Column: Becky Hammon’s historic moment serving as Spurs head coach was no gimmick
Becky Hammon’s priority Wednesday was finding ways for the San Antonio Spurs to beat the Lakers. Making history wasn’t part of the game plan she had helped design as the top assistant to longtime coach Gregg Popovich.
“I did not walk into the arena thinking I would be coaching tonight,” Hammon said, “but that’s the way things go, and you roll with it.”
The evening took an unexpected turn when Popovich was ejected with three minutes and 56 seconds left in the second quarter. He had never specified that she’d replace him if the occasion arose. He didn’t actually tell her Wednesday, either. Typically brusque, he simply pointed at her and barked, “You got ’em.”
And so it was that Hammon, a gym rat who paid her dues as a player in college, during a stellar WNBA career and at the international level and is a valued assistant with the Spurs, became the first woman to coach an NBA team in a regular-season game.
Becky Hammon becomes the first woman to coach during an NBA game during the Lakers’ win over the San Antonio Spurs. Here’s what else we learned.
This was not a gimmick. She is not a gimmick. Hammon joined the Spurs’ staff in 2014, coached their Summer League team to a championship in 2015 and coached a preseason game in 2017. As her experience and confidence grew and she took on bigger tasks that include game planning, she became a front-of-the-bench assistant in 2018. She’s legit.
Game recognized game. “She’s been putting in the work, and any time you put in the work you get rewarded with opportunities,” LeBron James said after the Lakers’ 121-107 victory over the Spurs at AT&T Center. “Tonight was a case where she got to step in and show her work, show her talents and her love for the game and obviously, what she did as a player, first of all, we all know that. So her mind was able to transfer to our league and she’s been great ever since she got in.
“It’s a beautiful thing just to hear her barking out calls, barking out sets, and she’s very passionate about the game, so congrats to her and congrats to the league.”
Pau Gasol, who played for the Spurs from 2016-2019, tweeted congratulations to her accompanied by two pair of upraised hands. Stephen Curry’s tweet was to the point. “Big time @Becky Hammon,” he said, adding an upraised hands emoji.
To the Spurs, Hammon wasn’t a groundbreaking female coach Wednesday. She was the coach who works tirelessly to make them better players, who pushes them to realize the importance of detail on the court but also cares enough to text them to ask about their kids.
“Having her around, you don’t think twice about it. She fits right in,” DeMar DeRozan said. “She’s like one of us, honestly. It’s great to have that. Whenever she speaks, we listen. We’re all ears. It’s been great just having her.”
Players sense her love for the game and for learning. They also respect her ability to relate to them while challenging them. “I’ve been watching her talk to every single player, whether he was a veteran dude or a young dude, just using her voice and her knowledge of the game, and I love Becky to death,” point guard Dejounte Murray said.
Hammon hadn’t checked her phone before she spoke to reporters in a videoconference, but she didn’t need to count the messages to realize the magnitude of the occasion. “Obviously, it’s a big deal. It’s a substantial moment,” she said. At the time, though, she was too consumed by the game to think of anything else.
“I say this a lot, but I try not to think about the huge picture and the huge aspect of it because it can get overwhelming. It’s my job to go in there and be focused for those guys and make sure I’m helping them do the things that will help us win,” she said.
Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list after a year of fighting for racial justice and voter rights.
“I’m just in the moment with the guys. Trying to figure out what’s the best way to help them and put them in spots to be successful. [The Lakers] are a tough team. Obviously, they’re the defending champs and they got two of the top five players in the world across there. And they made some tough shots. You have to give them credit, but we kind of executed our game plan decently. I thought they got away from us in transition, but the moment for me was just trying to come up with stuff to help us win the game.”
For the Spurs, hearing Hammon’s voice in the huddle turned out to be a lot like hearing Popovich’s voice. “There’s not much difference in the ferocity between the both of them. She came out guns blazing a couple times in those timeouts,” guard Patty Mills said. “Everyone’s receptive to that, obviously being used to it with Pop but with her as well. She’s obviously clear in what she’s saying, but you can definitely feel, me watching her as a player, you definitely feel that same sort of intensity as a coach. I think it’s only going to get better and bigger for her in those situations, for sure.”
Popovich, whose record will reflect the loss, is expected to be back when the Spurs face the Lakers again Friday in San Antonio. Someday it won’t be news when an experienced, qualified woman becomes the coach or manager of a men’s team in a major professional sport. Hammon made that day seem not so far away by capably answering the summons when history unexpectedly called.
2020 milestones for women in men’s sports leagues
First woman to coach an NBA team in a regular-season game — Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs)
First female general manager in a major North American sports league — Kim Ng (Miami Marlins)
First woman to play in a Power Five conference football game — Sarah Fuller (Vanderbilt)
First Black female coach in professional baseball — Bianca Smith (Red Sox organization, according to a Boston Globe report)
First Black female professional scout in the NHL — Blake Bolden (Kings)
First female coach on a major league staff — Alyssa Nakken (San Francisco Giants)
First woman as regular on-air member of NFL radio booth — Julie Donaldson (Washington Football Team)
First woman to own a professional sports league — Dany Garcia (XFL, co-owner)
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