When San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon took over for ejected head coach Gregg Popovich last week, she became the first woman to coach an NBA team in a regular-season game.
Hammon, who is usually reticent on the topic, acknowledged the significance.
"Obviously, it's a big deal," Hammon told reporters after the game Dec. 30. "It's a substantial moment.”
There’s an even bigger moment looming: the day an NBA team hires a woman as its head coach.
“It’s right in front of us. It’s going to happen,” basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman, who was the first woman to coach a G League team, told USA TODAY Sports during an interview last year.
She’s not the only believer. Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, whose Raptors have women in key positions throughout the basketball staff, and Richard Lapchick, author of the detailed racial and gender report cards for sports leagues, also said it’s on the horizon.
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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon calls a play during a timeout in the second half against the Lakers. (Photo: Eric Gay, AP)
But how soon? A season? Two years? Five years? Hammon interviewed for the Indiana job after last season, but the Pacers hired Nate Bjorkgren.
“I would not be surprised if somebody isn’t hired for the next season,” Lapchick told USA TODAY Sports in July. “But I would certainly think that within a season, for sure.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in 2017 that it is on him to ensure that it happens sooner rather than later.
When asked what it will take for a team to hire a woman as head coach, Popovich gave a typical Popovich reply: “I’m not the answer man,” he said. “That depends on people and organizations.”
It is a thoughtful response.
“There’s no difference between a woman who knows the game and a man who knows the game,” Popovich said. “It’s just another prejudice that probably has to be overcome just like a lot of other prejudices in the world become less and less as people pay attention to them.
"It’s a process, and it doesn’t happen quickly but I think the more women there are, obviously it becomes more commonplace and more the rule and it’ll depend on organizations realizing there are women who can do this. Every woman can’t. Every man can’t.
“But the point is, there’s got to be enough to choose from and it’s got to become pretty commonplace before I think somebody’s going to pull the trigger.”
Six female assistant coaches in NBA
Hammon is one of six female NBA assistant coaches with Cleveland’s Lindsay Gottlieb, Sacramento’s Lindsey Harding, New Orleans’ Teresa Weatherspoon, Dallas Jenny Boucek and Memphis’ Sonia Raman. Los Angeles Clippers’ Natalie Nakase is listed as player development assistant and is working with franchise's G League team this season.
That marks a decline over last season’s number of women coaches. Niele Ivey and Kara Lawson left NBA jobs for top jobs with women’s teams. Lawson was an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, and Ivey an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies but both took over prominent women’s college basketball programs – Lawson at Duke and Ivey at Notre Dame.
Karen Stack Umlauf was not retained as a Chicago Bulls assistant when Billy Donovan replaced Jim Boylen, and Brittni Donaldson moved from an assistant coach with the Raptors to the franchise’s G League team. It's a strong possibility Donaldson returns to the Raptors when the pandemic subsides.
None of the new head coaches this season hired a women’s assistant coach, though New Orleans' Stan Van Gundy retained Weatherspoon.
Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon took over head coaching duties after Gregg Popovich was ejected Dec. 30. (Photo: Scott Wachter, USA TODAY Sports)
NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell noted the league in 2019 partnered with the National Basketball Coaches Association to create a deeper and more inclusive pool of coaching candidates.
Along with women, the league is looking at coaches who are people of color. In a league that is 74% Black, according to Lapchick’s most recent study, there were seven Black coaches at the start of the 2019-20 season. There are seven this season even though Nate McMillan and Doc Rivers were not retained. Rivers ended up in Philadelphia and Ty Lue took over for Rivers with the Clippers.
The league has avoided pushing teams to hire one candidate or another.
“The answer is ultimately yes to should the teams be able to hire who they want,” Silver said on Sept. 30. “I don't see a way to operate a league where the league office, the commissioner is dictating to a team who they should or shouldn't hire.
“Having said that, I know we can do better. … We're in discussions with all of those teams about making sure there's a diverse slate of candidates. We've looked at what might be an equivalent to a Rooney type rule in the NBA, and I'm not sure it makes sense. I'm open-minded if there are other ways to address it.”
The same approach applies to female coaches.
“We want it to happen organically, and when the right opportunity matches the right person, this will happen,” Spruell said. “We just feel we’re so well positioned. If it happens tomorrow or the next day or this season or a few seasons away, we’re really close. But we’re not putting a timetable on it."
'When she speaks we are all ears'
Just six years ago, Hammon was the only women’s assistant, and just three seasons ago, Hammon and Boucek were the only two. But teams see the value of hiring smart basketball minds regardless of gender, including the growing number of women in front-office roles.
“It’s something that it’s sad we have to talk about it,” Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re all coaches. The coaching position has no gender. I’ve been around ladies who have coached the game. I’m blown away at the concept that we even have to talk about what do we have to do to get them (a head-coaching gig). …
“I’m saddened and frustrated on one end because we have to talk about it. At the same time, I’m glad we are.”
When asked about the topic in July 2019 at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, Hammon said, “I’ve said it before, half the population has not been tapped for their basketball knowledge. It’s an untapped resource, and the more people can see how it works, the better.”
NBA players on a team with a woman’s assistant said they would have no problem with a female head coach. San Antonio guard DeMar DeRozan said, "When she speaks we are all ears."
Across social media, NBA players, including Steph Curry, Ja Morant and Andre Drummond, took note of Hammon coaching after Popovich's ejection.
“Becky’s in a spot now where she’s in a position of power,” Spurs guard Patty Mills told USA TODAY Sports. “She’s able to direct guys on what to do and that all comes from work ethic and what she does behind the scenes and getting herself and our team ready for games. She is an NBA coach who knows her (expletive) and gets it done.”
In a cutthroat business, teams hire coaches who can generate success.
“The players will know if you know something or not,” Lieberman said. “If you’re not qualified, you’re not going to be there.”
Lieberman also comprehends the pressure the first female head coach will face. “They’re going to be asked the same questions over and over,” she said. “Are you good enough? Why did you get hired? How come there’s not enough women in the NBA? Is there going to be jealousy? C’mon, are you kidding? Yes, there’s going to be jealousy.
“These jobs are really important, and there’s some amazing male coaches in the NBA. It’s important, yes, for equality and that next step to happen. But it’s also incumbent on us to know that we’re also competing against some very highly accomplished assistant coaches and NBA coaches. You don’t get jobs any longer in life (based) on resumes. You get them on relationships.”
That’s why Lieberman said it’s important for teams to hire more women’s assistant coaches. “A lot of these women have not built the relationships on a level that maybe our male counterparts have,” she said.
Experience can change that.
"Her knowledge of the game, the ins-and-outs of the game, is the reason why she’s in the position she is," Spurs guard Derrick White said. "It’s the reason why she will just keep growing and growing and eventually become a head coach."
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