I Could Take You
“It’s baffling how LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, all these guys can come up and be like, ‘I see you out there!’ … and then Joe Shmoe at the YMCA is like, ‘I could take you,’” says Becky Hammon.
In August 2014, Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach. She was a six-time WNBA All-Star in her days running the point for the New York Liberty and San Antonio Stars. Spurs head coach and future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich has long praised Hammon for her “basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills.”
The NBA’s biggest stars encourage the idea of having a female head coach, too. "I mean, if she knows what she's doing, we'll love it," said James. "I mean, listen, at the end of the day, basketball ... it's not about male or female. You know the game, you know the game."
James and the Spurs are on the same page. Hammon was promoted in June to the third assistant position. She now sits in the front row during games, just a few seats down from Popovich.
Last month, the WNBA and NBA erupted again on social media as the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird was hired as a basketball operations assistant by the Denver Nuggets. This year, Bird led the Storm to their third WNBA title. She called the job a “perfect match” as she plans to return for her 17th season in May.
Women are clearly making progress in the coaching ranks. Commentators wonder when, not if, the NBA will see its first female head coach. Many see Hammon as the woman for the job. But our focus should be shifted towards removing barriers that have nothing to do with coaching. Women, racial minorities, and gay people have a hard time advancing through the ranks because of their identities, not their ability.
The NBA has been honored for the number of women we see in its ranks, but challenges still exist. One veteran NBA called the league an “incredibly sexist environment.” He also said you cannot have attractive women in positions of authority. The fact that he is in a position to hire people and refuses to hire attractive women illustrates the blatant sexism inherent in the industry.
The Los Angeles Sparks aren’t helping the problem. On December 5, Derek Fisher was announced as the team’s next head coach. Fisher won five NBA championships while he played with the Lakers and went 40-96 in two seasons as head coach of the New York Knicks.
With a subpar coaching record, the Sparks’ hire is questionable. There are plenty of qualified female candidates who could have filled the role. There’s Dawn Staley, current head coach of USA Basketball’s women’s squad and the South Carolina Gamecocks, with whom she won an NCAA title in 2017. There’s Shelley Patterson, an 8-year assistant to Cheryl Reeve with the Minnesota Lynx, who has spent time with 6 other WNBA franchises. There is also Jennifer Rizotti, an NCAA and WNBA champion who assists Staley with USA Basketball and is in her third season as head coach at George Washington University.
And what about Nancy Lieberman? Recognized as one of the game’s greats, Lieberman spent two seasons as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. Lieberman called Hammon’s hiring “a great day” and says it “will open the door for other women,” and at sixty years-old, it is still Lieberman’s goal to coach in the NBA.
There will be a female head coach in the NBA someday. And it won’t happen just because the league is trying to appeal to a younger, more diverse cohort of fans, nor will it be a joke, like the NFL’s Cleveland Browns asking to interview Condoleezza Rice for the top spot. It will simply be because she can take it on.