On Tuesday night as the San Antonio Spurs took on the Dallas Mavericks in the opening game of the NBA season, there was an unusual sight on the Spurs bench.
There, in the midst of the jerseys and suits, was Becky Hammon. She wasn't the wife or girlfriend or daughter of one of the players, and she wasn't a cheerleader -- she was there as a coach, a contributor for the defending NBA champions.
That's right. Hammon, the All-Star WNBA point-guard, is now the first full-time, paid female assistant coach in the NBA.
The motto of the film Miss Representation, a documentary that focuses on the way that females are treated by the mainstream media, is: You can't be what you can't see. In this case, that means that seeing Hammon sitting there on the bench in a position of authority has opened a world of unexplored possibilities for female basketball players and fans. There always needs to be a trailblazer, and in this case, Hammon is it.
Kate Fagan, a stand-out basketball player at the University of Colorado and a current columnist at ESPN and espnW, echoed that sentiment.
"I think it's really, really important," she said when asked about the significance of Hammon's appointment. "A lot of the people I know in the NBA, when I'd ask why nobody was hiring a female assistant coach … everyone would say, 'Well, nobody has done it before and therefore there's nothing to say that this won't be a colossal distraction or a colossal failure.'
"Now nobody can use that as an excuse. They can look at the Spurs, and say, 'They hired Becky and the world didn't implode. We can do that too.' People need an example to be able to be able to replicate -- it's not just sports, it's all of life. Being the first is scary."
Hammon's relationship with the Spurs began organically. From 2007 until she retired this year, Hammon was a point guard with the WNBA's San Antonio Stars. She got to know many of the players and coaches in the Spurs organization throughout the years, and when an injury kept her from going overseas and playing last offseason, she interned with the Spurs and studied under coach Gregg Popovich.
Hammon was a natural. She spoke up in meetings, commanded the respect of the players, and got along with everyone on the team. Most of all, she was able to use her 16 years of experience as a professional basketball player to her advantage. When she retired from the WNBA, Popovich offered her a job on her staff without hesitation -- it was just the right thing to do for the team.
"When you've been around it, you know who can coach and who can't coach," Popovich said, as reported by Howard Beck of Bleacher Report in his extensive profile of Hammon. "Becky is one of those people. She's a Steve Kerr. She's a Doc Rivers. She's those kind of people. They have a feel for the game that they want to continue to participate in."
Women's basketball has grown tremendously since Title IX, and the WNBA has been growing steadily since its founding in 1996. Yet, very little of that on-the-court progress has transcended into the coaching ranks. Even in the NCAA and WNBA, men often hold the most high-profile coaching jobs.
Hammon is not the first female to be on the coaching staff of a men's team in the States, but the stepping stones have been few and far between. Rick Pitino made the first significant move back in 1990 in Kentucky when he hired Bernadette Mattox to be the first female assistant in a Division I men's basketball program. At the time, it was seen as a significant move that would open many doors for female coaches, but there have only been two others since.
On the pro level, Lisa Boyer was a volunteer assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2002, and the great Nancy Lieberman became the coach of the D-League Texas Legends.
Of course, basketball is far from the only sport with a lack of female coaches. None of the other "Big Four" sports in America have made any progress in this regard. Even sports that are hailed as being more progressive, such as tennis, have an alarming dearth of women in the coaching ranks. In the WTA, there is only one woman in the top 20 who has a female coach: Ekaterina Makarova, No. 12, who is coached by former player Evgenia Manyukova. In the ATP, Andy Murray sent shockwaves through the sporting world when he hired two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo as his coach in June. (I wrote about their partnership earlier this year.)
Of course, lifestyle is a part of this -- it is hard to have a full-time coaching job and a family unless you have a very supportive partner willing to pick up the slack at home. But there is also undeniably a sexist component. Male coaches aren't judged on their on-court abilities, and yet you so often hear that women can't teach men because they can't play on their level. There's always a lot of "culture" talk -- a notion that women won't be able to fit into the testosterone-fueled locker-room environment. What most people won't come out and say is that many men simply have trouble taking direction from women.
"Our society still doesn't believe or accept that a woman can coach a men's team," Lin Dunn, a Hall-of-Famer coach who coached 21 years in Division I women's basketball and 18 years in the pros, told me via e-mail.
"A good coach has a tremendous knowledge of the game, extraordinary leadership skills, holds self and others accountable, has excellent communication skills, and can teach," she said. "(He or she) has mental and physical toughness and is smart, hardworking, organized and flexible. The best ones empower their staffs and their players and have a sense of humor. They believe that doing the little things right makes doing the big things possible. There is no difference in a men's or women's coach. A coach is a teacher first and foremost, and that has nothing to do with gender"
Dunn says that Hammon's experience, work ethic, knowledge of the game, and mental and emotional toughness make her perfect for this position, and that she shouldn't have a problem handling the pressure that comes with being such a trailblazer.
"Becky will be fine," Dunn said. "She has paid her dues and will be an excellent NBA assistant. In fact in time, she may be a head NBA coach."
It's important to remember that, even though seeing Hammon sitting on that bench with the Spurs is a big step, there is a long way to go. If the progress doesn't continue and more teams don't start considering talented and capable women for coaching positions, then this could be another flash-in-the-pan situation like Mattox was.
That's why it's crucial to keep looking forward.
"I will say, people think it's amazing, but look at Jason Kidd's and Becky Hammon's careers," Fagan said. "They were very similar … Jason retires and has like a $12 million head coaching job waiting, and Becky was hired and she's like the third assistant. Granted, it's an amazing step, but we need to keep in mind, those two pretty much had the same playing careers, and look where Jason ended up and look where Becky has started."
On Tuesday night, the Spurs received their championship rings before the game, and then barely held off the Mavericks in front of their home crowd, 101-100. It was a dramatic game, featuring 23 points by Tony Parker, 20 points by Manu Ginobli, and a double-double from Tim Duncan. The TNT broadcasters mentioned Hammon a couple of times, but her presence in no way took away focus from the game at hand.
For most, the Spurs' season opener was business as usual. But for many female basketball fans both young and old, it was so much more.