Tomorrow night will be the last regular season home game of San Antonio Stars guard Becky Hammon’s career.
For San Antonio Spurs fans hoping to see Hammon before she trades in her sneakers for a spot on the Spurs’ sideline, they’ll get a glimpse of what has made her a fan favorite in the WNBA for so long.
Those fans will watch as Hammon effortlessly moves around the floor, shows off her court vision with precision passing, finishes with the scoop shot over taller defenders and knocks down long-range bombs.
But for Hammon, things weren’t always so effortless, and nothing really came easy. The All-American at Colorado State went undrafted before she was signed by the New York Liberty in May of 1992 to back up Teresa Witherspoon.
Her WNBA career flourished from there, but it wouldn’t be the last time she would face an obstacle.
When Hammon, a six-time All-Star who has been named one of the Top 15 WNBA Players of all time, was passed up and was not invited to try out for the US National Team prior to the 2008 Olympics, she looked for an alternate route to Beijing.
While getting dual citizenship and playing for other national teams has become the norm for NBA players born in the states, it wasn’t something that had caught on for the women’s national teams.
Hammon decided to play for Russia, and faced public scorn from, not only fans, but also from the likes of WNBA coach Anne Donovan, who initially questioned Hammon’s patriotism.
Through all the talk of patriotism, and being a traitor, Hammon managed to make a podium appearance, leading the Russian team to a bronze medal.
While Hammon has been able to bounce back from bumps and bruises, nothing likely tested her toughness as much as the Olympics.
“I worked out a lot with Becky when I was injured,” Stars guard Danielle Robinson said earlier this season. “It was nice to have the opportunity to see how tough she is, how hard she works, and the passion that she brings to the game.”
It just so happens that bumps and bruises are what gave her the chance to “intern” with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich when she sat out last season. As has been the case wherever she’s made stops in her basketball career, she seemed to make a lasting impression on Popovich.
While most expected Hammon to transition to a TV gig, or joining Stars coach Dan Hughes on the sidelines, Hammon instead makes one of the most impressive moves of her career – a crossover off the court.
If there was a glass ceiling in the NBA, Hammon just crushed what was left after Lisa Boyer served as a volunteer assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers years ago.
The 5-6 guard from South Dakota, who was told she could be an All-American, then passed over twice professionally before becoming one the top guards in WNBA history, didn’t take the safe route at all. But she really never has.
A transition from playing to coaching isn’t always a natural one. As one former Popovich disciple looks to give it a go in a head coaching position in the Bay Area next season, Popovich gains his next pupil from the other San Antonio locker room.
But if you ask Hammon’s teammates and coaches, she’s already a coach.
“It’s amazing. She’s just great on and off the court. She’s taken me under her wing and, just little things that she does that I don’t even think she realizes that just makes you feel more comfortable,” Stars rookie Kayla McBride said.
“Oh, I absolutely see her as a coach. I think just with being in practice with her. The way she directs and how she talks to players like myself, it’s like a coach,” McBride added. “We have a coach with us on the floor at all times Becky, so it’s good to have her, especially as a rookie, because she knows where everyone’s supposed to be and how things work. I think she’s really smart, has a great basketball IQ.”
Aside from knowing the game as well as she does, Hammon has also proven to be a natural leader.
“Becky’s our coach on the floor, on and off the floor,” Stars forward Danielle Adams said. “She knows the spots, the position and where everyone should be, She’s a great leader for us.”
While fans will get a chance to see Hammon’s grace on the floor tomorrow night, they’ll also see a little of what Popovich sees in her.
Stars coach Dan Hughes is considered one of the top coaches in the game, but in true Pop fashion, detracts any attention away from himself, especially when talking about his star point guard for the last seven years.
“I think the thing that Becky brings to your team is, well players make us coaches look good. I get a lot of credit,” Hughes said. “From the time I was coaching at 22, I remember people would pull me aside and said, ‘wow you did this.’ Well you know what, I didn’t do that. All I did was make sure the player was in the right position, and that’s what Becky does.”
Point guards are often referred to as an extension of the coach on the floor. That couldn’t be truer in this case. Hammon will be out there directing traffic on offense and defense, directing players to spots on the floor for proper spacing, call out defensive assignments, and essentially, be the cog that makes the machine work, whether she has the basketball or not, as Hughes says best.
“Becky kind of makes things work. She’s a veteran and can understand not only her position, but the totality of what we’re doing and she can communicate on the floor in a way that provides understanding,” Hughes said. “That’s what great players do. They empower others, and Becky empowers others, whether it be with the pace or whether it be with the organization, or spacing or patience, or toughness, that’s what she does.”
Hammon spoke to the challenges of her transition to becoming an NBA assistant coach during a conference call recently, saying it was a tremendous challenge with tremendous responsibility.
The early consensus appears that she will be as comfortable in a pantsuit as she has been in a jersey and shorts. Replacing a basketball for a grease board hasn’t always been an easy transition for professional players, but as you’ll see tomorrow night, Hammon’s been running teams for 16 years.