If you know Becky Hammon, one thing has always been clear: She would become a coach after she finished playing.
We all figured it would be for the Colorado State women's basketball program, her alma mater, the school she put on the map in the late 1990s with her sweet outside shot and clever ballhandling. In fact, there were even rumblings around Fort Collins back in the day that the CSU athletic department had made some sort of handshake, wink-wink deal with the dynamic local star: The moment you retire from playing, we'll have an open spot in the athletic department -- guaranteed.
The reason we all knew Hammon would become a coach is actually quite simple. She could see a play once and know all its options and offshoots, categorize them from most to least effective. And she could do this for every position on the court, instantly -- as if the X's and O's had been coded into her DNA. Most of the time, the team's coach approached Hammon for her insight -- rarely was it the other way around.
And then two weeks ago, after almost 16 seasons in the WNBA, the San Antonio Stars guard revealed her intention to retire at the end of this season. She didn't wait long to make her next move.
On Tuesday afternoon, all question marks about Hammon's post-playing days were answered, as the San Antonio Spurs announced they had hired her as an assistant coach. With that simple news release -- headline: Spurs Name Becky Hammon Assistant Coach -- a very high, very thick glass wall cracked.
A woman is coaching in the NBA.
The 37-year-old native of South Dakota becomes the first full-time female coach in the NBA -- and the first full-time female coach in any of the four major professional sports.
The NBA is a risk-averse place. In some ways, nobody was hiring a female coach because nobody had ever hired a female coach. Recently, the Los Angeles Clippers named Natalie Nakase an assistant coach for their summer league team, but that was a 10-day stint on the bench, not a full-time gig during the regular season. Realistically, the league had no model in place for hiring a female coach; a team needed to be the first, to prove it could work. And it makes sense that San Antonio, the reigning NBA champs, a franchise that has always marched very effectively to the beat of its own drum, has stepped forward and done just that.
The Spurs, as they're known to do, will create the model. "I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."
Popovich is right. He understands that NBA players want only one thing from a coach: someone who knows the game, and who can help them improve their own. And Popovich is spot-on about something else, too: Hammon's basketball IQ is off the charts.
My very first practice with the Colorado Chill, a semi-pro women's basketball team that folded in 2006, I was on the same team as Hammon during a scrimmage. (She played three seasons for the Chill, in a league that ran opposite the WNBA season.) Hammon had no clue who I was; I, of course, knew exactly who she was, as she'd just recently exploded with the New York Liberty, earning a spot in the 2003 WNBA All-Star Game after going undrafted out of Colorado State.
About three minutes into the scrimmage, during a break in play, Hammon walked over to me and said the following, pretty much verbatim: "So it seems like you're most effective as a spot-up shooter. Why don't you start on the wing and find the open space when I drive -- I'll get you the ball."
In that split second, I realized that she had scouted my game and processed exactly how I might be most effective and also exactly how she could take advantage of my strengths. Translation: In just a few minutes, she knew about as much about my game as I knew.
As a player, Hammon has never been particularly fast or quick -- she'd be the first to say the same. And yet her knowledge of the angles of the game -- the court seemed to appear to her like a backgammon board -- ensured you could never keep her from the basket. The harder you tried, the faster you went, the more she slowed down and exploited everything you thought you knew. Whatever way you were clearly leaning, or even thinking about leaning, she had already processed, and was already moving toward the open space.
In the coming days, people will talk about what it means that the NBA now has a female assistant coach. They'll wonder if the players will give respect to a woman, if they'll scoff at her advice because she's never played above the rim, if they'll dismiss her scouting report because she doesn't know what it really feels like to try to guard LeBron James.
These are the things that will be talked about by people who aren't in the gym with the Spurs. Because I'm sure the people in the gym with the Spurs know one thing, very clearly, and it's the same thing everyone who has ever been around Hammon knows.
She was always going to be a coach.
So why not start at the highest level?