DimeMag

Becky Hammon Was Made To Be Tough

By now you know it’s not possible to look cool on Zoom. We’ve accepted it, moved on. But then, here’s Becky Hammon, leaning back in her chair with an arm flung casually over its top and behind her. She is at once sedate and with a laser focus that is still inquisitively pinning off-court and nearly a continental landmass away. A smile pulls at the corner of her mouth. She is waiting for you to unmute yourself.

Hammon is the subject of two new pieces of creative work resting at opposite ends of the scale spectrum. One, a three-story mural by French-American artist Sebastien Boileau in San Antonio’s Lincoln Hills neighborhood, portrays a young Hammon looking up at her future self, the words “Never Stop” a bold banner over her head. The other, a minute-long short centered around the same motto, by 60 Second Docs. While both aim to showcase Hammon’s relentless drive and habitual resiliency, two qualities that you accept to be facts if you are peripherally aware of pro basketball, the six-time WNBA All-Star, one of the WNBA’s top-15 players of all time, Olympian, and assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs is still navigating a career marked largely by firsts.

She was the first female All-Star coach, first female Summer League coach, and has been fixed as a barrier-breaking mainstay in the oft-cyclical and increasingly tiresome conversation around NBA head coaching jobs since she was hired by the Spurs in 2014. Tiresome because as a conversation it has worn itself thin, so perennially stuck on the question of “when” that it has fallen behind its own intention of furthering the discourse or, to borrow a favorite term of Hammon’s, moving the needle. Every season that looms with this recurrent debate around Hammon’s capacity for head coaching now rhythmic to the league’s pre-season calendar as the Draft or free agency, and then starts without Hammon in a head coaching job, feels as rote as a fire drill, its purpose the preparedness instead of the event.

It is one thing to never stop knowing you are moving tangibly and steadily toward a goal, but when does it shift from progress to a method of self-preservation, a requirement of longevity not needed by your predominantly male peers? There is an inherent exhaustion in always being marked by firsts instead of the achievements gained from over two decades in pro basketball arenas, to be marked by the expectation of what you’re still, a little mythically, ordained to become instead of who you have made yourself into or the body of work you stand on.

“Obviously when you’re first there’s no blueprint for it, right? Over the course of my career I think I’ve encountered so many obstacles and let downs and no’s, that it’s kind of built resiliency in me. I think I was made to be tough,” Hammon says with a soft laugh, “and strong in my approach. Really, I think I’m an optimist, at the core of me. I’m always hopeful that there’s a better way.”

Cadillac

Hope, foresight, and courage are the other qualities that don’t often get named as commonalities to women’s professional paths in the NBA, or any professional men’s league. When there haven’t been people before you whose footsteps you can look for, you need to become adept at making your own way. Then, you must backtrack and start over when that way gets into the weeds. Hammon has, and she paints a lucid analogy of that process.

“I liken it to going through a rainforest and there’s no path, so you’re just kinda swingin’ your machete,” she says, swinging an invisible machete. “Trying to figure out which direction to go in next to move this, to move the pieces forward. Not only that, but to create a path for the next generation that will come behind me.”

As a woman navigating a non-linear path, a fan, or just as a person in this world, to think of Hammon guiding you through a morass of the unknown “taking nicks and bruises and scrapes trying to forge that path forward” with a machete is a comfort, and she acknowledges men in the league are navigating new territory, too, but generally, she thinks “people are over the optics of it.”

“They’re used to seeing me on the sidelines now,” she says. “If I miss a game it’s kind of like, ‘Where was Becky?’ We want to get to that normalcy, where it’s normal to see a woman out there … I think society conceptually can start to see this happen, they can see it in their minds, but until as society we’re moved in our hearts and we really believe it down in our gut, in our soul, the needle won’t move. We’re inching along. We need to be taking steps, instead of inching.”

The oscillation between lauding each move made by a person in Hammon’s position, keeping her firmly tethered to “firsts,” and normalizing successes so the work can speak for itself is essentially a tightrope walk. Tip too far in either direction and you quit making any progress at all. It’s why Hammon and other women in coaching positions in the NBA, like Hammon’s friend Jenny Boucek, have occasionally veered away from titles like “trailblazer.”

“The term trailblazer,” she shakes her head, “I’ll repeat what I’ve said in a thousand interviews, I try not to think about it. I understand the significance and the importance of it, but more important is my body of work.”

There’s an underlying sense of frustration Hammon acknowledges with where importance has skewed in favor of progressive terminology over occasionally very simple, actionable changes.

“I recently had a management person from the Spurs [ask], ‘What can we do to make it better?’” she recalled. “And I was like, take something as simple as a sign on a door in one of the arenas that we play in. It says, ‘Female Coach.’ I told our group that quite frankly it’s insulting. What if you put, ‘Black Coach,’ or ‘Straight Coach,’ or ‘Gay Coach,’ or ‘Short Coach,’ or ‘Tall Coach’?” She holds her hands like bookends to every absurd label, eventually dashing each to the side, before stating, “instead of ‘Coach.’ So, learn the names, or keep it simple and put coach. Because at the end of the day what I want you to see me as, yes I am a woman, but I want you to see me as a coach. And my body of work in the basketball arena.”

To be wary of titles, or to outright reject them on occasion, also makes sense when someone with the experience Hammon has, a basketball background many of her contemporaries would pale against, is continually asked to prove herself only to have that proof accompanied by a caveat.

