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When A Coach Becomes A Cudgel

Assistant coach Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 14, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A while ago, I wondered aloud to my friend, a law student, what it would feel like to be one of those famous plaintiffs. You know the ones. (A documentary on Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, had just come out.) Was it weird, humbling, exciting to be in that position? Disempowering, maybe, to see the facts of a case—the very facts of your life—subsumed into something weighty and beyond you, to see yourself turned to symbol. My friend pointed out that these kinds of “impact litigation” cases sometimes move so slowly that the person at the center may never actually benefit in the end, or even live to see it.  

What would it feel like to be Becky Hammon? In the last week, she’s been a woman discussed entirely on other people’s terms, an unfortunate (if inevitable) consequence of being runner-up to a man accused of sexual assault. Opposite the Portland Trail Blazers’ thoughtless handling of the Chauncey Billups hiring, she’s been cast as a kind of martyr. Forget what she actually is—a former star and current assistant coach on a prestigious bench, armed with a glowing letter of recommendation from Pau Gasol. By the unsubtle optics of her situation and by the dearth of other women in the NBA’s assistant coaching ranks, she’s also now afforded the unenviable privilege of representing Every Woman Ever Wronged.

That's all a little to be expected; no "first woman to..." can ever escape meaning something. Hammon, for her part, has said she has little interest in proving any bigger point. "My motives shouldn’t be to change people’s minds," she told The New Yorker in 2018. Still, in sports media, Hammon's career has long been used as a chance to probe the deeper and somewhat tired question of whether a woman could ever earn the respect of an NBA roster. I asked Nancy Lieberman about that question once. When Lieberman was hired by the Kings in 2015, she became the second woman to work as an assistant coach in the NBA. Her answer was that basketball players are united in one thing: their desperation to keep playing. If a coach can help players do that, help them get their next contract, she said, they wouldn’t care in the slightest if she was a woman. I wonder, amid all this, was Lieberman too optimistic? 

We’re offered a purported clue in a report on the Blazers' hiring process from Jake Fischer at Bleacher Report earlier this week, though it’s delivered in language so mangled by hazy scoopbrain that its author should be brought before the Hague:

Hammon impressed Portland officials and was generally liked among Blazers staffers, sources said. But when Portland reached out for intel from San Antonio figures, the background on Hammon was not nearly as complimentary pertaining to various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities. That sentiment has been echoed by sources around the league. Blazers personnel then cast doubt that Hammon was the candidate to steer the ship through such delicate waters with Lillard.

How should we read that? I'm less inclined to see it as Spurs malice than as hasty Blazers ass-covering. For one, it would be odd for a team to employ—for seven years!—someone they felt couldn’t handle “various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities” and just as odd for that team to damage a relationship in this very public way. 

Later, at the now-infamous press conference introducing Billups, Blazers GM Neil Olshey offered some more insight into his decision. “We absolutely admire Becky. She did a great job. Making it as far as the ownership level in the interview process isn't easy,” he said. “She made it all the way to the ownership level, which is really an endorsement of how far she’s come and how close she is to being a head coach.”

Patronizing? Yes, and more than a little. But it strikes me that Olshey (and Fischer's sources, for that matter, assuming they are, uh, different people) only brought up Hammon because someone specifically asked. Most unsuccessful candidates for these jobs are allowed the dignity of failing quietly; not so with Hammon. She's the most famous assistant in the league. Everyone—even people so incurious about who she is they can’t be bothered to spell her name correctly—wants to know when she'll be hired and why she hasn't been. Now, perversely, the symbolic interest in Hammon, which appears to outpace the actual interest, has left her vulnerable to potshots from "San Antonio figures" and to humiliating figurative pats on the head.

It would be refreshing for Olshey to simply come out with the real reason and say, “Damian Lillard, the guy with the power to flee and thereby destroy this franchise if he so chooses, wanted Jason Kidd, who withdrew from the coaching search, so we went with his next choice, Billups” or “Becky Hammon is actually a tremendous fraud whose so-called ‘elite’ 2008 San Antonio Silver Stars, despite having the 'best' regular season record in the 'mighty' Western Conference and homecourt advantage, were swept in the WNBA Finals by a probably beatable Detroit Shock team playing without Cheryl Ford or Plenette Pierson and with a 37-year-old Taj McWilliams Franklin.” (Joking! Only joking!) But Olshey said what he said because he can't admit that what he does is a fundamentally weird and ridiculous job, that these hiring decisions are idiosyncratic and never really about the polite fictions we collectively pretend.

Sports are funny that way. In some spaces, they enact a lovely, sensible hierarchy. The better players are the ones who win; the ones who don’t are valued less. The terms for success are neatly defined. And then, one step out of bounds, that all ceases to be true. Now, the rules are mostly illegible. You can have a head coaching job because Vivek Ranadive does not have the financial means to fire you, or because Kevin Durant likes you, or because you're some other guy's relative, or because your boss has been canned and you just happened to be there at the right time. 

Would Hammon be an NBA head coach by now if she were a man? I have no clue (and think it a little mystifying, given, like, Patrick Ewing’s fruitless and now-abandoned quest for one of these jobs, that anyone could confidently declare otherwise). I’d joke that Hammon’s recent ascension to the Ewing class of elite forever-assistants represents true equality, but I suspect that’s exactly what makes her case so frustrating, that unanswerable question. In a job market as fickle as this one, it’s impossible to pick out misogyny’s insidious thread from the rest of the tangle. The other elite forever-assistants may not have NBA head coaching jobs, but what they do have, at least, is some certainty their gender never hurt their case. 

It's hard to draw conclusions or even approach them obliquely. This blog makes my brain hurt! What do words like “qualified” and “deserves” and “credentials” even mean when we talk about coaching in the NBA? Is there a job more alchemical? I follow two professional basketball leagues and a couple dozen college teams closely. I’ve watched a thousand ATOs, mic’d up huddles, playoff adjustments, and postgame interviews, and I’m not sure I can evaluate coaches or predict their success much better now than I could at age 8, when I thought Flip Saunders seemed a real pro because he was so well-dressed. Coaches succeed one year, tank the next, thrive in one city, flounder in another. For all a coach can control, there is as much, if not more, they can't. Every hiring, every success may just be a matter of serendipity. And I do very much hope, as an admirer of hers, that Hammon soon finds that serendipitous situation or that it finds her.

The remarkable facts of Hammon’s biography have been lost in this mess, which is unfortunate; her well-wishers could take some comfort in them. If there’s been a basketball career more unlikely, more shaped by sheer accident, than hers, I don’t know of it. Hammon achieved college stardom though she never grew taller than 5-foot-6. She happened to graduate the same year a rival women’s professional league folded, leaving all its best players to seek refuge (i.e. take Hammon’s spot) in that year’s WNBA draft, which is how she ended up slumming it undrafted at New York Liberty training camp, which is how she ended up learning from (and backing up) the wonderful starting point guard Teresa Weatherspoon, which is how she ended up taking over as starter when Weatherspoon left a few years later, which is how she ended up blossoming into an All-Star. She bumped into Gregg Popovich one day, in 2012, in a busy airport. This chain of serendipity isn't meant to discredit her, but to compliment. Given even the smallest chances, she's proven she can make so much of them. She just needs one more.

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