Longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon made history last night, becoming the first woman to act as the head coach of an NBA team during a game. The moment arrived in the second quarter of the Spurs’ game against the Lakers, when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from the game for arguing a call. On his way off the floor, Popovich pointed at Hammon and said, “You got ’em.”
Hammon spent the rest of the game perched on Popovich’s chair, calling out plays from the sideline, and leading the discussion during team huddles. The Spurs went on to lose the game 121-107, and for as meaningful as the moment when Hammon took the reins was, what unfolded afterwards was just a regular NBA game. “It was business as usual,” Hammon told reporters later. “They’re used to hearing my voice in practice. In practice, Pop will put us in two teams, and we each have a team, so they’re kind of used to hearing me out there, seeing me draw a play on the board or whatnot.”
“You don’t think twice about it,” said Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan. “She’s one of us. When she speaks, we are all ears.”
It is hard not to think, perhaps unfairly to Hammon, about what happens next. Hammon, who played in the WNBA from 1999–2014, is the Spurs’ longest tenured assistant coach, and from the moment she was hired has been talked about as someone who could possibly, someday, off in the future, become the NBA’s first female head coach. That future got a little bit closer when she was named as San Antonio’s Summer League coach in 2015, and it drew even nearer last night.
Hammon is still just 43 years old, and that makes it easy to assume that she has plenty of time to advance, to think that someday, surely, an NBA team will look to her as a legitimate head coaching candidate. But trailblazing is never that easy. People spent 20 years talking about how Kim Ng was sure to become the first female GM in baseball one day, but that supposed inevitability only came to pass this November.
The next barrier is always harder to break than the previous one. The height and breadth of those barriers is not anything Hammon can change herself, and so all she can do is continue to do her job to the best of her ability. Hopefully that will be enough to make “the NBA’s first female head coach” an attainable title, and not just an assumed one that she has to spend the next decade or so carrying around.