When the San Antonio Spurs hired longtime WNBA star Becky Hammon as the first woman to be a full-time assistant coach on an NBA staff last season, it was celebrated as a sign of progress. When she led the Spurs' Summer League team to a peculiar but undeniable sort of championship in Las Vegas last month, it was received as a sign that yet again the Spurs had found a valuable talent where other organizations had never thought to look. For women who happen to work in basketball, it was something even more significant.
"I think for all of us in basketball, it's like, 'Men's, women's, it's all the same,'" Katie Smith said, sitting by the Liberty bench prior to Sunday's game against the Seattle Storm, during which Hammon was inducted into the Liberty's Ring of Honor at halftime. Smith played 15 seasons in the WNBA, and is now in her second year as an assistant with the Liberty. "But seeing her getting work in an organization like the Spurs? Move her right on over? It opens up your mind a little bit. Like, I didn't think that was a possibility."
The timing of Hammon's breakthrough has as much to do with the WNBA's maturation as it does with the forward-thinking Spurs. The WNBA is now in its 19th season, and has incubated a generation of professional basketball women; the best of these minds are ready to coach and join front offices. The Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings, the WNBA's only ten-time all-star, wants to be a GM when her playing days are over. In the NBA or the WNBA, on the sidelines or in the front office, these women are ready to work. But it's not quite that simple.
How Hammon ended up on the Spurs staff is a story of unintended consequences. While playing with the San Antonio Stars, Hammon suffered a season-ending knee injury. As a result, she spent time around the Spurs, where she built a relationship with head coach Gregg Popovich.
"I asked my coach, Dan Hughes, if he thought Pop and RC [Buford] wouldn't mind if I came over and peaked my head into a few practices," Hammon said. "So that kind of snowballed into Pop calling me and inviting me into every team meeting and film session and making as many games as I could. They brought me on the road. Just seeing the experience, seeing how I fit in with the guys." The affiliation between the NBA and WNBA—particularly the affiliation between the Spurs and the Stars, which are both owned by Peter Holt—absolutely placed Hammon in the same orbit as the people she could impress. She won the job by being smart and capable, but she had to get noticed first.
It is notable that Hammon took the initiative to gain valuable experience that led directly to coaching. The Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, who became the second full-time woman assistant coach in the NBA late last month when she was hired by Sacramento, acknowledged that she hadn't wanted to be thought of as "that pushy broad" by prospective NBA employers and didn't make her feelings known about wanting to coach in the NBA soon enough. Lieberman is a generation older than Hammon, but it takes a long time to change a culture.
"I think we're all creatures of habit," Smith said. "And on top of it, in an organization, there has to be somebody that knows you. And that's why Becky's with San Antonio—it's like, 'Yeah, we know her, let's give her a shot.' It takes away the gender issue, because it's who they are. She's not a woman who knows basketball. It's like, 'Hey, it's Becky.'"
Smith has her own NBA advocate in Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, who transitioned from a fifteen-year NBA playing career into a WNBA coaching career that began with the Detroit Shock in 2002. The barrier between the two leagues has been a permeable one, but until Hammon it flowed in only one direction.
"It's always been easier for a man to go to a women's league than a woman to go to a men's league," Laimbeer said. "In high school, in college, the vast majority of coaches are men already. In Hammon's case, she's fortunate to be with Popovich, who's very secure in his position as coach and who he is. It's a precedent set without any fallout whatsoever. Because if it doesn't work, and you don't have that confidence as a coach, then you'll take a lot of heat for it, for sure."
That heat doesn't sound like it would come from the players, though. "I've said this for many years, but there is a respect on the peer level for men and women," Swin Cash, the longtime WNBA standout who currently plays for the Liberty, said Sunday. "A player like myself who's been with USA Basketball for years can have a conversation with LeBron, with Kobe, and get the same level of respect as I would talking to Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Maya Moore. We've always had that respect. But now the mainstream, the fans are starting to accept it a little bit more. So the players accepting her? That didn't surprise me at all."
Winning players' respect and doing the necessary coaching work are no problem, but finding an opportunity to get a foot in the door still, stubbornly, is. The NBA could change this, perhaps with a formal coaching internship program for veteran WNBA players preparing for the next phase of their lives. This would not only open access to opportunities like the one Becky Hammon seized, it could also keep those players from taking lucrative overseas playing opportunities during the offseason. For a league that's still focused on visibility, filling the sideline with recognizable players turned recognizable coaches would mean a great deal; for the aspiring coaches who get a place on the bench, it could mean a career.
"Smith's been with us two years," Laimbeer said. "I've trained her as best as I can, from my time as an assistant coach in Minnesota, about the grind necessary, the amount of video hours you have to put in. To be an assistant coach in [the NBA] is all-consuming. So is she a potential candidate? Absolutely. Could she jump right in and run it to full speed? I don't know the answer to that. So maybe there's an internship, like a part-time NBA home I can find for her. Get a feel for her, she gets a feel for them, without anybody jumping in all the way."
Hammon believes the trail she blazed could work just as well for others. "Game recognizes game," she said. "If you can help them become a better player and you can coach them, they'll welcome you with open arms."
While these opportunities have been frustratingly slow in coming, Swin Cash believes they're on the way. "If you look at how society is starting to change, the pendulum is moving in a direction where inclusion is not only accepted but demanded, not only by women but also by men," said Cash, who has made a Hammon-grade leap of her own as a men's college-basketball commentator for CBS. "It may be a surprise to see Becky Hammon as assistant coach in the NBA, head coach of Summer League, winning Summer League. But this needs to be the norm."
Katie Smith, like many others, is ready to get to work. "I know I'd be good, I know I'd work really hard," she said. "And I'd want to keep learning. I could work well with guys. My brothers, these guys," Smith added, smiling as she gestured toward Laimbeer and her fellow assistant coach Herb Williams, another NBA veteran. "I've been trained pretty well."