Becky Hammon's stunning debut as a WNBA head coach leaves NBA executives with no more excuses
- Becky Hammon won her first title as a head coach with the Las Vegas Aces' 2022 WNBA championship.
- The longtime NBA assistant joined the Aces last year because she knew she was ready to lead her own team.
UNCASVILLE, Connecticut — Becky Hammon was, and perhaps still is, considered the leading candidate to become the first woman head coach in NBA history.
She's long been at the top of that very exclusive list, and for good reason; ever since legendary coach Gregg Popovich welcomed the six-time WNBA All-Star into the San Antonio Spurs organization in 2013, she's broken glass ceiling after glass ceiling.
She was the first woman to become a full-time NBA assistant coach, the first woman to be named the head coach of an NBA Summer League team, and the first woman to win an NBA Summer League title as head coach. Hammon was also the first woman on an NBA All-Star coaching staff and, in 2020, became the first woman acting head coach in league history.
But even with an apparent aptitude for Xs and Os and an endorsement from perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history, Hammon was passed over for several head coaching positions with other franchises across the league. Each time, she received similar feedback:
"Two things that people always said: 'You've only been in San Antonio, and you've never been a head coach,'" Hammon said during a press conference in January.
Now, the 45-year-old has checked both of those boxes off. And less than a year into her head-coaching tenure, Hammon led her former franchise to a championship.
Just nine months after leaving the NBA to assume a long-coveted position at the head of a bench, in the league where her professional basketball career began, Hammon guided the Las Vegas Aces to this year's WNBA title. Led by 2022 league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year A'ja Wilson, the top-seeded squad took down the Connecticut Sun in four games to secure the franchise's first-ever WNBA title.
There are innumerable complimentary adjectives suitable for describing Hammon's near-instant success upon assuming the helm of a professional basketball team. "Surprising," however, is not one of them.
Just ask those who know best:
"She's a great coach," Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy, who worked alongside Hammon on Popovich's Spurs staff, told Insider. "It's not been shocking to any of us."
Coaches knew Hammon had an elite basketball mind well before she expressed any interest in coaching
A Rapid City, South Dakota, native, Hammon has a knack for basketball from a remarkably young age. Despite dominating on the court throughout her youth and into high school — even getting named South Dakota's Player of the Year as a senior — Hammon was overlooked by all but a few college scouts due to her size and athleticism.
History repeated itself in college. The clever point guard with a knack for finding the hoop excelled at Colorado State, earning All-America honors in three of her seasons with the Rams and leading the team — far from a power player in women's college basketball — all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament her senior year.
Even despite her extraordinary success at Colorado State, Hammon went undrafted in the 1999 WNBA Draft.
"I'm somebody who was passed over basically because I didn't look the part — I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't athletic enough, I wasn't fast enough," Hammon said back in January, when she first became head coach of the Aces. "I didn't look that part, and so I got passed over."
But as the WNBA's third season neared, the Liberty "brought her in to take a look" based on her "incredible scoring numbers" from college, then-New York assistant Pat Coyle told Insider.
"My first impression of her was while she was small, she was so creative in how she could score," said Coyle, then an assistant in New York under Richie Adubato. "She just found a way to score."
Dan Hughes — a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year who led the Seattle Storm to the 2018 WNBA title — recalled having a similar first impression of Hammon while coaching against her. When he was calling the shots for the Cleveland Rockers, Hughes distinctly remembers heading to Madison Square Garden in Hammon's third or fourth year with the Liberty and instructing one of his best defenders, Helen Darling, to play her "like a shooter."
Hammon "punished us" for it, he told Insider with a laugh.
"There was nothing tricky about it; she just made all the right reads," Hughes said. "You know, if we did this, she had an answer. When I would change it, she had an answer. I remember I had that helpless feeling you have as a coach where no matter what you're doing, it's just not working real well."
"Once she got to that stage, every year I was calling New York to see if they wanted to make a trade," he added.
By then, the Liberty knew they had something special in Hammon. She was a scorer, sure, but she was so much more than that; Hammon was a coach on the floor.
"The good ones see the next play," Coyle said. "And she could see two, three plays ahead of that. Her basketball IQ was incredible."
Given everything Hammon had to offer, the Liberty were understandably reluctant to trade away their star point guard. But in 2007, Hughes' dream became a reality; New York shipped Hammon to San Antonio — where Hughes had assumed the helm two years earlier — in exchange for two first-round picks.
And while that trade was "tough" from Coyle's vantage point, it offered Hughes "the missing piece" to his already impressive Silver Stars roster.
