Hustle, Heart & Hoops History: Who is Becky Hammon?

The San Antonio Spurs made history with new hire Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in league history. So who is the new coach?
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The San Antonio Spurs made history with new hire Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in league history. So who is the new coach?
Becky Hammon at a press conference after the Spurs hired her as assistant coach. 

Becky Hammon at a press conference after the Spurs hired her as assistant coach. 

This week, the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs officially named WNBA star Becky Hammon the first full-time female assistant coach in league history. With this groundbreaking announcement, we assembled a quick fact sheet with some interesting background information about the woman in the spotlight and the historic ramifications at play here:

Who is Becky Hammon?

Rebecca Lynn Hammon was born on March 11, 1977, in Rapid City, South Dakota. Named the South Dakota Player of the Year as a senior at Stevens High School, she became a two-time All-American at Colorado State University and finished as the school's all-time leader in points, assists and steals. Hammon spent eight years with the New York Liberty and another eight with the San Antonio Stars of the WNBA, and also played in the now-defunct National Women's Basketball League and with clubs in Italy, Spain and Russia. A seven-time WNBA All-Star, Hammond was named one of the 15 best players in league history in 2011. She announced her retirement as a player on July 23, 2014.

What was her M.O. as a player?

Considered small and slow as a point guard, the 5'6" Hammon was lightly recruited out of high school and completely bypassed in the 1999 WNBA draft. That she went on to earn recognition as one of the greatest players in league history was a testament to her hustle, heart and high basketball IQ. Fearlessly competitive, she was a coach's dream and had a knack for firing up a team’s fan base. She became one of the Liberty's most popular players, inspiring a group of followers who called themselves the Hammonites. In San Antonio, she was known as "Big Shot Becky" for her ability to make clutch baskets.

"Big Shot Becky" on the court for the San Antonio Stars.

"Big Shot Becky" on the court for the San Antonio Stars.

Did she really play for Russia in the Olympics?

Like most WNBA players, Hammon augmented her earnings by playing overseas during the offseason. She received an especially lucrative offer from the Russian club team CSKA Moscow in 2007, with the stipulation she apply for dual citizenship in order to play for the country's Olympic team. Believing she had already been left off the U.S. roster, Hammon accepted the offer and played for Russia in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She felt it was a matter of fulfilling a dream to play in the Summer Games, but not everyone saw it that way: U.S. Olympic Coach Anne Donovan, for one, went on record calling Hammon "unpatriotic." It was one of the few times the WNBA star engendered any sort of negative press.

How did she land her new coaching job?

When a torn ACL ended her 2013 WNBA season after one game, the 36-year-old Hammon began to seriously consider the next phase of her career from the sidelines. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich extended an invitation for her to shadow his staff, and Hammon spent a good portion of the 2013-14 NBA season attending Spurs practices, meetings and film sessions. She made a strong impression on the notoriously gruff Popovich, who praised her understanding of the game and her sense of knowing "when to talk and when to shut up." When Hammon made the decision to retire, the Spurs were confident the time was right to bring her aboard.

Have women coached men in high-level basketball before?

Hammon actually isn't the first woman to help coach an NBA team; Lisa Boyer was an assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2001-02 season, though hers was a part-time, unpaid position. Bernadette Mattox, Stephanie Ready and Jennifer Johnston all served as assistants for Division I men's college basketball programs, while Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman coached the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League in 2009. Former NWBL point guard Natalie Nakase, the first woman to coach a men's professional basketball team in Japan, was named an assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers' summer league team not long before Hammon took over the headlines.

What does this mean for the future of gender equality in the coaching ranks?

Given that American sport teams typically cycle the same names in and out of leadership positions, it's probably going to be a while before a woman breaks through the glass ceiling of the men's coaching fraternity. Still, Hammon is in a great position to advance the cause. The Spurs are universally regarded as a model NBA franchise, with Popovich considered to be the best in the business. If Hammon is good enough for Pop, then you can bet your kid's college fund that other NBA executives are already lining up their own women coaching candidates.