is eager to see how it all translates to the floor.
“I love, love, love this team. Not only their skill set, them as people,” she said. “There’s been a lot going into (building this team), and (Friday) we start to see the culmination of it all start to play out. I’m excited to see what this group can do.”
Hammon could easily have stayed in the NBA and continued doing what she was doing. To continue making progress, though, sometimes you have to go in a new direction.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.