By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
Becky Hammon is one of the best WNBA players of all time.
She’s also an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs and was doing a press tour to promote the WNBA Commissioner’s Title Cup, an inner-season tournament that concluded Thursday night with a game between the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun.
The Storm are a force to be reckoned with, but many of their players — including star Sue Bird — had just returned from the Olympics, so Hammon wondered if they’d have a disadvantage. They didn’t. The Storm beat the Sun easily — though Hammon would’ve been thrilled with any outcome.
“I can’t pick a team because one of my college coaches, [Curt Miller], is now the head coach of the Sun,” she said. “And then obviously, me and Sue go way back. I want to see good basketball. I don’t really care. Like I said, I got a dog on both sides.”
Hammon is careful with her endorsements. Her name carries a lot of weight because she is a formidable presence in the basketball world. Not to state the obvious, but in addition to being a highly respected player and now coach, she’s also a woman. Those three descriptors are — unfortunately but unsurprisingly — rarely heard next to one another.
I was interested to hear how Hammon feels about carrying the mantle of being the first. The first woman to have a perfect free-throw percentage in a WNBA season. The first woman to wear the title of full-time assistant coach in the NBA and full-time head coach in the NBA’s Summer League. The first woman to serve as head coach in an NBA game, which happened when coach Gregg Popovich was ejected in the second quarter against the Lakers in December. The first woman to be seriously considered for an NBA head-coaching job, which happened with the Portland Trail Blazers conducting their search.
“It’s a mantle that I try not to think about because it can be overwhelming, and my primary goal and objective is just being the best coach I can be,” Hammon said. “I let the chips fall where they may. My job is to be me and to do the best I can, and hopefully open some doors for some other girls to walk through.”
I realize that by asking Hammon that question, I’m talking about women doing things as women rather than just as people. But I wanted to know how Hammon balances acknowledging the groundbreaking nature of her career with simply doing her job.
I often sarcastically say, “as a woman in sports …” because I wish women were written about the way men are: simply as capable athletes or coaches or trainers or broadcasters — without the qualification of gender.
“Well, it’s obviously a delicate balance for me,” Hammon said. “Because at the end of the day, I want to be hired on my coaching credentials. I wish we were at a place in history where this was not a topic. I wish this was something that was not at the forefront of these conversations.
“But we’re not there yet. I’m hoping for the day where it’s not news, it’s just a coach doing her job.”
Representation matters; it’s important to call attention to women’s accomplishments in order to show people that it’s possible to break into male-dominated worlds and to invite in more women. That said, Hammon’s individual accomplishments have nothing to do with her gender. She has earned everything she has (even though I would argue that women shouldn’t have to be exceptional to deserve a seat at the head table).
Despite being more than qualified, Hammon knew when she entered the Portland search that she wasn’t the team’s first choice.
“Anytime you get to go through this process and really dial in on a team and dial in on your leadership style — your vision for what you see with that team — that is always beneficial,” she said. “My agent had told me going in that Chauncey [Billups] was the front-runner. And I’ve got to tell you that almost every race I’ve ever entered, I’ve never been the front-runner. So that doesn’t concern me. What concerns me the most is that I get in there.”
Portland ultimately hired Billups. But when the Celtics were searching for a head coach, Hammon’s name once again came up in the mix. Someone paid for a billboard outside the Celtics’ practice facility that said “Hey Brad, time to shake it up. Hire Kara [Lawson, the Duke women’s basketball coach] or Becky!”
Hammon said the Celtics never reached out. (“My uncle put that billboard up,” she joked.) And while she wouldn’t tell me where her dream coaching job is, she knows that the fit has to be right.
Becky Hammon sits down with Charlotte Wilder to discuss the process of interviewing for the head-coaching job in Portland. Hammon also clears up that although there was a billboard in Boston, she never interviewed with the Celtics.
“I’m not going to get in there and tell an organization what I think they want to hear,” Hammon said. “I’m going to give them me. And if me is what they want, then we move forward. But I’m not going to be anybody else. I have to be me so that everybody gets what they signed up for.”
That kind of honesty and authenticity is something Hammon appreciates about Popovich. She says that when hiring, he “grabs a mind” from Europe, from a former player, from a woman because he knows that people come with different experiences and different viewpoints.
“I’m not intimidated by somebody else’s opinions or thoughts,” Hammon said. “I actually want to know them. I want them to tell me why they think that way, and we can learn from each other. We come up with the best solutions for our players and how to be successful when you get different kinds of thought processes.”
One of the first things Popovich said to Hammon was, “If I hire you, I can’t have you be a yes man.” She told him, “I will not be a yes woman or man. I’m always going to tell you what I think.”
Operating like that requires letting go of your ego. You have to at once be humble and also so confident in yourself that you aren’t afraid to ask for and won’t be threatened by other points of view. You can’t be afraid to learn from someone because it might mean that you are somehow lesser.
What it really means is that everyone is made better. Which makes for a great management style.
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Hammon also believes that the secret to coaching players effectively is to individualize the approach.
“You have to coach the whole person,” she said. “I think buttons that you push on one guy, you can’t push on the next guy. The way you communicate with one person may not be the best way with the next person. Building relationships, building trust with these players, and then also being knowledgeable because they can sniff you out real quick if they think you’re full of crap.”
Hammon and Popovich are close, and they were in touch while he was coaching Team USA in Tokyo. For a minute, it looked like the U.S. might not come home with gold.
“I think what people don’t realize is that the European game is different. There are different rules,” Hammon said. “And most of these teams, these national teams, were practicing for months in advance leading up to the Olympics. And Pop and his coaching staff, they got their guys together in a very short amount of time and beat some very good teams to come up with gold.”
Hammon was also selfishly glad that the U.S. came home victorious.
“I’m just over the moon and happy that they won because that means my dinner and wine [with Popovich] is going to be a lot better this whole year,” she said, laughing.
I asked Hammon what one piece of advice or mantra she comes back to again and again when things get difficult. And I’m probably going to embroider what she said on a pillow.
“Take less and give more. Because when things get hard, I think you tend to pull inward, you tend to try harder,” she said. “It becomes more me-focused. And I think in those moments, it’s when you give back the most that you’ll actually end up finding yourself again.”
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and cohost of “The People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.
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