NBA Rumor: Becky Hammon Head Coach?

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Becky Hammon on Pacers' radar for head coaching vacancy

San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon and former Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger are among more than a dozen candidates who are expected to participate in a first round of virtual interviews for the Indiana Pacers coaching job, sources told ESPN. The Pacers are embarking on a wide-ranging search that has included seeking permission to speak to several assistant coaches in the league, including the Spurs’ Hammon and Will Hardy, Miami’s Dan Craig and Chris Quinn, Dallas’ Jamahl Mosley and Stephen Silas, Milwaukee’s Darvin Ham and Charles Lee, Orlando’s Pat Delany, Minnesota’s David Vanterpool, Philadelphia’s Ime Udoka, Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn and Portland’s Nate Tibbetts.

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Does this mean he’s hiring Hammon? Of course not. Nor am I saying he should. That’s not the point of this story. Point is: Hammon is a fascinating candidate, and the Pacers have a history of being out in front on this issue. And the NBA is inching closer to its first female head coach. Eleven women were NBA assistants this past season, including former Notre Dame star Niele Ivey of the Memphis Grizzlies. She’s not there anymore; Notre Dame hired her in April to replace McGraw.

Popovich is famously terse, but not about Becky Hammon. “She has the ability as far as innate knowledge of the game, a feel for the game, a work ethic,” he said. “She’s gained the respect of all of our players, including guys that are no longer here, like Manu (Ginobili) and Tim (Duncan) and Tony (Parker), so all that’s in place. But my personal belief is, it’s gonna take somebody that has some courage and isn’t steeped in the old status quo of who can coach and who can’t. Why can’t a woman do what I’m doing or what anybody else is doing in the NBA?”

Hammon is an intriguing candidate — and not for public-relations purposes. The NBA is a copycat league and if she brings the same principles to the table, she could be the change that a fair-to-middling franchise needs to turn things around. “She is an interesting — and by all accounts, qualified — candidate,” a league source who declined to comment on specific coaching searches told The Detroit News. “She’s a legitimate candidate for a head-coaching job, alongside several other rising assistant coaches in the league.”

Pau Gasol: The reason I wanted to start by telling you about my parents, is that their story makes me think about today’s NBA. Specifically about how, in the 72-year history of the league, there has never been a female head coach. Even more specifically, it makes me think of Becky Hammon: a coach who has been the topic of much conversation lately, and who I’ve had the opportunity to play for in San Antonio. But if you think I’m writing this to argue why Becky is qualified to be an NBA head coach … well, you’re mistaken. That part is obvious: One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.

Pau Gasol: First, I’ve just gotta tell you: If you’re making that argument to anyone who’s actually played any high-level basketball, you’re going to seem really ignorant. But I also have a simple response to it — which is that I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.

Pau Gasol: But what I remember about this particular drill is that, at some point during it, Coach Hammon stopped us mid-motion. Coaches Hammon, Borrego and Messina walk over, and Becky says to Dejounte, “D.J., O.K. — your bounce pass? It’s too low. You’ve got to hit Pau exactly where he needs it. Run that again.” We then talk some more as a group about how I need the ball a little more precise, with a little more zip, so I could have a better chance to finish the action at the rim. And then we repeat the drill a few times, alternating from the left and right sides of court. Of course, Dejounte being Dejounte, he figures it out fast — and pretty soon we’re flying through. But something about that moment has just always stuck with me. Just, like … the level of knowledge of the game that Becky showed, you know what I mean? She noticed a small detail out of the corner of her eye — and then instantly located both the problem and the solution. And not only that, but we were also able to communicate with each other in such a way that we got the result that we needed. It’s a good reminder, I’d say, of the importance of communication between team members — especially at the NBA level. I don’t think I caught another stray pass the rest of the season.

Talking to Hammon, though, I was struck by her ambivalence about her role as a pioneer. She recognizes that she is an inspiration for many young women, and a target for many wary men. At the same time, she resists the attention to her gender. “If you don’t want a female coach, don’t hire one!” she said, with some exasperation. But, she continued, if “you want to hire somebody who’s qualified and will do a good job, then maybe you should consider me.” Like Popovich, Hammon believes that coaching involves more than drawing up plays or breaking down defensive schemes. “You shouldn’t get into coaching unless you care about the people you’re leading,” she said. That doesn’t fit the popular image of a successful coach—your Belichicks and Lombardis. But it is, as it happens, the philosophy of the Spurs.

The big question for Hammon, Popovich told me, is “Is this going to end up being something? Is she going to be able to matriculate and get into a head-coaching position?” Hammon is still early in her career, and it could take some time. “Some people are in the league fifteen, twenty years before they get into a head-coaching position, if they do at all,” Popovich said. “I tell her, very straightforwardly, I don’t know. Because I look at our country, and I have all kinds of doubts about all kinds of things, let alone whether she’s going to be a head coach.” Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, said last week, about the possibility of a female head coach, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen soon. Becky Hammon would be the one you’d say right away who could possibly get an interview.”

So, when Popovich brought Hammon in during her final season as a WNBA player, in 2013, as she rehabbed a knee injury, she talked about basketball with Popovich and President of Sports Franchises and General Manager R.C. Buford. And her knowledge about the game was clear. But that doesn’t mean she was a yes woman. “If she literally spoke the exact language, Pop probably wouldn’t have brought her in,” Buford said by phone Saturday. “She had her own ideas. She knew how to handle herself, and as Pop said, she knew when to speak and when to shut up. You have to have both to be successful.”

“I hired her because she was in my coaches meetings for an entire year because she was injured,” Popovich said in a radio interview on KNBR in San Francisco. “She’s got opinions and solid notions about basketball. Obviously, she was a great player. As a point guard, she’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her, so she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills. That’s why we made her a full-time coach and gave her the opportunity to coach at summer league.”
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