Becky Hammon Becomes First Woman to Serve as Head Coach in N.B.A. Game

She took over coaching the San Antonio Spurs after Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.

Though 2020 is nearly over, it keeps turning out sports milestones. On Wednesday night, for the first time, a woman served as head coach in an N.B.A. game.

When Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was ejected after arguing with a referee in the second quarter of a game with the Los Angeles Lakers in San Antonio, he turned to Becky Hammon, one of his assistant coaches, and indicated that she should take over the team.

Of course, in typical Popovich fashion, it was a passing of the torch without fanfare.

“He officially pointed at me,” Hammon said. “That was it. Said, ‘You’ve got them.’ Obviously, it’s a big deal. It’s a substantial moment.”

Hammon joined Popovich’s staff in 2014 and is one of six women who hold an assistant coaching role in the N.B.A. this season — after a record 11 last season. She previously served as the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team and had taken over for Popovich in a preseason game in October 2017, but Wednesday marked the first time she moved into the hot seat for a regular-season game.

“It was business as usual,’’ Hammon said. “They’re used to hearing my voice in practice. In practice, Pop will put us in two teams and we’ll each have a team. So they’re kind of used to hearing me out there, seeing me draw a play on the board or whatnot.”

San Antonio’s 121-107 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers will officially go on Popovich’s record, because N.B.A. bookkeeping rules dictate that all results belong to the team’s listed head coach rather than any replacements. Hammon’s milestone nonetheless generated an outpouring of reaction after the game.

“It’s a beautiful thing just to hear her barking out calls, barking out sets,” said LeBron James of the Lakers. “She’s very passionate about the game. So congrats to her, congrats to our league.”

Hammon was promoted to the front of the Spurs’ bench entering the 2018-19 season and last season became the senior assistant among the three coaches who sit beside Popovich every game. But in two similar situations last season, after Popovich was ejected from a game against Portland in November 2019 and then missed a game against Charlotte in March entirely, the coach chose his former franchise player, Tim Duncan, to be the stand-in.

Asked why he didn’t choose Hammon over Duncan after getting ejected during the Portland game, Popovich said: “I’m not here to make history.”

History, however, didn’t wait long. Duncan’s coaching career lasted only one season after he chose to leave the staff in November to return to family life. Hammon’s fellow assistants on the bench are Will Hardy, who also works an assistant under Popovich in his USA Basketball head coaching role, and the newly promoted Mitch Johnson.

Hammon, 43, was undrafted out of Colorado State but played for 16 years in the W.N.B.A., where she was a six-time All-Star. After being passed over for the United States Olympic team, she represented Russia, where she had also played professionally, in the 2008 and 2012 Games.

On her flight home from the 2012 London Games, Hammon’s seatmate was Popovich. She recalled that he asked her, “So if you were an assistant for me and I asked you something, you’d tell me the truth?”

She replied, “I don’t know why else you’d ask if you didn’t want me to tell the truth.” He answered, “Good, I don’t want a bunch of yes men.”

In 2013, Hammon tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, abruptly ending her W.N.B.A. season. While she was in rehabilitation, she served as a coaching intern with the Spurs. Soon after, Popovich hired her as the first full-time female assistant coach in the league.

At the time, she said of Popovich: “Honestly, I don’t think he gives two cents that I’m a woman. And I don’t want to be hired because I’m a woman.” She was head coach of the Spurs’ Las Vegas Summer League team three times, winning the title in 2015.

There were other milestones for women in sports this year.

In November, Sarah Fuller of Vanderbilt became the first woman to play and score in a regular-season game in one of college football’s Power 5 conferences when she kicked for the team. Kim Ng became the first woman hired to run a major league team’s baseball operations when she was named general manager of the Miami Marlins. In an exhibition game in July, Alyssa Nakken of the San Francisco Giants became the first woman to coach on the field in the major leagues.

Hammon’s trailblazing in the league has prompted speculation that she will one day be a head coach, and she has been reported to be a candidate for several top jobs in the past, most recently the Indiana Pacers.

“The future is bright for her,” said Dejounte Murray of the Spurs after the game. “I hope she just sticks to it and doesn’t give up. One day it may happen, it may not happen, who knows, but she’s definitely on the right road.”

Hammon sought to keep the focus on her duties.

“I’m just in the moment with the guys,” she said. “Trying to figure out what’s the best way to help them.”

Rudy Gay, the veteran San Antonio forward, insisted Thursday that the Spurs don’t get caught up in Hammon’s status as a pioneer.

“I look forward to the day where none of this is news, just people accomplishing things and everybody having a chance and everybody having a shot at the same thing,” Gay said.

Article credit: The New York Times (By Victor Mather and Marc Stein)

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