Eric Walden on the NBA: Becky Hammon’s historic turn coaching the Spurs should be a beginning, not an end

There are women all over the league serving in key staff positions, but too many examples of pure sexism still exist.

(Kevin C. Cox | Pool Photo via AP) San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon talks with Quinndary Weatherspoon (15) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

In early January, a report in The Athletic about the chemistry issues that ultimately doomed what was supposed to be a 2020 championship run by the Clippers led off with an anecdote about how Kawhi Leonard’s demand that the team training staff create a private space for his pregame workouts often led to commandeering the spot that was supposed to serve as the locker room for female staffers.

“While there appeared to be no sexist intent, the visual of women staffers being unable to use their locker room to use the bathroom, to change clothes or to access their personal belongings while Leonard stretched did not go unnoticed,” wrote Jovan Buha.

Hmmmmmm … No sexist intent? I wonder if he would have tried that if he still played for the Spurs.

If you’re anything other than the most casual of NBA fans, you know Becky Hammon. She’s been on Gregg Popvich’s staff in San Antonio as an assistant coach since 2014. She was the first woman in the league to serve as a full-time assistant.

And now, thanks to Pop’s second-quarter ejection Wednesday night against the Lakers, Hammon has yet another incredible distinction on her résumé: First woman to coach an NBA team.

After Pop got tossed, he apparently turned to Hammon and told her, “You got ‘em.”

At that point, it became her responsibility to make substitutions, to call out plays, to adjust defensive sets, to take over team huddles during timeouts, to stalk the sideline and harangue the refs in defense of Spurs’ players.

Who knows if Popovich turned the reins over to Hammon, knowing that history was there to be made? The more important point is that she got the opportunity because he knew she was qualified.

“Even in timeouts with Pop as head coach, she is quick on her feet. She tells us about defensive assignments, offensive sets we should run,” San Antonio star DeMar DeRozan told reporters afterward. “Seeing her in the forefront, it would have definitely been cool to have won for her.”

Yeah, the Spurs lost the game. Which isn’t some “Well, see?” reflection on her coaching ability, considering they were already down when Popovich got bounced.

It’s sad that such a historic moment will get grimed up on the margins by misogyny and chauvinism, but alas, not everyone is so enlightened as to view Hammon’s presence on the Spurs bench as merely the natural end result of her acumen and work ethic, as opposed to a publicity stunt or quota-filling.

Those who argue as much are, inevitably, the same insipid, sophomoric dullards who believe that women in media are only there to get some free looks in the locker room. Like merely having an Instagram account doesn’t occasionally produce the same result, and with a lot less work.

There are qualified women working in all sorts of capacities in men’s sports — in PR departments, running social media accounts, in the front office as decision-makers. There are even some women who own teams, and who shockingly don’t even need to consult with their husbands or sons on what they should do.

There certainly could be more.

There also have been 14 women who’ve served as at least part-time assistant coaches in the NBA, and 10 of them are in the league right now. Seriously, a third of the teams have a woman on the staff at this moment, and somehow those franchises have not been decimated by the fickle nature of female hormones. Who’d have guessed?

Those who’ve come and gone include Lisa Boyer, the first woman in NBA history to serve as an assistant coach, with the Cavs from 2001-02; Nancy Lieberman, the first head coach of a men’s pro team (the G League’s Texas Legends, from 2010-11) and a Kings assistant from 2015-17; Karen Stack Umlauf was the Bulls’ senior director of basketball operations before joining the bench between 2018-20; and Kara Lawson was with the Celtics during the 2019-20 campaign before taking over the women’s program at Duke University.

Those presently in the league include Hammon, Jenny Boucek with the Mavericks, Brittni Donaldson with the Raptors, Lindsay Gottlieb with the Cavs, Lindsey Harding with the Kings, Niele Ivey with the Kings, Natalie Nakase with the Clippers, Sonia Raman with the Grizzlies, Kristi Toliver with the Wizards, and Teresa Witherspoon with the Pelicans.

So yeah, Leonard sometimes has been displacing one of his own assistant coaches so that he can have his own room to stretch in.

It’s pretty ridiculous the Clippers allow it. But it may not change until a woman becomes an NBA head coach on something more than a one-night interim basis. That’s bound to happen at some point. Maybe it’ll be Hammon, maybe it’ll be someone else. Being an assistant for this long to one of the greatest coaches in NBA history means she should warrant serious consideration.

As for those who still doubt, there’s probably no changing your shallow minds, but still, maybe consider this: In the aftermath of her achievement, Hammon wasn’t really focused on her achievement; she was ticked off that the Spurs lost.

“[I was] trying to get the guys in the right spots. Trying to get them motivated,” Hammon said. “Obviously, it’s a learning situation for all of us, but I would have loved to have walked out there with a win with the guys.”