Don't ever underestimate Becky Hammon
The big basketball schools didn't want Becky Hammon. Neither did the WNBA or USA Basketball.
So Hammon did what had become second nature. She put her head down and played ball.
At first it was to prove people wrong. Then it was to prove she was right where she belonged.
In July, Hammon was named one of the WNBA's top 15 players in the league's 15-year history. It capped a remarkable journey that took her from unsung high school recruit to undrafted rookie pro to league star.
Hammon's rise is one of the best stories in the WNBA's short history. Combine "The Little Engine That Could" with "Rudy," add some "Rocky," and you've got Becky Hammon.
That's why when the San Antonio Silver Stars guard found she was honored among the top 15 (voted on by current players and coaches, media and fans), her reaction differed from, say, Lisa Leslie's.
"Here I am 13 years later named one of the 15 greatest," Hammon said. "Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?"
Hammon, a native of Rapid City, S.D., was named South Dakota's Miss Basketball in high school. Little known outside the state, she was recruited by mostly mid-major schools before signing with Colorado State. She became the school's first All-American women's basketball player during her senior season in 1998-99, when she led CSU to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Hammon, who stands 5-foot-6, also was named winner of the Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award, given to the nation's best player under 5-8.
But no team picked her in the 1999 WNBA draft. She was signed as a free agent by the league and assigned to New York, a long shot just trying to make the Liberty's roster. The team had established stars, including Olympic gold medalist Teresa Weatherspoon and Vickie Johnson.
"At that point I was naïve enough to think that I could actually make the team," Hammon said. "I didn't realize that basically 99 percent of the team was already set. I didn't realize how things worked."
Her first days of practice were brutal. Small even by guard standards, Hammon stood inches shorter and weighed 20 to 30 pounds less than most in her position. Weatherspoon and Johnson initiated Hammon by elbowing, pushing, holding and even throwing her.
Once, on a fast break, someone took Hammon's legs out. With no time to get her hands up, she hit the floor face-first. "My whole face was bruised," she said. "It eventually turned a greenish color."
Hammon remembers those early days well. So does Johnson.
"We kept hitting her, to see if she's tough enough to help us win a championship," said Johnson, now an assistant coach with Hammon's Silver Stars, the West's No. 4 seed which opens the playoffs at No. 1 Minnesota on Friday. "We kept hitting her and she kept getting up. I was like, 'Hey, I don't know this little girl's name or where she's from, but that little white girl, she's tough, I love her.'"
"It was kind of like a test, to see what I was made of," Hammon said. "I kept my mouth shut and tried to play ball."
Hammon won over coach Richie Adubato, the team and eventually the tough New York crowd.
"She outworked the draft picks," Johnson said.
Adubato kept three point guards that year. After Weatherspoon's retirement in 2004, Hammon won the starting job. She became a fan favorite in New York and in San Antonio, where she was traded three years later.
"It's her persona," said Seattle's Katie Smith, the 5-11 shooting guard and women's pro career scoring leader who joined Hammon on the top-15 team. "She's real down-to-earth, got a little smile, the girl next door. She's itty-bitty. ... She's very open and just willing to talk to anybody, willing to sign anything. She's approachable. That's what the league is. That's what we're known for.
"[She's] a success story you never thought. An underdog story. People always love that."
Hammon and Johnson eventually became friends and remain so to this day, through Johnson's retirement from the WNBA and her hiring this season as a Silver Stars assistant coach.
The team struggled in the season's second half, losing 10 of 12 games in one stretch and finding itself in a duel with L.A. for the fourth and final playoff slot in the Western Conference. San Antonio beat the Sparks 82-65 in the last week of the season to clinch the berth. Hammon scored 37 points, 17 in the fourth quarter.
Hammon has found herself a long shot to make the U.S. Olympic team, with guards like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi around. She decided to find another way to the Games in 2008, creating a stir when she obtained her Russian citizenship. She led her adopted team to Olympic bronze, losing to Australia in the semifinals before beating China.
"I got called all sorts of names," Hammon said.
Some labeled her a traitor. WNBA and U.S. Olympic coach Anne Donovan called her unpatriotic.
Hammon, who said she would "definitely be open" to playing again for Russia in 2012, dismissed the controversy. She pointed to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and said basketball players can be influential to a point but shouldn't be included in talk about patriotism.
"When I think of patriots, it's our firemen, it's our policemen, it's our military," she said. "I can't put myself in the same sentence as patriots like that. To me, that's what America stands for."
This season in San Antonio, Hammon took rookie Danielle Adams under her wing. Adams led Texas A&M to the 2011 NCAA title and was named a WNBA All-Star reserve this summer, leading rookies in scoring despite questions about her weight and conditioning.
In the WNBA draft, Adams was not picked until the second round, 20th overall, the last high-profile player to go. It was a familiar tale for Hammon, who never got picked at all.
"We do have somewhat of a similar story of people just underestimating you, people thinking you don't look like you should be good,'' Hammon said. "People insult you, or don't believe in you.
"You can either let them be right or you can let that motivate you to become better. For me, I think I had a chip on my shoulder my first two years. I don't anymore. I feel like I can just go out there and play. I don't need to prove anything anymore. Thirteen years is proof enough."