“I want it to get to the point where we don’t have an asterisk next to our work as women. The bottom line is, I played sixteen years in the WNBA and there is an asterisk next to my name because it was not in the NBA,” Hammon says. “And so, the goal here is that a person’s journey is valued just as much as any other person’s journey. And to open up these conversations when we’re talking about equality, we’re far behind from what we practice and what we preach. What we practice is not there, what we preach is there, we got a lot of mouth service about equality. But to see true, meaningful change we as women are still pushing that envelope. That being said, I’m willing to push the envelope.”

What makes Hammon such a sharp and incisive basketball mind, at ease in an exacting a system as the Spurs, is her resolve as much as a kind of vacillating persistence. In not shying away from what is difficult but in fact veering harder toward it, when coaching, as much as when talking about coaching and the frustration in having the same conversations to facilitate progress, she is still never going to be the first person to quit.

Cadillac

“I don’t know if I’m the one to walk through and be the first female head coach of a major professional sports league or not, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a person that knocks and pushes [enough] for somebody else to walk through. But I’m in the fight, and I’m willing to fight for that opportunity and that push through.

“I think the hiring of women all across professional sports whether it be in football, baseball, women’s voices need to be heard. Bottom line is, half of the population’s minds have not been tapped,” she says firmly. “Their experiences have not been tapped. And I think there’s a real, not only need to tap this resource, but the symbolism of it for the next generation has a ripple effect and impact that I don’t think can be calculated.”

Pressing toward action and its potential conflict is not necessarily aggressive, only habitual when you are accustomed to gaining ground in this way again and again. You become your own best resource as much as replenisher of an internal energy reservoir. In a sport that is so much about readiness and timing, whether that means job opportunities or all of the correct, cosmic things aligning for a team to win a championship, staying power is its own skillset. For Hammon, it’s routine.

“Well that’s the goal of everyday, to be ready,” she says with a slight shrug. “When the time comes, when the opportunity comes, I will be ready to walk through that door to take on those challenges and with the understanding that I’m signing up for a lot more than winning basketball games. I’m signing up for a lot of criticism whether I do it all right or all wrong, it’s the nature of the job. And being that there is a lot of hidden misogyny, subtle misogyny that exists, not just in men’s minds but in women’s minds as well.”

Working alongside Gregg Popovich, whom she calls “arguably the greatest basketball mind of our generation,” Hammon says every day is prep observing and learning while bringing ideas to the floor and contributing as a “meaningful part of the program.” Whether you consider the Spurs a dynasty in decline or simply going through a period of necessary retooling, Hammon is familiar with all the veins running through it. The pockets that could give out, what might yet yield gold, her survey of the team’s shifting landscape is storied.

Whether she stays and earns the head coaching job she has worked for or moves on will be her decision. Hammon has as much staying power as she does determination to do things her own way. In 2008, when she wasn’t invited to U.S. Olympic tryouts, Hammon became a naturalized Russian citizen and went on to earn a bronze medal in Beijing. Amidst the fallout, Hammon was reprimanded for taking a road less traveled because it went through Russia. There was plenty of criticism in the form of jingoistic rhetoric, but then, when many athletes determined to make the Olympics would follow the same circuitous path, the road ceased to raise ire, became a highway. To presume Hammon has stopped making roads because she may now be waiting would be to forget the analogy she used about the machete.

Still, in the insular world of head coaching jobs in the NBA, bad fits marked by short stints or volatile team breakdowns happen. And while the men who go through these caustic circumstances typically come out unscathed, maybe even with a higher profile for it, Hammon, the marker of her being first again a mantle on her shoulders, risks not be given the same shrugging grace of circumstance.

To that end, and after so much time spent in preparation, when is it best to say no to an opportunity, even a held out for one?

“Katie, that has always been really easy for me cause I’ve had so many doors slammed in my face I’m pretty sure I know when I’m being told no.” She is deadpan but breaks into a laugh, “but my approach to being told no is just to look for a window. It’s not just about the pieces fitting, bottom line is you have to be the right person for the job. There’s also a side that you can’t take things personal. If you’re not a right fit, you’re not a right fit. The reasons why you may or may not be a right fit, that’s a different story.”

In basketball, as in life, we’ve gotten very good at assigning aspirational qualifiers when plain language would do. In basketball, players are never fearful, they get rattled, jittery, or off their game. In life, what we attribute to being relentless in drive or personality can be a precursor to deep psychological burnout. Hammon’s determination is genuine, she wouldn’t be twenty years and counting deep in a career as tested and subsequently durable otherwise. But there were times where, in order to keep going, she had to stop and regroup.

“Success is easy,” she says. “You’ll have successes. When I’ve learned the most, when I’ve had to redirect, are during the failures. Those are when you learn the most about yourself and how you respond. And I think when you’ve been hit, or you get knocked down, you’ve taken a step back or you’ve had a door shut in your face, there’s a skillset to being able to redirect, recalibrate, regroup. And that’s part of the reason we’re having this conversation, is that skillset right there, to be able to regroup and come up with innovative ideas and other routes. The door’s shut? Let’s go look for another door, let’s go look for a window. Because ultimately, like I said, I’m an optimist, I’m a dreamer, and I’ve fallen on my face before. I’ve failed, I’ve not made teams, I’ve been cut, but I’ve also had great successes.”

The thing about Becky Hammon is that she’s already there, and has been there for so long now that it’s the league in its performative language and the narratives we’re guilty of enforcing in our projections onto her, that need to quit or catch up. To stay ready is one thing but to be asked to maintain a steady state of almost is exhausting, impossible for most, but Hammon has persevered. When she talks about finding a better way we’re reminded that in her career she has, many times, and it’s been through.

Confessionally, at the end of our call, I tell her that I hope she kicks down every door from here on out. She leans back in her chair again and smiles, “I plan on wearing some steel toed boots, so we’re good.”

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