"Becky brought talent, yes, but she brought leadership, and she brought a mentality that really fit," Hughes said. "What was amazing to me is that she progressed; she always had great innate basketball IQ, but where she really improved during my tenure of coaching her, and especially as her years went on, was she learned how to communicate and how to teach her teammates."
Because Hammon had a certain je ne sais quoi — Coyle called it "charisma;" Hughes opted for "presence" — her teammates were eager to hear what she had to say. And while neither Coyle nor Hughes knew for sure whether Hammon had any intention of coaching down the line, they both knew that "if that's what she chose to do, there was no question she would be successful."
An injury, a realization, and a dash of boldness led Hammon to an apprenticeship with the best in the business: Gregg Popovich
Hammon enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence after landing in San Antonio, averaging 18.8 points and a league-high 5.0 assists per game in her first season with the Silver Stars. Six consecutive WNBA playoff appearances followed, but in 2013, disaster struck for the then-15th-year floor general; she tore her ACL during the very first game of the season.
She stuck with the team throughout the remainder of the summer, but with an off-season of rehab ahead of her, she came to her exit meeting with Hughes ready to look ahead.
"Becky comes in and we're talking and she says, 'Hey coach, I wanna be a coach,'" Hughes said. "I would've always thought she could've been a great coach, but that's the first time she had ever said it herself."
Hammon's next question: "Do you think the Spurs would let me watch practice?"
Hughes was pretty sure he could make it happen.
"I had had a lot of conversations with Gregg Popovich about Becky, and early on, I think he had an appreciation for Becky," Hughes said. "So I went over the next day, and he's like, 'You give her my phone number. You got my phone number, you have her call me.'"
She did. And though Hammon isn't the nervous type — "there's never a moment too large for her," Hughes says — she made it clear at dinner the night before her first Spurs practice that she knew the significance of the opportunity in front of her.
"The doors she could open up for other women — it wasn't lost on her," Hughes said. "We didn't directly talk about that, but I remember one statement that from that evening. I said, 'The good Lord wouldn't have put you in this situation unless this was something that you could really flourish in. You were made for this thing, and you just dive in and learn all you can and be who you are.'"
She took Hughes' advice to heart. Not only did Popovich — one of the most revered coaches in NBA history — allow her into practices, but "he engaged her, really had her sit in on meaningful coaches' meetings and things like that."
Chad Forcier, then an assistant under Popovich who has since joined the Milwaukee Bucks staff, told Insider that Hammon made an immediate impression — inquisitive about the art of coaching and someone who "loved everything about the game and everything about being in the gym." Clearly, she made a strong impression on Popovich, too.
"Pop really gave her a great experience," Hughes said. "And I think really found out what I certainly knew — that she was gonna be a great coach."
So after her knee was fully recovered, Hammon returned to the court for one final season with the Stars. But once her playing days were officially behind her, the South Dakota native stayed put in south-central Texas to join Popovich's staff full-time.
In a statement released at the time, Popovich said he was "confident her basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills" would "be a great benefit to the Spurs." Coyle, who had long known about Hammon's advanced ability to read the game and communicate that vision to others, was "not surprised that he selected her to be on his staff."
"I recall thinking to myself, 'Wow, he made a great choice,'" Coyle said. "Some people just have it, and she has it."
It didn't take long for her Spurs colleagues to recognize that talent, too. Forcier recalled her "great ability to connect with human beings" being "really obvious" early on.
"She had credibility walking in the door — no one looked at her as anything different than any other coach," Forcier explained. "She was a badass player, and they knew it. She had a decorated career in a number of places, and she'd been kicking everyone's ass playing for the Silver Stars for several years.
"Everyone was watching and admired her style of play, admired her talent, admired her toughness and competitiveness and feistiness, everything about the way she was as a leader," he added. "She commanded that team."
Hardy describes Hammon as "super tough" with "a competitive chip on her shoulder, always" — whether they were shooting around in the gym or playing cards during a road trip. After two seasons of sitting next to Hammon on the team plane — "that's a lot of hours that you spend sitting next to somebody" and getting to know them, he noted — Hardy learned what everyone else who knew Hammon seemed to understand:
"She has one of those personalities — people just gravitate to her," he said.
Those traits translated beautifully to the huddle and the locker room. And her "really sharp basketball mind" helped her contribute right away from the film room to the whiteboard, Hardy said.
"She was always very open and willing to share her opinions," he recalled. "Sometimes coaches are afraid of being wrong in front of a group, and they don't really speak up. And I always thought Becky added so much to our conversations as a staff because of the basketball IQ and knowledge that she has from her long [playing] career."
Hammon naturally accrued more responsibilities and more trust as one season turned to two and two turned to four.
