- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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TULSA, Okla. -- Becky Hammon sat in the locker room this past Friday at the BOK Center, her eyes glancing over periodically to take in a video of her imminent opponent. She was less than a week out from the London Games, but a very long way from London itself.
She really didn't have to be here, right? Her San Antonio team, on a nine-in-a-row roll going into the Olympic break, started the second half of the WNBA schedule on the road against two teams that hadn't won even eight games combined this season.
Who would have criticized Hammon if she had taken a little time returning and recovering from the Summer Olympics? A deep Silver Stars team could handle Tulsa and Phoenix without her, couldn't it?
"I need to come in and be dependable," Hammon said. "It didn't even cross my mind to miss a game."
That statement and her subsequent 15-point, eight-assist performance that night in an 89-79 victory over the Shock could be an appropriately representative freeze-frame of Hammon's entire career. When your veteran still feels she has to prove her dependability in her 14th season in the league, it's easy for San Antonio's youngsters to glean what it means to be a true professional.
"Becky has such a great presence," Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes said. "She came back into practice on Wednesday, and I told her, 'Do what you can. Just having you with us helps.' And she did everything tonight.
"She has such a nice understanding of what we do -- and her own game -- that she instantly blends in. I know how hard that is when you've been away like that. She's pretty remarkable in that."
Hammon was sharp again Sunday, with 19 points and three assists, as San Antonio steamrolled Phoenix 89-47 for the team's 11th consecutive victory. Back in San Antonio on Tuesday, the Silver Stars face their next victim, er, opponent: Washington, the Eastern Conference's last-place team.
It has been a really nice summer for Hammon, who played in her second Olympics with Russia and has helped her 15-5 Silver Stars to be in the thick of the Western Conference race with defending champion Minnesota (17-4) and Los Angeles (16-6).
Like Hughes, Hammon attributes San Antonio's success to how well the team's interchangeable parts all play together.
"Chemistry is a tricky thing -- it's very hard to get," Hammon said with a knowing smile that suggests she's instantly cataloguing in her mind the teams she has been on that had it and those that didn't.
"To have the pieces fit, the right personalities. There are teams in the league over the years where I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, if you just look at their roster, they're amazing.' But they don't have that chemistry. At the end of the day, this is a team game."
And Hammon is a team player. She was just as eager to rebond with the Silver Stars as they were to see her back. And even though her Olympic experience ended without a medal this time -- Russia lost the bronze-medal game to Australia -- she had a better time at these Olympics than she did four years ago in Beijing.
"There was a lot of energy; London is a great location because all of Europe can get there easily," Hammon said. "It was one big party for the fans; they were having a great time. Tickets were hard to come by for anything. That was the worst part. But the Brits were great to all the teams at all the venues.
"And, for me, it was more enjoyable on a personal level just because I wasn't answering questions every day [about playing for Russia]. I've been in two Olympics and the world championships, European championships. It's kind of old news."
Sure, Hammon is still taking some heat from some folks for representing Russia. But considering how many other athletes/coaches nowadays are competing internationally for countries they weren't actually born in, Hammon's situation is not all that uncommon.
She was a little irritated when she heard that a television commentator had remarked that Hammon "didn't understand a word" of Russian but still figured out how to communicate with her coaches and teammates.
"It's not true at all. I don't even know where they came up with that," Hammon said. "I understand most of it. But I guess that's not an interesting story.
"The truth is, I was calling the plays in Russian so the other teams couldn't understand them. Sometimes my teammates will help me to reinforce something and repeat it in English, but I understand almost everything that's said."
And when it comes to being back with the Silver Stars, especially with longtime teammate Sophia Young, not much needs to be said. They understand each other almost instinctively now.
"A month off isn't anything because we've been playing together the whole season. And, for some of us, a lot longer than that," Young said of how seamlessly it appears the Silver Stars have regrouped after the break. "Becky and I have been playing together for almost six years. Plus, she was competing overseas, so she was still in playing rhythm. But, that said, I thought she did a phenomenal job coming back."
Still, Hammon turned 35 in March, so trans-Atlantic flights and quick turnarounds are not the easiest things on the body or mind.
"I know the older you get, the harder it gets," she said. "You've just got to flip the switch and get your mind in a different direction. I had to do that going to the Olympics: I'm looking at the playbook on the plane and trying to wrap my mind around what they're doing. Then coming back, you throw out those plays and remember a whole new playbook."
The Silver Stars have plays to incorporate every strength of their team. Such as Young's reliability inside even though, at 6 feet, 1 inch, she's not that big. And Hammon's perimeter shooting and patented drives to the rim. They are San Antonio's top scorers with almost identical production: Young is averaging 16.4 points and Hammon 16.3. Then there's point guard Danielle Robinson's speed to the basket and improved game management.
"When I first came in here, Becky and Tully [Bevilaqua] took me under their wings," said Robinson, who is averaging 8.6 points and 4.3 assists. "They said, 'This is what you've got to do. We're vets, but this is your position, so you've got to take that leadership role.' It's helped a lot to have them; it makes it so much easier."
There's Jia Perkins' nearly unstoppable pull-up jumper; she's averaging 11.8 points. Danielle Adams (11.4 ppg) has strength down low and the ability to hit from the outside.
There's Shameka Christon's resurgence after missing last season with an injury, Jayne Appel's presence inside facilitating the offense with her passing and screen-setting, and rookie guard Shenise Johnson being able to contribute off the bench.
It's all working right now for the Silver Stars, who play at Los Angeles on Thursday. Tulsa visits Saturday -- the way the schedule works out, San Antonio still has three games left against the Shock -- and then the Silver Stars go to Minnesota next Tuesday.
"We never talk about it," Hughes said of the winning streak San Antonio is on. "People ask us about it, though. I think our ability to put a team on the court in the fourth quarter that is not worn out -- we've been able to play a lot of players -- is important. And we can give teams different looks in the fourth quarter."
Hammon is savoring this team and the season the Silver Stars are having so far. The West likely will be a battle until the end. So of course Hammon didn't tarry on her way back from London. She didn't want to miss any of this.
"It's about who's hitting their stride at the right time," Hammon said. "For us, we want to stay focused on us and take it game by game. Actually, sometimes it's quarter by quarter. I don't know how it's going to finish up, but I know we'll be in the hunt."
19dBonnie D. Ford