Aces Hammon silences doubters, becomes first rookie coach to win WNBA title

    M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The doubters have come at Becky Hammon for as long as she can remember.

They said the 5-foot-6 guard from Rapid City, South Dakota, was too short and too slow to be a Division I college basketball star. That she couldn’t play in the WNBA. She wouldn’t succeed on an NBA bench. And she wasn’t ready to be a head coach.

An All-American, an undrafted rookie who became a six-time WNBA All-Star, and a former longtime assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Hammon has made a career of proving people wrong.

And Sunday, Hammon became a championship coach, guiding her Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA title with a 78-71 Game 4 victory over the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. She is the first in WNBA history to win a title in her debut season as a head coach. (Van Chancellor won the inaugural WNBA championship in 1997, when all the coaches were in their first year with their teams, but he had been a college and high school head coach for more than 30 years.)

After the game, Hammon — with 4-year-old son, Samuel, in one arm and another arm around 7-year-old son, Cayden — wore a WNBA championship cap and said the thing she was most proud of was the way the Aces players trusted in each other. It was a message she emphasized all season, and it proved a major factor in winning the title.

“They’re unbelievable on the court, but they are unbelievable humans. They care about each other,” Hammon said of her players. “It’s been so much fun. They’re big-time players. They love big-time moments.”

Just five NBA rookie head coaches in the last 60 years have won a league title. Nick Nurse did it most recently with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, although he also had been a head coach for several years at other levels of basketball.

Hammon, 45, was believed to be among the candidates who might break the glass ceiling to become the first woman head coach in one of the four major men’s professional leagues in the United States. But in late December, she was hired as the Aces’ head coach after eight seasons as an assistant to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.

If you think she sees this WNBA title as redemption, or retribution toward NBA franchises that didn’t give her a chance to be in charge, Hammon isn’t wired that way. Yes, she knows that if an NBA player had a career anything like what she did in the WNBA, that player would have been an NBA head coach sooner rather than later.

“Sure, if my name was Brian and I played 16 years in the NBA, I would have been hired and fired a few times as an NBA coach already,” Hammon said, chuckling. “That’s just what it is.”

Pragmatism always has been a Hammon staple. She has lived this plot line so many times. And when Aces owner Mark Davis saw the opportunity to do what no team in the NBA did — hire her as a head coach — Hammon knew if she didn’t win a WNBA title right away, some would claim she wasn’t ready to be a head coach in either league.

Now that she has won in the WNBA after making some key changes to the Aces’ offense and defense, some will say it’s because she had great players, such as MVP A’ja Wilson, or that the WNBA title isn’t as difficult to win. Even though with all the top talent in the world concentrated into 12 teams as opposed to the NBA’s 30, Hammon thinks it is just as hard, if not harder, to get a WNBA championship.

Let the critics and doubters say what they want. Hammon never acts or talks like she has an axe to grind. She just sounds determined.

“When she puts her mind to something, there’s really no stopping her,” said Brenda Milano, Hammon’s wife. “She wants to be the best leader that she can be. She feels she was so fortunate as a player to have coaches who saw the bigger picture. It isn’t just about basketball, but life.”

When asked earlier in the playoffs if the move to Las Vegas had been what she hoped it would be, Hammon said it had been even better.

“One of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “Not just because of the organization, which is great, but my team. I adore this team. I love coaching them, hanging out with them, interacting with them. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been really fun work.”

Hammon often says how grateful she is that things in her life have had a way of working out. What she doesn’t say is she made them work.

“You knew she was going to coach,” said Sun coach Curt Miller, who was an assistant at Colorado State during Hammon’s senior season in 1998-99. “She was so X’s and O’s smart, and savvy. She overachieved her whole playing career, in part due to being an incredible shot maker, but also her knowledge. Understanding and seeing things before they happened.”

Yet even Hammon couldn’t have envisioned all that would transpire for her. The former New York Liberty and San Antonio star says now that even the difficult things — not being drafted into the WNBA, not making the U.S. Olympic team, suffering injuries that cut short two WNBA seasons, and not getting an NBA head coaching job — ended up having a silver lining.

“You are not always in charge of your route,” Hammon said, “but you are in charge of how you walk the route once you’re on it.”

When Hammon wasn’t picked in 1999, when the WNBA draft was still four rounds, it was because the short-lived ABL had folded a few months before and 35 professional players from the league were among the 50 selected by WNBA teams. The group included current Aces general manager Natalie Williams and Aces chief business development officer Jennifer Azzi, both of whom were top-five selections. Three other picks were non-ABL pros from outside the United States.

Hammon was not one of the 12 college seniors selected, but she ended up playing longer in the WNBA than any of them. In fact, she played longer than any 1999 draftee except DeLisha Milton-Jones, who retired a year after Hammon.

In her fifth WNBA season in New York, Hammon suffered an ACL injury that ended her 2003 campaign after 11 games, and she knew it would hurt her chances of making the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. With a lifelong desire to compete in the Olympics, she made what was then an unconventional choice that is more common now: She played for another country. Hammon’s time competing in Russia professionally allowed her to get citizenship. She played in the 2008 and ’12 Olympics, winning a bronze medal in the Beijing Games.

“It turned out USA Basketball was not the path I was meant to take,” Hammon said. “My journey went another way.”

A trade to San Antonio in 2007 when Hammon was 30 opened a new era for her as an elite point guard. The next six seasons were her best in the league, including a 2008 trip to the WNBA Finals and a career-high scoring average of 19.5 PPG in 2009. Another ACL injury cost her all but one game in 2013, but she spent that year in San Antonio hanging around Spurs practices and getting to know Popovich.