Plenty of firsts followed. She became the first woman to lead an NBA Summer League team when she coached San Antonio's young squad in 2015. And when the Spurs won the Summer League championship, she became the first female head coach to claim a title.
"The fact that she took that team and won the summer league, that's a big deal," Coyle said. "That's where you start to gain your experience."
"All those other guys — all those other coaches, I mean — that's your next crop of coaches," she added. "And for her to take that team and win it, I mean..."
The proof was in the pudding. Hammon didn't merely hold her own against the brightest up-and-comers in the business — she outperformed them.
The next year, Hammon became the first woman named to an NBA All-Star coaching staff. The year after that, she started receiving calls about coaching and front-office positions with other franchises. And she had earned serious respect among NBA players.
"I've played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich," six-time NBA All-Star Pau Gasol wrote in an essay for The Players' Tribune. "And I'm telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I'm not saying she can coach pretty well. I'm not saying she can coach enough to get by. I'm not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA's male coaches."
"I'm saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period," he added.
In 2020 — her seventh season on the Spurs' staff — Hammon officially became the first woman to act as head coach in NBA history. She took over the helm for San Antonio when officials ejected Popovich in the second quarter of a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"It wasn't a big deal to me," Popovich said after Hammon's historic moment. "I understand the attention it got, but in all honesty, I assumed that most people already knew that she was qualified to be a head coach in the NBA.
"We didn't hire Becky to make history — she earned it," he continued. "She is qualified. She's wonderful at what she does. I wanted her on my staff because of the work that she does. And she happens to be a woman, which basically should be irrelevant, but it's not in our world.
"She's somebody who's very skilled and could very easily fulfill the duties of a head coach in the NBA," Popovich added. "That goes without saying."
But other figureheads across the league apparently weren't convinced. Though she was in the running for several open positions with other franchises — most notably a final-round interview with the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer of 2021 — the right-hand woman to perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history never got her shot.
So she took her talents where everyone knows her worth.
When the opportunity to lead her own team finally arrived, Hammon seized it
Fast forward to September — just two months after Hammon was passed over in Portland — the Aces invited Hammon to Las Vegas for a jersey-retirement ceremony. Franchise owner Mark Davis and team president Nikki Fargas have both since alluded to the fact that they used that visit to subtly recruit Hammon back to the WNBA.
Three months after that, she finally received a shot to prove her head coaching chops; Davis and Fargas named Hammon head coach of the Aces, offering the NBA trailblazer a historic contract to lure her back to the league where it all began.
Though Hammon conceded that she previously "had no intentions of leaving the NBA" at that time, the Aces gave her an offer that was too good to refuse: a chance to control her own team.
"I can tell you right now, Mark Davis met me, Nikki [Fargas] met me and said, 'That's a head coach right now. That's a head coach right now. We're going after her. She's the person,'" Hammon said in her Las Vegas introductory press conference. "And so that's why they got me," she added.
Hammon left little doubt that the NBA's failure to hire her to a head coaching position played a role in her move to the W.
For many who know her, the moment was a bit bittersweet as a result.
"To be honest with you, I felt very good for the W," Hughes told Insider. "There was a part of me that wondered why she didn't get an opportunity in the NBA. I'm just being honest. But I understood exactly why she was doing it; she was ready to be a head coach."
Hughes remembers talking "a lot" with Popovich while both were coaching Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021. Popovich was the head coach of the men's team, while Hughes was an assistant on Dawn Staley's staff.
From those conversations, Hughes "could tell" that Popovich and Hammon were in alignment; they were "ready for her to be a head coach." And as he thought more about it, Hughes realized Hammon's path into head coaching is fairly analogous with the path she took to basketball glory in the first place.
"It's not like she's ever had things come easy, just to be honest with you," he said. "That's not necessarily how things have happened with her as a player, or even as a coach.
"So I said to myself, you know what, she's just gonna take the bull by the horns herself," Hughes added. "And she's gonna give us even more evidence why she is and will be a great head coach."
It's taken her virtually no time to make her mark. In her first season at the helm, Hammon's Aces took down the reigning champion Chicago Sky in the second-annual Commissioner's Cup midway through the season. And right around the same time, a league-best four Aces players participated in the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game — two of whom were named All-Stars for the very first time.
"She's brought the same fire and grit to coaching that she displayed as a player," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told Insider. "I'm sure she would immediately deflect praise and want the spotlight focused on the Aces players."
"Becky has so much to offer from a standpoint of having been a player in this league, having coached in the NBA, knowing what it takes to win," she added.
Las Vegas went on to earn a league-leading 26-10 record during the 2022 regular season and boasted the second-best offensive rating in WNBA history, just behind the 2019 champion Washington Mystics.
