Courtside Column: Becky Hammon is qualified to be an NBA coach — so why hasn't it happened yet?

The answer is simple — when it comes to sports, women have always been seen as the lesser option.

Hello, it’s been a minute since my last post! (And we all know that in basketball time, a minute seems like forever.)

The holidays were a whirlwind and there’s a lot happening in the world, but I’ve got some upcoming Courtside Q&A’s in the works that I’m excited to share with you.

I also have a Courtside announcement . . .

Now and again, I’ll be posting columns focusing on what’s happening in the WNBA or sharing my thoughts about basketball-related current events, issues, and/or players in the news cycle. It’s something I’ve been considering adding to the Courtside mix for a while now, and I think it will be a good compliment to the Q&A’s.

So, let’s get to the first official Courtside Column.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich got ejected from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in late December, he turned to assistant coach Becky Hammon and pointed at her. According to Hammon, he said, “You’ve got them.” When Hammon took over coaching responsibilities for the duration of the game, it gave everyone a glimpse of what could be.

I’ve always admired Hammon. Her road to the WNBA and legendary basketball status was not laid out on a red carpet. She wasn’t highly recruited going into college. She wasn’t even drafted in the WNBA. Despite the obstacles, she kept proving herself again and again. She grinded and worked and lifted her game to such heights, she became one of the best point guards in basketball history. 

And yet, after all that Hammon has accomplished, she’s still out on the court working just as hard, only this time as a coach. For the past seven years, Hammon has been an assistant on the Spurs, putting in the time and hours and dedication, still determined to prove she’s being underestimated, that those who doubt her will ultimately see that she’s fully capable of being the head coach of an NBA team—something no other woman has done before. 

Back when Hammon was playing her college basketball at Colorado State, I was in high school playing varsity. Our head coach was man. We didn’t think anything of it. Our parents didn’t think anything of it. The school and the community didn’t think anything of it, either. It was perfectly acceptable for a man to coach a group of young women, motivate them, ride the bus with them back and forth to away games, yell at them, hold them accountable, etc. It was also perfectly acceptable for our coach to be in the locker room before and after games. He’d knock and come right in. There was no awkwardness about it. 

He was our coach, we were his players. That was that.

Throughout the whole of women’s sports history, men have coached women’s sports teams from the elementary school level all the way up to the pros. They still do. And no one ever blinks an eye. But a woman coaching men? No way. Stop right there. It’s a bridge too far. 

Suddenly, gender comes into play.

MY GOD, a woman in a men’s locker room?! 

Young men won’t take a woman head coach seriously, they won’t respect her, they won’t listen to her. 

How will a woman properly discipline the players? 

The logic behind these reactions, of course, is based on stale beliefs and old stereotypes about women that don’t hold up anymore. (Spoiler: They were never true to begin with.) It has taken decades upon decades for women to wear them down, on and off the court. Still, women lag behind men when it comes to coaching at the high school, college and pro level. A diversity report by Forbes in 2019 revealed that women hold 40.8 percent of all college head coaching jobs (both men’s and women’s sports). And there are no women’s basketball coaches of men’s teams at the Division I level. 

On the pro level, Hammon is currently one of six assistant coaches in the NBA. Inroads are being made, yes, but the evolution feels slow and dated. 

A recent article in USA Today posed the question in the title: When will NBA hire a woman as a head coach? While the intention to open up an intelligent conversation around the matter is good, the article itself is asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of when. It’s a matter of why.

Why hasn’t it happened yet?

The answer is quite simple. Women have always been seen as the lesser option in sports—less talented, less aggressive, less skilled. And when it comes to coaching, the “less than” equivalents become women being less capable, not having enough knowledge or grasp of the game, and lacking leadership in the locker room. 

Hammon’s resume speaks for itself. She has more than enough NBA coaching experience under her belt, with a future Hall of Fame coach as her mentor. She had a legendary WNBA career and is one of the top 15 WNBA players of all time. She’s had international success and played in the Olympics. Hammon’s knowledge of the game is above and beyond many of her male counterparts. She is a proven leader. The qualifications are there, without a doubt. But until an NBA general manager or owner sets society’s preconceived notions about women and sports aside, Hammon won’t get the chance she deserves and has worked so hard for. Less qualified male candidates will continue to get their opportunities. The NBA coaching carousel will continue to turn.

Maybe one day, they’ll let Hammon hop on as more than just a substitute when Pop loses his cool and gets ejected. Maybe she’ll get a real shot. When that happens, the spotlight will be cranked up even higher and the scrutiny that much more intense. Anytime a gender barrier is broken in sports, that’s what happens.

Legendary basketball analyst Doris Burke once told me she felt she had to be perfect 100 percent of the time when she called NBA games (and was the first woman to do so) because if she messed up even once, one single mistake might ruin the chances for all of the women coming down the path behind her. Imagine heading into your first NBA coaching job with that kind of pressure on your shoulders along with the expectations that go hand-in-hand with coaching an NBA franchise? For some, it might be too much. But for Hammon, it’s just another chance to prove people wrong. 

I don’t know when or where Hammon will get an opportunity, but I do know this. As she heads into a locker room for the first time as an NBA head coach, it will be because she’s the best person for the job. 

And I hope she doesn’t even bother to knock. 

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