Becky Hammon’s return to the WNBA will be one of the biggest storylines of the league’s 26th season.
Hammon made in history in 2014 when she was hired as the first full-time female assistant in the NBA, and many expected her to become the first woman to become an NBA head coach. In early December, she surprised fans in both leagues when she accepted an offer to become the Las Vegas Aces head coach, signing a landmark deal as, according to sources, the highest-paid coach in league history.
For now, she’ll be balancing duties with the Spurs and Aces until San Antonio’s season ends. On Friday night, during the Spurs’ pregame against the 76ers, she chatted with The Athletic about her decision to leave the NBA, how she’ll approach WNBA free agency and how she views the league.
(Lightly edited for clarity.)
When most people make a career decision, they think about how it impacts them and their family. With you being who you are in the NBA, how much were you thinking about what this decision would mean to other people as well?
Hammon: It definitely weighs on your mind, for sure. Because I know for me, I felt like I was on this path doing this and I’m still on the path, right? This is the coaching path. This is what I’m doing. And just because of the movement, or like moving the needle or even the progress that has been made, you always want to make more (progress). And so, you want more representation. You want the needle to move faster. And so, yeah, I would be lying if I didn’t say it crossed my mind, for sure. It crosses my mind. It can’t be the main factor. I’ve got to obviously do what I feel is best for myself, but there’s so much more work to be done. And I don’t know, I think at some point maybe I get back in the fight. But right now, I can tell you, I am extremely excited to be to be the Aces’ coach and work with those women.
One of the sports cliches that rings true is “pressure is a privilege,” and when you’re a pioneer in anything, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that. During your time in the NBA, how often did you feel that pressure or privilege or both?
Hammon: The thing about being a pioneer and being the first woman to do some of these things, there’s a great responsibility with it, and there’s a backside to it. You’ve got what everybody sees out in front and how amazing it is, but then there’s the nicks, bumps and bruises that you get that nobody really sees. Anytime you’re going through a jungle and it has no path and you’re swinging, you get nicked up along the way. So, I’m human; I’m not immune to bumps and bruises and scrapes, and as amazing as the NBA and Spurs have been to me, I really just felt like this was the next best step for me professionally, personally. And it was just a tremendous opportunity to give back and move the needle in another way, meaning bring more recognition, bring more spotlight to women’s sports and women in basketball. The WNBA is at a really pivotal time right now, an important time, and I wanted to be a part of that and really wanted to be a part of what (Aces president) Nikki Fargas and (owner) Mark Davis were building out there.
When you were considering this move, who did you consult in terms of your WNBA ties? Any old teammates or coaches?
Hammon: I talked with (Indiana Pacers assistant) Jenny Boucek a lot. She spent 20 years in the WNBA (coaching for the Mystics, Sol, Storm and Monarchs), and also, because she knows the grind, she’s been in the NBA now for five years, so I talked with her a lot. But a lot of it was just coming to terms with really what direction I wanted to go in. And so, to me, that was more of a factor than anything — just what was best for myself.
You are not going to be the Aces’ GM, correct?
Hammon: That really has not been talked about. I’m just the head coach right now.
So, in terms of WNBA free agency, with you as coach and with the team not currently having a GM (but having plenty of basketball minds between yourself, Nikki Fargas, Bill Laimbeer and others in the front office), what will your involvement look like as you balance those decisions on a roster that has some room in the salary cap?
Hammon: There are a lot of phone calls, a lot of Zoom calls. I am heavily involved in obviously the decision-making and how we wanted to build out the roster. So, I’m in constant communication with them.
Have you had a chance to talk to most of the current players on the Aces’ roster thus far? (Editor’s note: Asked ahead of free agency’s start on Jan. 15.)
Hammon: I’ve pretty much touched base with everybody. There’s one more player I have to talk to, but I’ve had conversations with them, a couple of them multiple times. I’m just making myself available to them and answering any questions they have. It’s a big change for them too. So, I’m just trying to give them a vision of kind of what I see their roles on the team will be and just open up the lines of communication and start building relationships.
When you were hired by Gregg Popovich in 2014, no woman had been a full-time assistant. Have you thought about that at all in terms of your own staff? Are there voices or people that haven’t traditionally been on WNBA sidelines or on staffs that you intend to include?
Hammon: I’m putting together a staff based upon the best coaches that I can get ahold of, people that will complement areas maybe where I’m weaker. I’m turning over and trying to get the best people possible. And I’m getting closer. That’s probably my first thing that I need, that I want done, and I’ll probably be getting that done (soon). But I’m really excited about the names that I have in the mix. I want the best basketball minds sitting next to me more than anything.
When you look at the league right now heading into its 26th season, what do you think is the WNBA’s greatest strength?
Hammon: It’s a very good product, and the product keeps getting better and better, and players keep getting better and better. And so, I just think the visibility of it gets better and better. And I think if you put a great product out there, then people want to come and watch. So, to me, the selling point should always be the basketball. Obviously, there’s always other bigger life things going on — not only in the WNBA, but just in people’s lives in general — but I’m most excited about the product. Sell that, because that’s good enough.
And to close, a fun question … As it stands, a few of your former teammates from your last WNBA roster are still in the league — the Lynx’s Kayla McBride, the Fever’s Danielle Robinson and free agent Astou Ndour-Fall — have you thought at all about what it’ll be like to face them?
Hammon: I haven’t even started thinking about game planning for my former teammates at all. I’m all about the Aces right now and getting a staff together, getting the best free agents that we possibly can. No, I haven’t thought about what I’m gonna do with Danielle Robinson in a pick-and-roll yet.
(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)