<
>

Hammon breaks ground as first female head coach at NBA summer league

LAS VEGAS -- Yes, it's appropriate to pause amid the accomplishments of Serena Williams and the U.S. women's national soccer team to celebrate women coaching in the NBA's summer league. No, it's not a continuation of the same old sexism to equate the grandest stages of women's sports to a lower-level competition just because the summer league involves men.

The ground Becky Hammon broke Saturday by becoming the first female head coach of an NBA summer league team, along with the pioneering assistant coaching jobs for Nancy Lieberman and Lindsey Harding, should be just as inspirational as the athletic feats of Williams and the World Cup champs. In this case, it's noteworthy because it isn't an athletic feat. It's noteworthy because it has nothing to do with their bodies at all.

"I just think it's important [for] society that women be rewarded for their brains just as much as any guy," Hammon said after coaching the San Antonio Spurs in a 78-73 loss to the New York Knicks' summer league entry.

"To me, it's always about bigger picture. We want to make sure that when your wife or your daughter goes in for a job interview, she gets the same opportunity that a guy gets. I think that's the bigger picture, that's the bigger goal. Whether it's basketball or in the army or in CEOs or in operating rooms, we want women there."

"We want to make sure that when your wife or your daughter goes in for a job interview, she gets the same opportunity that a guy gets. I think that's the bigger picture, that's the bigger goal. Whether it's basketball or in the army or in CEOs or in operating rooms, we want women there."

Becky Hammon

They just want a chance. In her first chance, Hammon gave the Spurs a chance. That's a coach's job, right? Help put the team in position to win.

Technically, it was the second chance in her first chance, as the Spurs were too sloppy to get into the play Hammon drew up in a last-minute timeout, so she called another timeout. When they took the floor again, down by three points, the Spurs used ball movement to get an open 3-pointer by Jarell Eddie that missed -- good scheme, poor execution.

"I'm learning," Hammon said. "Do I want it go down to the wire every game? No because it's freaking stressful."

She didn't sound as stressed about her first season as an assistant coach with the Spurs. It wound up making news only for the right reasons. After the novelty of seeing high heels in the coaches' huddle wore off, the Hammon-as-assistant-coach story stopped being a story, which was the way Gregg Popovich and the Spurs wanted it.

"I've spent this last year learning in the greatest learning space possible for a coach," Hammon said. "It's as if Henry Ford came back to somebody and said, 'Hey, let me teach you how to make cars.' Anybody who doesn't jump on that opportunity would be crazy."

The Spurs, with their mature, worldly roster, provided the ideal environment. It was a far cry from the greeting Lieberman received as a 12-year-old girl, when she went to play with the guys at New York's Rucker Park. They asked if she knew where she was. She asked if they knew where they were. They liked her attitude. They came to respect her game.

Lieberman went on to be a Hall of Fame player. She has remained influential as a broadcaster and a coach in the NBA's D-League, among other places. She is with the Sacramento Kings staff at summer league this week (Harding is with the Raptors).

"At this stage, for me to have an opportunity to be on the bench and have gear," Lieberman said while tugging on her Sacramento Kings shirt. "It sounds childish and insignificant. It's very significant."

Lieberman knows everything that went into her wearing that shirt. She knows it takes men who are willing to think differently enough to hire them and women who are up to the challenge.

"We're humble but confident," Lieberman said. "If we shouldn't be here, we wouldn't."

Eventually women will erase thoughts they shouldn't be there. Michele Roberts is the first woman to run a men's pro league union. Sarah Thomas will become the NFL's first female full-time official this season.

Everything remains in the first stage for now, so it's important to remember that's the growth stage -- just like Hammon's do-over timeout.

"I'm learning all sorts of things," Hammon said. "Not just X's and O's. I feel like I'm just a flower that's getting great roots but far from blooming."

An NBA coach making a self-comparison to a flower? That's different. Diversity brings many unexpected benefits.