What Becky Hammon means to women in basketball

The San Antonio Spurs’ Becky Hammon made history by becoming the first female assistant coach in the NBA. After four years working with Greg Poppovich, reports swirl of her interviewing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach position. Whether or not she gets the job, this is the first time in history that this is even a distinct possibility—that a woman could crack the highest glass ceiling in the overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

First things first: we’re not here to talk about whether Hammon is qualified, because she is. In Pau Gasol’s open letter about female coaches, he said: “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.”

Gasol lists Hammon’s strengths, from being an elite point guard in the WNBA to fine-tuning the Spurs’ pick-and-roll by realizing Dejounte Murray needed to give higher bounce passes—while also admitting that it’s patronizing that we even need to do so. And he’s right. Why do we feel compelled to even justify why a woman is being considered for the position, when we don’t even blink at hearing that her fellow Spurs assistant Ettore Messina is interviewing for the same job?

The mindset that goes unvoiced in press conferences but persists in the more private or anonymous parts of the sports industry is that women can coach at the collegiate level and in women’s leagues, but the highest level of competition of men’s basketball is reserved for male coaches. Even outside the NBA—in the Philippines, how many PBA, UAAP and NCAA teams have women on the coaching staff? Let’s break down some of the assumptions.

It’s going to be awkward for the players to change in the dugout.

Coaches have their own area in the dugout. Is that more important than having a coach that’s right for the job?

You won’t fully understand a league unless you’ve played in it.

If that’s true, why are we letting men coach the WNBA?

Men won’t listen to a female coach.

Tell that to LeBron James. “At the end of the day, basketball is not about male or female. You know the game, you know the game,” James said in a press conference in April.

Or to Pop, one of the best coaches in the history of the league.

He hired Hammon not because she was a woman. He hired her because she was good. “He didn’t care that I was a woman. What he cared about was, can I help the team and will I do a good job, says Hammon in an interview back in 2016. “The fact that he invited me into their inner-circle was a huge vote of confidence, and I do believe leadership knows no gender.”

Pop let Hammon run the Spurs Summer League Team in her second year as a coach in the NBA. In her first try as a head coach in the Summer League, Hammon won the championship.

Hammon may be the first woman being interviewed for the position of head coach, but that doesn’t mean she is the only woman qualified to coach in the NBA.

After Lebron James spoke up in favor of female coaches, The Undefeated compiled a list of eight black women who could also coach in the NBA, including C. Vivian Stringer, who has coached in the NCAA for 45 seasons and holds a 997-402 record; 2017-20 USA National Team coach Dawn Staley, and 2018 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tina Thompson, who finished her 17-season WNBA career with the second-most points in league history and now serves on the coaching staff of the NCAA’s Texas Longhorns.

Hammon getting the job is a win for all women working in sports. Women are a minority not just among coaches, but among sports anchors, analysts, and referees—in every corner of the sports industry. Female athletes are often paid less than their male counterparts; Sue Bird has written about how the WNBA suffers from a dearth of analyticsEven when there are positions within the sports industry for which women are the preferred hire, such as court side reporters, it becomes difficult for women in those jobs to break through to the level of analyst.

As long as a woman in sports is assumed to know less than her male counterpart simply because of her gender, it will continue to be an uphill climb for women in the industry. At the very least, Hammon signals that the work of athletes in the WNBA is valuable; that female coaches and athletes are not second-class citizens in the hoops world.

On a personal note, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve told strangers that I work as a courtside reporter only to be met with “Ah, so boyfriend mo player?” I’ve whirled around in my seat during basketball games because fans heckle female refs’ calls by yelling “hoy, magluto ka na lang!” I’ve sat in seminars where a male speaker tells female colleagues that they need to work hard because “Basketball comes naturally to guys. Women need to study.”

The good news is Hammon can be an advocate for women in sports, in the same way that James is an advocate for the African-American community—position is power.

Hammon The Gamechanger is a breakthrough for women, but my hope is not unchecked. Hammon getting the job is not a magic pill to gender equality in sports. Hands will not materialize out of thin air to smack hecklers and anonymous Twitter eggs who’ll find a way to drag her gender into memes about a loss. Female head coaches will not sprout overnight in professional men’s leagues around the world.

If anything, I would keep an eye out for what sociologists call “moral licensing,” which can be simply explained as our capacity to pat ourselves on the back for a good deed and act as though it gives us license to let other injustices slide. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his “Revision History” podcast episode about women who entered male-dominated fields—from politicians to painters, women who are “first out the gate” as he puts it, are often subjected to harsher treatment because people who hold sexist views may feel like they’ve already done their part by letting her through.

We can hope If Hammon gets the job, there will be more opportunities for women to hold assistant and head coaching positions in the NBA, but it will take active support —not just Hammon, but for women all over sports—for that to happen.

This much is for sure, though: It’s about damn time.

Photos from Getty Images and AP

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