The Aug. 5 press release was as understated as the San Antonio Spurs themselves, a six-paragraph statement announcing Becky Hammon being hired as an assistant coach.
No mention of the groundbreaking nature of this hire. No mention of Hammon being the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history. Just a few weeks after Clippers’ video coordinator Natalie Nakase served as an assistant with the team’s summer league entry, the Spurs went one better by bringing in the 15-year WNBA veteran Hammon to join Gregg Popovich’s staff.
Hammon is the perfect choice to fill this role, an admitted gym rat who spent time with the Spurs as she recovered from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament last year. Hammon, 37, will retire from the San Antonio Stars following this season and assume her new job.
It’s been an eventful summer for women in the NBA with Nakase joining the sidelines, and Michele Roberts becoming the first female president of a labor union (NBPA) in a men’s sport. Hammon, like the Spurs, has attempted to downplay the impact of her gender in this role, but it cannot be ignored.
“I know Coach Pop has made it very clear to me that I’m being hired because of my basketball IQ and because I’m qualified,” she said. “He says it just so happens you are a woman.”
Hammon sustained her injury last July and asked Stars coach Dan Hughes if he could approach Spurs general manager R.C. Buford about allowing her to watch practices and sit in on meetings. Buford approved, and Hammon became a fixture at Spurs’ practices. She impressed their brass with her knowledge of the game and they created an extra coaching position.
Although men have coached women’s teams for decades, there has been an unhealthy line separating women’s coaches and men’s teams. Capable women’s coaches have either stayed in the women’s game by choice or by force. The NBA may some day be the first major sport to embrace a female head coach, and Hammon’s hire is a significant step in that direction.
“I think this happens to be a situation where they have been observing me for years playing down here,” Hammon said. “They decided this can work. There’s a lot of things that go into it besides ‘This would be a cool idea.’ It’s got to fit and it’s got to be the right fit and it just so happens that it is down here — and the environment they create.
“It is big and I definitely hope little girls can say, ‘Hey look people can do whatever they put their mind to.’ It’s exciting and honestly it’s too early to tell what kind of [future] impact it is going to have.”
Hammon is just like many other players whose time on the court is running out. She still wants to remain competitive. She wants to coach and is intrigued by coaching at the highest level. This option has obviously never before been available to women. When a television colleague pointed out that commentators and analysts never leave the gym losers, she retorted they don’t leave winners, either.
“I love the competitiveness, I love being part of a team, I love game-planning, and I’ve always been passionate about basketball and helping people,” she said. “Coaching is just a very natural marriage and that’s basically how I came to that conclusion.”
Undrafted out of Colorado State, Hammon signed with the New York Liberty 15 years ago and has enjoyed a storied career, playing in six WNBA All-Star Games and being named one of the league’s top 15 all-time players in 2012.
Realizing her chances of playing for Team USA in 2008 were minuscule, Hammon applied for Russian dual citizenship and playing for the country in the Beijing and London Games, a move that was met with scrutiny and anti-patriotic accusations.
“I don’t think people realize how much time and effort I put into making that decision,” she said. “I think when the truth came out and how everything went down, it wasn’t a case of me telling the [US] Olympic team, no. It was that opportunity was never there for me. And I really just took the opportunity that was presented.
“I had two choices staring at me in the face; I could either sit at home on the couch and watch the Olympics or go take part. It was really just that simple. I took a lot of flak because I don’t think people knew the facts of the situation. It definitely built some character in me and I had to do a lot of soul searching.”
Her goals are not fulfilled. The NBA is inching closer toward a bona fide female head coaching candidate. Although Hammon may not be on that list, she has raised the awareness of a league that has been slow to embrace women as anything but sideline reporters.
“It’s really silly, people ask me all the time, will there ever be a woman player in the NBA? To be honest, no,” said Hammon. “There’s differences. The guys are too big, too strong. That’s just the way it is. But when it comes to things of the mind, like coaching, game-planning, coming up with offensive and defensive schemes, there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t be in the mix or shouldn’t be in the mix.
