The most popular coach this summer in San Antonio was not Gregg Popovich. Well, there’s a reason for that. Pop took the summer off to recover from that epic first-round loss to Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers — “he’s probably the best in the league at figuring out what’s got to get done and how to do it,” Pop said — and travel with pals.
But he wasn’t too far removed from one of the summer’s bigger NBA stories: Becky Hammon and her highly-visible presence at the Las Vegas Summer League, where she led the Spurs to the title as the team’s coach. No, Pop didn’t miss any of that.
“How could I?” he said.
Then he added: “It became such a big deal, and it’s not why we did it.”
Popovich means the Spurs didn’t hire Hammon last summer as an assistant coach to make a statement or trigger a breakthrough for women or even plot a way to get Hammon an NBA coaching job. He said he hired Hammon because he liked her potential and thought she could help, the same way he hires anyone.
That said …
“We think she’s a star as far as understanding the game,” Popovich said. “Ever since the first time I saw her play (in the WNBA), chewing that gum, taking no prisoners on the court, we thought she was something special. And then when we got to know her, and her being with us for a whole year and in our coach’s meetings, then I knew for sure that she’s a basketball junkie.”
As the newest hire, Hammon followed protocol and sat behind the Spurs bench during the season, but her input was weighed the same as anyone else’s. Then Popovich gave her the Vegas Summer League assignment. Hammon lost the first game … and then won the rest. More importantly, she showed a command of the huddle and substitution patterns, all while handling the anticipated media crush like a veteran. In all, she looked like she belonged.
Popovich wasn’t surprised: “She’s got great ideas, got a great way about her, guys respect her. I think we’re lucky to have her in the program.”
Of course, the question begs: How much longer will Hammon be in the program? After Vegas, there was seemingly a rush to make her a head coaching candidate, which was partly media-fueled but NBA front-office types also pitched in (anonymously) and and said she was on the right track (if not the fast track). When is an assistant coach ready to be a head coach?
“That’s a great question,” Popovich said. “There’s not a formula, nor does a bell go off. The first step in deciding if someone’s ready is how they feel about it. You take a Steve Kerr or Avery Johnson or Mike Budenholzer. Usually the situation decides it because you don’t know if something becomes available that fits you. If the situation presents itself and the individual feels they want to go for it, the only real decision is: is it time?
“I think the person who takes the job knows more than I do. You’re not ready until you take the job. And as we know, everything changes when you take that one seat over. You get ready once you take that seat.”
Hammon will get that seat once she feels she’s ready and another team feels she’s ready. Also, figure that Popovich will have a say in the matter; Hammon will run any and everything by him first.
Until then, as Pop said, the Spurs are lucky to have her. And vice versa.