The Dearica Hamby Trade Will Always Sting
9:44 AM EDT on May 19, 2023
Earlier this week, the WNBA announced that it would be suspending Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon for two games without pay after a league investigation found the Hall of Famer had violated "league and team Respect in the Workplace policies." The league added that the team would lose its 2025 first-round draft pick for violating "rules regarding impermissible player benefits." As is the case with all professional sports leagues and their statements, reporters and fans were left to suss out what all these awkward phrases and pieces of PR-ese actually meant.
Reporters spoke first with Dearica Hamby, formerly of the Aces and now with the Los Angeles Sparks, hours after the WNBA announcement, at Sparks practice. Hamby had been with the Aces for five seasons before the team traded her to Los Angeles in January. Prior to the trade she'd appeared poised for a long stay in Las Vegas: She signed a contract extension with the Aces in June of last year; the team included her and her daughter, Amaya, in social-media campaigns; and Hamby announced her second pregnancy at the Aces' championship parade. After the trade, Hamby published a post on Instagram discussing her love of Las Vegas and its fans but also referencing "disgusting comments" that she said conveyed to her that her pregnancy was a problem for the franchise.
"I was told that 'I didn't hold up my end of the bargain.' (Because 'no one expected me to get pregnant in the next two years.')" Hamby wrote. "Did the team expect me to promise not to get pregnant in exchange for the contract extension?" The Instagram post did not say who made these comments, but the WNBA's two-game suspension of Hammon sure seemed to give that away.
Long Beach Press-Telegram reporter John W. Davis shared an extended clip of Hamby talking with journalists on Tuesday and, at first, the video started out as expected with questions about the league announcement as well as Hamby's timeline for returning to action. Then one reporter asked Hamby what she plans to tell her son, Legend, about what happened and how and why she suddenly became a Spark.
"My daughter, when it happened, she literally said, 'Are you getting traded because of Legend?' And it like—" then Hamby paused for a moment. She wiped her eyes, then kept going. "It literally, it made me cry. And, you know, for my son, he’ll be able to see it. And I don’t think this is the end of it and just moving forward, being progressive for working moms. I think the league has been incredible in what they’ve done, but we still have a long ways to go in this league and in the world. So I know he'll see it."
Another reporter asked, "What did you tell her?"
"I cried. I was like kind of. She just asked about L.A. She said, 'Oh, we can go to L.A. for two years and then we'll come back.' But I think she understands now," Hamby replied. Now, she said, her daughter is looking forward to when the opposing teams come and play the Sparks so she can see her friends. "She's enjoying L.A. I'm enjoying L.A.," she said. "We're moving forward. She's important to me and she loves her mommy."
When the session closed with a question about the Sparks' games against the Aces, Hamby noted that they "probably will be emotional for me but I'm locked in on Sparks basketball."
That same day, the Aces released a statement saying the WNBA's investigative findings about Hammon were "inconsistent with what we know and love about her" and that the team stood by her. Hammon spoke to reporters a day later, on Wednesday, during her Zoom press availability.
Whereas when Hamby spoke to reporters she seemed sensitive and even vulnerable, Hammon's time talking to journalists felt more straightforward and clinical. Some of this is the nature of her availability being on Zoom, not a medium known for warmth and charm, but that's not all of it; some of the shift reflects who is speaking. Whereas Hamby is a good WNBA player and a two-time time league All-Star, Hammon was once a great WNBA player who now is the highest-paid coach in WNBA history, the first woman to act as a head coach during an NBA game, a Women's Basketball Hall of Famer and about to be enshrined in the other basketball Hall of Fame, and the person who took the Aces to their first WNBA championship in her first season. Hamby has her career to protect; Hammon has an entire public narrative on the line.
"I handled Dearica with care from day one when she told me, and she knows that. And, like I said, once I make the phone call that the decision has been made to move her, you know, that's when everything kind of fell apart," Hammon said. "When you're dealing with a really tough conversation, I think things can get twisted real quick. But I don't think there was any cursing or anything derogatory. That's my opinion. Obviously she has a different opinion and she's allowed to have that opinion, but that's not how I saw things go down with my conversation, and—or anybody else's."
A reporter then asked if the league told her what, exactly, she did that violated the policy. Hammon said it was her asking Hamby about her pregnancy as well as a "private conversation" she had with her.
"We made the decision to move Hamby because we could get three bodies in for her one contract, and we wanted to get three more people in," Hammon said. "I think it's very evident who we signed on why we made the move, but it was never an issue and it was never the reason she was traded. It just wasn't. It came down to math in business that's all it was, nothing personal."
Hammon added that she thought she had a great relationship with Hamby "the whole time," which probably led to the feeling of betrayal, and called being the bearer of bad news "a crappy part of my job." She added "I never had one bad text" with Hamby, in regards to possible text message evidence proving Hamby had been mistreated, and added that any of those accusations "are vehemently false."
When she talked to reporters, Hammon pointed out that the WNBA investigators did not speak to any current Aces players. But over at The Next, Howard Megdal reported that a source familiar with the investigation said that was due to the Aces declining to make available "any of their current players, or indeed, anyone at all who wasn’t already on a list formulated by the league and the WNBPA." ESPN's M.A. Voepel reported the same detail: The Aces were given the option to provide more names for investigators—and did not.
By now, what happened with Hamby, Hammon, and the Aces has taken on all the contours of any professional sports investigation: a vague, league-issued statement that says little, followed by stern denials from the punished side saying it was a flawed investigation, followed by anonymous league sources leaking details to try and show that, no, it was a good investigation. Amidst all this is the WNBA players association, which said the league's punishment missed the mark. It also called out the rescinded Aces draft pick—which was done for "impermissible player benefits" connected to Hamby's Aces extension—for punishing a future player for actions beyond their control.
"Where in this decision does this team or any other team across the League learn the lesson that respect in the workplace is the highest standard," the WNBPA statement said, "and a player's dignity cannot be manipulated?"
American professional sports teams, for the most part, are allowed to trade players without their consent, for any reason, at any time; it's a system with unfairness and a certain amount of cruelty baked into it. It's no coincidence that the landmark lawsuit bringing free agency to professional sports was brought by a player, Curt Flood, fighting back against a trade to a city where he did not want to live. That the Aces' trade also involved a pregnant player—a person on paper protected by federal law, though in reality those protections mean very little in many workplaces—only ratchets up the apparent callousness. You can write this off as, well, hey, this is the price they pay for being pro athletes; that's the business; this what they signed up for. And it's a cruelty Hammon experienced herself: She landed in San Antonio, where she would go on to make NBA history, because she got traded. I don't doubt Hammon means it when she said to her, this was just business, but just because that's how a business works doesn't mean the workers have to like it.
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Diana Moskovitz is Defector's investigations editor. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you prefer protonmail, email@example.com. If security is a concern, download the Signal app and send her a text at 929-251-8187.
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