“I think in every other area whether it be surgery or politics or even our military, women are trail-blazing paths everywhere. I think it was only a matter of time before this is another area that a woman walks into.”
Mourning looks back at winding road to Hall
While Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning is most recognized for his days blocking shots in two stints with the Miami Heat, including their 2006 NBA title, he began his NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets in 1992.
The young franchise was building a team primed to compete with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, with Mourning, Larry Johnson, Kendall Gill, and Muggsy Bogues, all of whom were in their 20s.
Mourning played just three seasons in Charlotte, elected to two All-Star Games, before the club traded him to Miami just before the 1995-96 season for a package that included Glen Rice. The Hornets would never make it past the Eastern Conference semifinals in their 14 years as a franchise before moving to New Orleans.
The breakup of that core with Johnson is something not lost on Mourning.
“When I think about those three years, I think about the camaraderie we had as a team and the energy level we had as a team,” he said. “When you think about Muggsy, Larry, Dell [Curry], Kendall, you think about a crew of guys that had a world of potential and a tremendous amount of upside and growth if we would have stayed together.”
The Hornets actually ended the Celtics’ original Big Three era by beating Boston in four games in the 1993 Eastern Conference first round. They, along with the Orlando Magic, were tabbed to challenge the Bulls throughout the 1990s. But like the Hornets, the Magic were dismantled beginning with Shaquille O’Neal’s signing with the Lakers in 1996.
Mourning became embroiled in a contract dispute with team management, sparking the controversial trade.
“When you think about the impact we had on the game — such a young team, just doing all we could to try to be successful and establish ourselves as a young team,” he said. “For that front office management to make decisions to break that up. It was just unfortunate because I thought we had something special. And a lot of people don’t know what went on behind the scenes with basketball operations. But there’s a reason why [owner] George Shinn didn’t last in the league too much longer than that.”
The Hornets are still searching for that franchise player, after so many years after disposing of Mourning and allowing Johnson to leave because of back issues.
“When you think about franchise players, usually the good front office management, the ones that have extreme longevity, good owner, those are the ones that understand the impact of a franchise player,” Mourning said. “[Gregg Popovich], R.C. Buford, Tim Duncan [in San Antonio.] Mickey Arison, Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade [in Miami]. Those guys know, you have a franchise player, you keep him. And it’s only fitting when you think about Pat with the Lakers, Magic [Johnson], he’s a lifer. The same thing with D-Wade with the Heat. One day we’re going to witness D-Wade’s statue out in front of that [AmericanAirlines] Arena.”
Late in his career, Mourning returned to the Heat after retiring for one season because of kidney disease. He joined a Miami team in March 2005 that featured a young Wade and former Mourning adversary O’Neal, who facilitated a trade to Miami a year before.
Mourning said the two more than coexisted, they became friends.
“It was fate that brought that together,” he said. “You think about Shaq and where we were in his career, he was itching to get another championship. He had three and he wanted another one. He knew that the only way he was going to get another one was bringing in help. He couldn’t do it by himself. We had a conversation when I first walked through that door [in Miami]. He knew the impact I had on the Heat organization coming back, and the Heat knew he needed a good backup if he was going to make this run the right away.
“Neither one of us worried about playing time. It was all about us winning and I think it was a marriage made in heaven. We both were so focused on just trying to make sure we did everything humanly possible to accomplish that goal.”
Afflalo, Nuggets seek better times ahead
Arron Afflalo quietly put together an All-Star caliber season in 2013-14, but the Orlando Magic were among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. In their attempt to clear salary cap space and get younger, the Magic traded Afflalo back to Denver, the team they acquired him from two years ago. Afflalo gives Denver another solid but unspectacular player.
The Nuggets are a collection of players without a true All-Star and the question is whether that combination can generate success in the Western Conference. Denver did very little this offseason, acquiring Afflalo and drafting Michigan State guard Gary Harris, meaning it is going to have to rely essentially on the same team that failed to reach the playoffs last season.
