Becky Hammon, a standout player in college and the WNBA for nearly two decades, has been hired by the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, making her just the second woman to serve on a coaching staff in the NBA.
Hammon’s transition to the coaching staff marks a potentially historic moment in professional sports in the United States. None of the four major sports leagues — Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League, in addition to the NBA — currently feature any women as players or coaches, and only the NBA employs women as referees.
But female athletes and executives are making gradual inroads into the professional sports arenas traditionally dominated by men. Women have been advancing through the college football (and NFL) officiating ranks in recent years.
The Big XII, one of college football’s “Power Five” conferences, announced earlier this year that Catherine “Cat” Conti would be Division I football’s first on-field official beginning in the 2014 season, and in April, nine-year-old Kelly Xu became the first female to ever win a championship at the famed Augusta National golf course, where women weren’t even allowed to be members until 2012. The NBA itself has been particularly proactive in finding and hiring talented women: the NBA Players Association just made Michele Roberts the first woman to lead a major sport’s union, and the league earned a B+ grade from the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sport in their annual report card on professional sports teams’ commitment to racial and gender diversity in hiring.
Hammon parlayed a successful collegiate career at Colorado State University into a 16-year WNBA career that began with the New York Liberty. She was traded to the San Antonio Stars before the 2007 season and has set numerous franchise records in her eight seasons in San Antonio, including career assists (1,112) and career three-pointers made (493). In 2011, she was named one of the 15 best WNBA players of all time.
Though she won’t be the first woman to serve as a coach in the NBA — Lisa Boyer spent a season on the coaching staff of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 2000s — the ripples made by Hammon’s entrance into the pros will likely stretch further because of the team that hired her. The San Antonio Spurs are perhaps the most highly regarded franchise in the NBA, in part due to their historic record of success but also because of their forward-thinking front office, which has introduced any number of innovations to the entire league. Future Hall of Fame Head Coach Gregg Popovich was the first coach to exploit the advantage of corner three pointers, a shot that is now routine across all 32 teams in the NBA, and the Spurs have been at the forefront of the NBA’s outreach to the nation’s growing Latino population. It doesn’t take much imagination to see other NBA teams looking at the Spurs’ newest hire as an opportunity to reach out to any number of talented, basketball-smart women to fill similar positions around the league.