Bahram Mark Sobhani/AP
WNBA star Becky Hammon takes questions from the media at the San Antonio Spurs practice facility after being introduced as an assistant coach with the team on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 in San Antonio. Hammon will be the first full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

Becky Hammon breaks a barrier for women in sports with Spurs coaching hire

Becky Hammon’s hiring as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs comes as women are slowly making inroads into the boys’ clubs of the US’s four major professional sports leagues. Will Becky Hammon be an anomaly, or the first of many women coaching men at high levels? 

Leave it to the Spurs.

In an NBA offseason that has been especially busy with blockbuster free agency news (LeBron), and surprising coaching shakeups (Jason Kidd to the Bucks?!), San Antonio may have quietly made the most indelible mark of all Tuesday in hiring Becky Hammon as the first full-time, salaried female assistant coach in the league.

"I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in a statement Tuesday. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Ms. Hammon, a former WNBA star, isn't the first woman to coach NBA players: Lisa Boyer worked part-time as a practice assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, while she was coaching the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers. But Hammon is the first to do it full time. 

The news of her hiring, the first for any woman coaching in one of the four major professional American leagues, sent a ripple through the sports world, which has responded with hearty approval. ESPN called Hammon “ a basketball genius who was truly born to be a coach.”  The Spurs, long the NBA’s gold standard for how to run a basketball franchise, got heaps of praise, which spilled over to the NBA as a whole.

“The San Antonio Spurs confirmed today what was already clear: The NBA is, by far, the most progressive Big Four sports league when it comes to gender equity,” wrote Mother Jones.

Indeed, there should be no diminishing the significance of what Hammon and the Spurs have done. There has been much discussion over the past few years about women’s equality in the workforce and, in other, separate arenas, fairness in hiring practices in professional sports leagues. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, and others have highlighted the scarcity of women in upper management positions at major companies. Meanwhile, the NFL and NCAA college football have repeatedly come under fire for hiring an overwhelming majority of white head coaches, despite the fact that the majority of players in those leagues are black.

Until now, the two issues had never converged, because coaching men at the professional level remains a pipe dream for women. If a girl running a board meeting was a bridge too far for some, the idea of one chastising a seven-foot center for missing a layup was unthinkable. Having Hammon on the Spurs sidelines helps change that perception.

Beyond her gender, bringing Hammon in as a coach is business as usual in the NBA, and especially in San Antonio. A longtime WNBA veteran, she’s played with San Antonio’s WNBA Stars since 2007. She’s known for her basketball IQ and had long expressed an interest in coaching when her playing career was finished. The NBA traditionally mines from the ranks of newly retired veterans for its coaches, and Hammon used the downtime during a long rehabilitation from a knee injury last year to attend Spurs practices and coaches meetings.

There are other recent instances of women are slowly (very slowly) chipping away at the thickest of glass ceilings. Last month, the NBA Players Association elected Michele Roberts as its first executive director. Sarah Thomas, the first woman to officiate a major college football game in 2007, is in the referee developmental program for the NFL and is expected to officiate a game in the coming years. So the flood of women into pro sports is barely a trickle. But at least it’s there.  

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