Becky Hammon isn’t exactly a household name, at least not outside North American basketball. But maybe it should be? Born and raised in the Midwestern United States the South Dakota native was always destined for great things. From a young age she was always involved in basketball. She’d practice outside her house on a rim that sat in front of a steep hillside. Essentially there was no missing a shot in the Hammon household otherwise that ball would be quickly lost to the hill and forest below.
Basketball wasn’t much of a priority for many other girls growing up in the Midwest. This meant Hammon had to play against boys. She regularly played two-on-two games against her brother Matt and his friends. Leniency was not an option during these encounters. This environment might have been enough to put off even the toughest female player from basketball for life, it acted as a catalyst for Hammon. Not only was she voted the female class athlete in her final year at High School she was also named the South Dakota Player of the Year. Her successes continued into college where she played basketball for Colorado State University’s team the Colorado State Rams. She broke all sorts of records during her time at the Rams and yet amazingly went undrafted in the WNBA (‘Women’s National Basketball Association’).
New York Liberty eventually took her in where she played second fiddle to point guard Tessa Weatherspoon. Under the guidance of Weatherspoon she put in solid performances and ultimately rose to starting point guard and eventually co-captain with the Liberty. Despite an injury cutting short her season, 2003 was the year she took women’s basketball by storm. She was included in her first WNBA All-Star game that year, a feat she would replicate a further 5 times. She only missed out on being picked twice. After New York she headed to San Antonio where she played for seven years. But even the WNBA alone wasn’t enough for her and during the off-season she would played for a number of other clubs including CSKA Moscow in Russia and Rivas Ecópolis in Spain. Her time in Russia led her to becoming a Russian citizen and influenced her decision to represent Russia in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing after she was not invited to the U.S. national team. She won bronze with the Russians after being beaten by her native country in the semifinals. Unsurprisingly it was a bitter pill to swallow for Hammon but it shouldn’t detract from her talents as a basketball player. A weaker person may have questioned their skill and whether being snubbed by their conquerors wasn’t so completely misjudged after all.
There are not too many people in the world who can list LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as fans and admirers. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hammon though isn’t her gender. It’s her size. At only 5’6” she is far from what many would consider the conventional player. As a youngster her mother worried she wouldn’t even reach 5’0”. She is also not the fastest player yet none of these drawbacks would slow her assent to the top. She was, and is, an exceptionally smart basketball player. In the words of her father a “basketball nerd”.
During the summer of 2013 she began to put her aspirations of coaching the game into motion. She had just suffered a major injury while playing for San Antonio and was set for a lengthy spell out of contention. Instead of wallowing in self-pity she took advantage of her downtime time with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. She attended drills, meetings, practices even games. The coaching staff at the Spurs realised her skill as both a player and a coach and were keen for her to contribute ideas whenever possible.
One year later, following the Spurs being crowned NBA champions, Hammon got her break thanks to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and was given the role of assistant coach. She was the first full-time female coach in the NBA. On first glance it all seems rather straightforward. A young girl who loves a spot and is pretty good at it gets a shot at the big time. But this would be unfair to Hammon’s journey and ignores the times where league organisers were adamant about not letting a 10 year old girl play a few age groups ahead of her male peers. It also ignores the times where even the scouts who could look past the fact she was female still couldn’t see the potential she had as a player. And it ignores the times that her country shut the door on her when they chose others to represent them at the Olympics and later branded her a traitor for joining the Russians.
Despite obstacles and gender issues, Hammon has always remained steadfast. She has wanted nothing more than to simply be the best. She isn’t fazed by being surrounded by a largely male make-up just like she didn’t care when she came up against her brother and his friends back when she was younger. Hammon just loves basketball one hell of a lot and that love might just open a lot of doors for other women. What makes Hammon a fantastic athlete isn’t just the fact she has overcome gender barriers but she did so while being held down by her perceived weaknesses as a basketball player. Overcoming both of these is really something special.
This is part of an ongoing series of posts that looks at individuals in sport who have made a significant impact in ensuring sport is more inclusive and is open to all people regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.