- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Perhaps it seemed out of the blue on a Tuesday afternoon in early August that the San Antonio Spurs would make sports history.
But history has been building for months now.
Becky Hammon isn't just going to appear on San Antonio's bench out of nowhere come fall. She isn't going to have to introduce herself to the Spurs players or spend a lot of time and energy getting acquainted with coach Gregg Popovich and his staff.
Hammon is already more to this franchise than the star women's player on its sister WNBA team. She has been part of the family for months, a presence long before she became a pioneer when Popovich hired her to become the first full-time female assistant coach in league history.
"They've been observing me for the last eight years," said Hammon, a six-time WNBA All-Star. "How I play, how I communicate, how I interact with teammates and fans and the community. It's never been about a woman thing. It's, 'Hey, she's got a great basketball mind, and we think she'd be a great addition.'"
But timing certainly has played into this unprecedented opportunity.
Hammon, 37, didn't go overseas this season. She stayed in the United States to rehabilitate after surgery to repair a torn knee ligament that ended her 2013 WNBA season after just one game.
She talked to Stars coach Dan Hughes about her desire to coach after her career was over and asked Hughes if he could put in a word for her with Popovich. Initially, Hammon said she just wanted to "peek my head in" on a few Spurs practices.
"It kind of snowballed from there," Hammon said. "Pop said, 'Yeah, come on over. I would love to show you the ropes.'"
Hammond's "internship," as she called it, included sitting in on coaches meetings and film sessions. She went to practice, directed drills and worked with players. Hammon, who was traded from New York to San Antonio prior to the 2007 WNBA season, has long been friends with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the latter joking during practice at one point that it's Hammon who is actually in charge.
"Everybody knows her and respects her," Spurs forward Danny Green said in an NBA-produced video last spring.
During games, Hammon sat behind the Spurs bench taking it all in. She immersed herself in the X's and O's, the details that are her passion. She relished the conversations with the coaches, the dialogue and the options.
"It was the filming and the scouting and the defensive game plans," Hammon said. "We would analyze what they do great, how they could combat with X, Y and Z. It's the part of the game I've always loved. I have a very cerebral approach to basketball."
Popovich, in an interview in the spring, said Hammon fit right in with his team.
"She's been perfect," the Spurs coach said in the NBA feature. "She knows when to talk and when to shut up. That's as simple as you can put it, and a lot of people don't figure that out.
"She's right in the middle and she knows how to do it, and our players really respond to her."
He compared Hammon to the likes of Avery Johnson and Steve Kerr, heady guards during their playing days who are now NBA head coaches.
"She talks the game. She understands the game," he said.
Hammon, who will retire at the end of this season to cap a 16-year WNBA career, said she always felt like she has had "a little coaching in me."
"I'm a point guard," Hammon said. "I've spent a tremendous amount of time in film sessions and game planning. I'm comfortable with my basketball IQ, and I think coaching comes naturally to me. This is obviously a huge opportunity, but it's basketball and I'm very confident in that area.
"I have a lot to learn. I'm not coming in here thinking otherwise. I'm here to be a part of the team, to help the guys in any way I can and really just serve these guys and get the best out of them. Because when it comes down to it, it's about those guys."
For now, it's more than a little about Hammon.
The girl who grew up as a gym rat, asking her father when she was young whether she would ever play in the NBA (he gently told her no), the young woman who went from an undrafted free agent with the New York Liberty to one of the most accomplished players in WNBA history, has inspired the confidence of one of the league's most progressive, innovative and successful head coaches.
"Pop told me, 'As cool as it would be to hire you, you have to be qualified and I have to make sure you are qualified,'" Hammon said. "And I think that's the best way to go about it. It could be very catastrophic if I wasn't and then it sets the whole thing back."
It began with her WNBA coach Dan Hughes putting in a good word with Gregg Popovich -- perhaps Becky Hammon could peek her head into a few Spurs practices, he wondered. A year later, Hammon is a groundbreaking sports coach. How did that happen?