Afflalo is optimistic that the Nuggets can become a factor after a difficult season in Orlando.
“I’m excited, I think a lot guys I played with for years, they are definitely highly motivated this year,” he said. “It’s always good to be in an environment of success. [Last year] had some positives and some negatives — I shouldn’t say negatives but learning lessons. No one likes to lose, period. But you understand with a young group that I was playing with in Orlando, it takes time to develop, just as it has for me in my career. I’ve always respected the process but I’m getting up there now.”
Afflalo, who turns 29 in October, played three seasons for the Nuggets after two rather uneven years with the Detroit Pistons. His scoring numbers have increased each of his seven seasons — from 3.7 as a rookie to 18.2 last season. He said he’s primed for a breakthrough season.
“I learn a lot every year, I try to improve my leadership skills, I try to improve my body and my game,” he said. “This year, I expect it to be no different. I expect to be one of the best players in the league and the best player at my position.”
It’s taken several years for Afflalo to find himself as an NBA player, establish his identity and become a dependable scorer.
“It took a while because I didn’t get the experience to have a lot of mistakes early on,” he said. “Over the past three years I had the ball in my hands a lot and I really started to see the game differently. I think there’s a lot of things I’ll be able to take into next season.”
Afflalo’s story is similar to many late bloomers. The NBA is an impatient league and Afflalo is making his fourth stop — two with the Nuggets — in just eight years.
“It’s just a confidence, a patience, you just feel over the course of a game,” he said. “You can be really, really patient, allow the game to come to you, and play with your teammates more. “It’s all about your mind-set, your commitment to staying focused, doing the little things throughout the year.”
The Nuggets are filled with players such as Afflalo — those looking for that signature season: JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari are coming off serious injuries, Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson have had their moments, while Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, and JJ Hickson are also contributors.
“Obviously the depth and talent on our team is unquestioned but it won’t serve you any good unless you’re focused and you’re harnessing it the right way,” Afflalo said. “When they say ‘superstar’ it has a lot to do with media attention. We have some very, very good players and guys who are still continuing to improve. That means everything.”
Former Celtic MarShon Brooks, who also played with the Lakers and Warriors last season, is expected to a sign with Olympia Milano in Italy. Brooks, who played with the Sacramento Kings during summer league, has bounced around since the Celtics acquired him from Brooklyn in the Paul Pierce deal . . . The Heat have attempted to give wayward players chances in the past and did again this week by signing former Pacers first-round pick Shawne Williams. Williams started 13 games for the Lakers last season before being waived in January. He has skills but never reached his potential because of a series of offcourt issues . . . The Celtics still have not made decisions on Mike Moser and Colton Iverson, who are seeking training-camp invitations. Moser, a rookie from Oregon, was one of the more impressive players in the Orlando Summer Pro League . . . Celtics forward Jared Sullinger is in China as part of an NBA program to conduct clinics and promote good health. Sullinger said he was working to get himself into better condition so he can play more minutes in the fourth quarter . . . With the injury to Paul George, free agent forward Shawn Marion is apparently pondering contract offers from the Pacers as well as the Cavaliers. Marion, 36, could be an immediate starter with Indiana, replacing George. Marion was squeezed out of Dallas after the Mavericks made a series of trades and signings . . . After he serves his four-game suspension for pleading guilty to weapons charges, Raymond Felton is hoping to resurrect his career in Dallas after a nightmarish season with the Knicks last season. Felton is likely to start for Dallas . . . Former NBA star Tim Hardaway Sr. has accepted an assistant coaching position in Detroit from former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. Hardaway had previously been a scout with the Heat but now gets a long-awaited chance to coach. . . . The free agency period could reach into September because the Kevin Love deal has affected the market. Players such as Jameer Nelson and Andray Blatche remain unsigned and the restricted free agent status of Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe has yet to be resolved.