Picking one word to describe anyone is hard, picking one to describe Becky Hammon is next to impossible, but the closest has to be expansive. Like staring out at a horizon ringed with heat-hazed hills, clouds boiling with weather rolling in from one direction and blue skies stretching out in the other. Expansive, as in something active, acute, and promising in every direction.
Hammon, who is coming off her 7th season as assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and out of one of the more public head coaching searches, put on by the Portland Trail Blazers, is also a longtime champion of her athletic alma matter, the WNBA. As a 6-time All-Star who still might be better known for her perennial cool and incisive presence at the sideline of NBA games, Hammon also has a keen understanding of visibility, and where it tends to count more.
The WNBA’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup Championship game, a matchup featuring two of the league’s best in the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun, airs via Amazon Prime Video in a first of its kind exclusive on August 12th. The Cup, a new in-season tournament created to raise interest in the WNBA throughout it’s regular season, will allow anyone with a Prime membership to stream the game and is another example of the WNBA’s comfort in experimenting for the sake of getting the game in front of new audiences.
“For the WNBA to be on a platform like Prime Video is a big deal,” Hammon says over the phone. “And I think the visibility of the game has a lot to do with the growth and the popularity of the game.”
It’s on the note of the Commissioner’s Cup that the conversation shifts to women’s accolades, specifically, a recent thread of all the titles Sue Bird has collected in one of the most storied careers in all of pro-sports. There are 39, and probably counting if you take into account Bird’s still accelerating career, but the surprising (and not so surprising) thing was how many people seemed to have no idea the extend of Bird’s achievements. Hammon, who often talks about moving the needle when it comes to recognition of women’s accomplishments in and outside of sports, chooses to look at it from a perspective of progress.
“The fact that people are talking about it, the fact that we’re having conversations is a positive. And the fact that it’s started to become visible to people to appreciate it more and not just from men, but other women, appreciating what these women have been doing for years and years,” Hammon says, adding, “Outside of sports, I mean they’re CEOs, they’re COO, they’re leading surgical teams, they’re leading platoons.”
From where she’s looking at it the needle is moving, because women are often the ones recognizing and holding up the successes of other women. Her own success, namely in gaining increasing notoriety for her name being tied to head coaching openings across the NBA, sits on the same double-edged sword of being one of the most qualified and accomplished professionals in the league whose qualifications tend to be viewed as less directly applicable, because her being hired as a head coach will inevitably become a heightened and scrutinized first rather than what it would be: the best person being hired for the job.
When Hammon’s name was floated by the Blazers as being in consideration for their new head coach, and was uttered again by Neil Olshey at Chauncy Billups’s introductory press conference in a kind of patronizing “thanks for coming out”, the message seemed anything but hopeful. But for Hammon, it was a step forward in the same race she’s been in her whole life and one she recently said she’s felt a step behind in since it started.
Asked how, or if she’s grown comfortable with that proverbial starting line being set behind the people she’s gone up against, and Hammon chuckles.
“Well, it is what it is, right? To sit there and say, ‘I have been behind in basically every race I’ve ever gotten into,’ it’s not that you ever get used to it,” she says. “I never like it.”
She acknowledges that it’s precisely that feeling that has built up a resiliency and toughness in her over the years, essentially since childhood.
“It adds a certain element of just a challenge, which I thoroughly enjoy. And I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change it because,” she pauses, “the lessons that I’ve learned throughout these races or successes or failures, or however you want to frame it, has made me, me, and has put me in a position now where, you know, I’m sitting in front of Jody Allen, like I’m not complaining about the starting point. I’ll get in every race and do my best and whatever happens, happens. But to me, the real failure is not trying, not ever getting in the race.”
The race for head coaching jobs in the NBA can also feel like a perpetually cyclical and insular one, with front offices of teams adjusting the lanes to better fit someone it often seems they already have in mind. So much has been made of what a team wants, and whether Hammon fits that, but what is it that she would want, ultimately, at the end of that race?
“Support from the organization, support from the community. You’ve got to build a culture where people enable other people to be great. And you help that by everybody jumping in and helping wherever you can help,” she says, on what it is she wants out of the role of head coach. “I’m somebody who’s leadership style is very relationship oriented in the sense that, I want to know the guy’s stories. I want to spend time with them. I want to get to know them as people, because I want to coach the whole person.”
To Hammon, the role of head coach, the way that she sees it, has to go way beyond the floor. There is a responsibility that comes in being a driving force in the lives of the players she’d be coaching, specifically when it comes to their mental health.
“I don’t want to just coach the athlete. I think that’s one thing that professional sports in general, and we’re starting to call more attention to it, but the mental health stuff we do, we go to great extremes to take care of these guys’ bodies,” Hammon says. “And the most important thing gets neglected and that’s their mind and their emotions and their experiences.”
Hammon was at the Spurs Summer League team’s first game this week, watching from the stands instead of stalking up and down the sideline as she has since her first Summer League head coaching stint in 2015. The last time she coached in Vegas, pre-pandemic, she notes that “Pop really didn’t want me to do it” — “He actually has not wanted me to coach it for the last few years”, she laughs — and that while it’s a growth opportunity for younger coaches to develop, it still holds a prominent part in her heart for the talent, energy and opportunities that it represents for so many hopeful players.
“The hunger of these young players, and guys that are trying to get into the league, there’s just such a purity of competitiveness and try-hard factor that is just really enjoyable to watch that I think Summer League really brings out in guys. I think you feel it when you watch,” Hammon says. “You got a bunch of guys that are really battling for their dream. Their dream’s in the balance, teeter-tottering. And their try-hard factor, and their care factor, really exudes during these games.”
It’s that energy that she circles back to in talking about what she wants out of a head coaching job, because Hammon’s expansiveness comes from a well of determination and doggedness, over anything else.
“We have all these analytics about numbers and areas of the floor, but if there was an analytical test to tell me your competitiveness, your resiliency, your ability to handle stress and pressure, to block out outside noise, to focus, to compete on a night in and night out basis — those are really the markers that I’m really interested in as a coach,” Hammon says.
“Going into these interviews, you asked me what I want?” She says quickly, her voice gaining momentum in its surety. “I want competitors. Because I know you’re going to compete wherever you might be on a Monday night in the NBA on game 64, where nobody’s paying attention, competitors go in and do their job because that’s who they are. That’s how they’re wired.”
She knows, because she’s wired the same. It’s less a super power than it is a brutal kind of honesty, to take failure and disappointment and convert it into perspective, and the team she’d be standing in front of, and ultimately behind, has to have that same transformative skill.