It came as no surprise when Hammon earned WNBA Coach of the Year honors.
"If you look at the whole team, everyone's numbers are up, efficiency is up," Las Vegas guard Kelsey Plum — a first-time All-Star herself — told Insider. "I just think that speaks to the system that she has us play in and also to her mentality. People don't get yanked for mistakes or missing shots.
"She builds a lot of confidence in players," she added. "You want to play for her."
Star point guard Chelsea Gray agreed, lauding the point guard "vision" Hammon brings to the coaching role. But the first-year coach exudes "confidence" and "swagger," the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP told Insider, and it rubs off on the team.
"She doesn't fear anything," Gray said. "She always says, 'People jump out the water when they see sharks — I jump in' and I think that's the way our team has been feeling."
"We've been diving head-first into hard situations," she added.
Their playoff battles were no exception. Hammon's Aces faced the Seattle Storm — with a three-headed monster of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Sue Bird — in a tough semifinal battle that looked an awful lot like a Finals series.
After suffering a gutting three-point loss in Game 1 of the series, Las Vegas won a tight one at home before earning hard-fought back-to-back wins on the road to punch their tickets to the Finals.
Then, after opening their Finals series against the Sun with two home wins, the Aces headed to Connecticut looking for the sweep. Instead, they took a massive punch to the gut in the form of a 29-point loss.
And even though she offered a few choice words to the media after her team's disappointing performance — "They just kicked our ass in every way possible," an exasperated Hammon said — she stressed the importance of "composure" to her team.
Hardy told Insider he suspected his former colleague would "go back to the basics of their program — whatever the core things that she started with the team" following their big defeat. And Wilson, the two-time league MVP who serves as the star-studded team's centerpiece, confirmed as much in the locker room after the loss.
"We got another shot at it on Sunday," she told Insider of Hammon's message to the team. "At the end of the day, we just gotta stick together through and through like we've been doing this whole year."
It worked. Though the Sun refused to go down without a fight, Las Vegas pulled out a gritty 78-71 road victory, thanks to a well-rounded effort and five players in double figures.
In just one season, Hammon took a team that had repeatedly knocked on a WNBA championship's door and burst right through. Engelbert told Insider the litany of accomplishments in her debut year as a head coach were "extraordinary."
But was anyone surprised?
"Of course not," Forcier told Insider. "Becky is smart, she's tough, she's a great competitor, she puts the work in, she knows what the heck she's doing, she's a great communicator.
"I'm not surprised at all," he added. "She's got all the ingredients to be successful."
A WNBA title heard 'round the basketball world
Watching Hammon's story unfold in such poetic fashion has been "very empowering," Hughes — who broke through to win a championship in his 18th season as a head coach — told Insider.
"In life, some things play out like they should play out, you know? And other times it doesn't," he said. "But this is the way it should have played out. This is tailor-made how it should have played out, by the investment she's made in the game and by the presence she has."
"I'm happy," Hughes added. "Not only because I have a love for Beck, but I kind of like the message it sends, just to be honest with you."
That message, of course, is that those who passed over Hammon because, perhaps, she didn't look the part of an NBA coach, missed out on someone special.
"For sure," Wilson told Insider. "She's probably raising some eyebrows. It's like, 'Damn we should have got her.' But hey — their loss, our win."
The Aces' championship — and, more specifically, the coach that helped them earn it — may have an impact well beyond Las Vegas or Hammon's own career. Not only did her return to the WNBA "help raise the profile of the league," but it was also a "great career move" for her, Coyle said.
"When you move 12 inches over from being an assistant to a head coach, that's a big deal," Coyle said. "Now she's gaining that head coaching experience. Whether it's women or men, it doesn't matter. That's the last piece for her to be the first woman coaching in the NBA, in my opinion — her gaining that head coaching experience.
"There's no question it's gonna happen," she added. "And I wouldn't be surprised if it was her."
But when Hammon was asked directly whether "everyone in the NBA feels dumb for not hiring you" after the Aces' decisive victory in Game 2, she was quick to remind everyone at the press conference — and those watching from home — that Las Vegas hadn't "won anything yet."
"I'm used to people not picking me; I don't know if you're aware," Hammon added. "I just do me."
And after the Aces' Game 4 victory, when asked to follow up on that sentiment now that her team had secured the title, Hammon explained that "the hard stuff builds stuff in you that's necessary for life."
"My journey's not by mistake," Hammon said. "Every hard thing that I've gone through has built something in me that I've needed down the road.
"It's not really about proving other people wrong," she added. "It's proving myself right."
Insider's Scott Davis contributed to this story.
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