“The WNBA made me,” Hammon said of her playing career leading to coaching. “Without the WNBA, I never would have had a chance to be around Pop in San Antonio.”

When Hammon retired in 2014 after a playoff series loss to the Minnesota Lynx, she knew joining the Spurs’ staff was her next step. In 2015, she coached the Spurs to the Las Vegas Summer League title. She was an assistant in the NBA All-Star Game in 2016, and filled in as acting head coach when Popovich was ejected from a game in 2020.

Hammon has nothing but gratitude toward Popovich. He “made such an investment in me. I had thousands of hours sitting next to him at games, at film sessions, at dinners learning things.”

But every milestone with the Spurs meant headlines for Hammon, often to her discomfort. She understood that being a woman in the NBA made her an inspiration to a lot of other coaches who have since been hired into the league or hope to be. But it also put her in a spotlight she didn’t want.

“When Pop hired me, we had no idea it was going be what it turned out being,” Hammon said. “I’m just a kid that loves basketball. I wanted to learn. Sometimes, I would do something that any other normal assistant was doing, but it was on SportsCenter. And the truth is, not everybody was a fan. Not everybody wanted me to move up. So I always just tried to handle it as best I could, as gracefully as I could.

“Because that stuff is out of my control. I can’t control if they put me on ESPN, or if another assistant coach doesn’t like that. I just tried to do a great job. Be present, be about my team and try to help us win games, whether I’m on the Spurs bench or here.”

The Stars left San Antonio and moved to Las Vegas to become the Aces in 2018, the same year Wilson was drafted No. 1, and Bill Laimbeer was the team’s head coach. The Aces lost to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals in 2020, and then fell in a painful Game 5 of the semifinals at home last year to the Phoenix Mercury.

Laimbeer then stepped away, and Davis set about luring Hammon to take over. Davis already had gotten to know her a little bit during the 2021 WNBA season when the Aces retired Hammon’s No. 25 jersey from her San Antonio playing days.

The reported $1 million salary per season Davis offered her ruffled some WNBA feathers because it’s more than four times as much as the supermax salary for the players this season. But as a coach, Hammon’s salary isn’t collectively bargained like the players’ salaries are, plus she had the leverage of opting to stay in the NBA.

“I wasn’t quite sure at first about leaving the NBA,” Hammon said. “It was a big jump for me.”

One of the things she learned in the NBA — along with the micro details of the playing styles of everyone in the league — was to try and make allowances and know when to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone said something that could be perceived as sexist, she didn’t immediately react. She thought about whether they had really meant it that way, or had just said the wrong thing. She wanted to help them understand her, while she learned to understand them.

“You had to get a tough skin, but I also think I learned how to decipher people’s intention,” Hammon said. “To be quite frank, it was lonely at times. When you’re the only one in the room all the time for eight years, it can get exhausting.”

Still, Hammon enjoyed the game at that level: the skill of the players, the challenges of scouting and game planning, the improvising sometimes needed during games. But she said it is the exact same way in the WNBA.

The staff around her, which also includes team president Nikki Fargas along with Williams and Azzi, has made the transition easy with an atmosphere that feels like family.

“I’m happy coming to work every day because of the people I get to see and spend time with,” Hammon said. “When I was first talking to Nikki and Mark, it was like, ‘What they’re doing is something special. I want to be a part of that.'”

Cayden and Samuel Milano Hammon are familiar faces around the Aces. Cayden is known to sit though the warmups watching so intently you would think he was coaching the upcoming game. Samuel is still more into things like toy trucks than basketball. But he was decked out in Aces gear and sneakers like his brother before a recent game at Michelob Ultra Arena, where the players, fans, ushers and media know the boys.

Cayden is already a student of the game. When asked about his favorite thing about watching the Aces during these playoffs, he said, “Chelsea Gray, when she makes the buzzer beaters.”

Hammon said the boys enjoyed hanging around the Spurs players, but that was more like a fist bump and a nod.

“The guys were great,” Hammon said. “But the Aces players will sit there and talk to them, ask them all kinds of questions, give them hugs, come to their birthday parties. There is just more of a nurturing feel. My sons are loving it.”

That nurturing is part of Hammon’s coaching style, too. She’s tough and airs her grievances when needed, as Game 1 of the Finals showed. But empowerment is the root of her coaching style.

“It’s freedom within structure,” Hammon said of her philosophy. “It’s like, ‘Here’s some structure, but I need you to be yourself.’ I want everybody to authentically be themselves because I want to authentically be myself.”

Aces guard Kelsey Plum, the No. 1 draft pick in 2017 when the team was still in San Antonio, struggled at times with confidence. This season has been the best of her WNBA career.

“I didn’t really ever know what feeling empowered meant until I’d actually been empowered,” Plum said. “And that’s not a shot at anyone. That’s just the reality of having an encouraging coach. She’s definitely hard on me, but it’s in a way that says, ‘I believe in you and you can do this.’ And I feel like I can elevate to the level she wants me to be because now I believe in myself.”

The Aces are now WNBA champions, and Hammon led them there. Will it open some eyes in the NBA to reconsider her? Who knows what the future will bring. Hammon isn’t worried about it. She says the WNBA always was and always will be like “home” for her, and this magical season just adds to the depth of her love for the league.

Besides, there are so many more things to accomplish. No team has won back-to-back WNBA championships since Los Angeles in 2001-2002. Hammon was on the losing end of the Sparks’ second title when she was playing with New York. How full circle would it be if her team was the next to repeat?

Hammon can start thinking about all that soon enough. But right now, this is the Aces’ time to shine.

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