AN IMPORTANT FIRST STEP

Here's why big changes in the NBA could happen sooner than you think

Becky Hammon's time will come. Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images.

Not to take anything away from Sarah Fuller kicking off to start the second half of Vanderbilt's game against Missouri last November … Fuller did become the first woman to play in a Power 5 college football game.

First is important.

But first of many to come, and being a trailblazer, is more important.

On Dec. 30, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich must have said something over the line to a referee and was ejected from the Spurs game against the Lakers. Taking over coaching duties for San Antonio that night was Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. It was the first time – albeit for one night only – a woman was head coach of an NBA team. Make that head coach of any team in any of the four major pro sports leagues in America.

Hammon coaching the Spurs for that one game, really a half-plus, after Popovich was tossed in the second quarter, will be a more important step toward gender equality in sports than Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs, or a woman winning a gold medal against men in sailing or surfing or darts or some other non-contact sport where men and women compete evenly.

Becky Hammon is not a gimmick, a publicity stunt, a TV reality show star or "battle of the sexes" contestant. She won't be a Daily Double question on Jeopardy, a lucky opportunist who got to coach an NBA game because every other coach on the team came down with a virus or was stuck at an airport.

When a woman is inevitably named full-time head coach of a major American pro sports franchise, it probably, deservingly, will be Hammon.

Hammon grew up in South Dakota where she starred for her high school basketball team. Despite being named South Dakota Miss Basketball, she received only one D1 college scholarship offer – to Colorado State. Again, despite leading the Rams in scoring, she was not drafted by the WNBA.

Nothing stopped Hammon from chasing her basketball dream. After failing to make the U.S. Women's Olympic team, she played pro ball in Russia and made the Russian Olympic team. Back in the States, she became a six-time WNBA All-Star, earning the nickname "Big Shot Becky." She was inducted into the New York Liberty's Ring of Honor. Her number 25 is retired by the San Antonio Silver Spurs.

When Hammon retired from the WNBA in 2014, Popovich hired her as an assistant coach, the first fulltime paid assistant in the NBA. That's so Pop. He sees the big picture of basketball on the court and beyond.

He didn't hire Hammon for a headline. His reason: "I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs." Hammon got the job fair and square, for her brain and grit, not because of two X chromosomes.

In 2015, Hammon was head coach of the Spurs' summer league team and won the title. Like Alexander Hamilton on Broadway, Hammon was not throwing away her shot. A year later, she was a member of the NBA All-Star Game coaching staff.

In 2018, veteran NBA star Pau Gasol wrote an open letter urging a team to hire Hammon as coach. He said, "I've played with some of the best players of this generation, and I've played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I'm telling you, Becky Hammon can coach. I'm not saying she can coach pretty well. I'm not saying she can coach enough to get by. I'm not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA's male coaches. Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period."

Given the NBA's annual merry-go-round of the same coaches being hired over and over, it's well past time for Big Shot Becky to get her biggest shot yet.

One day there will be a woman head coach in the NFL, too. Obviously the league hasn't found a man smart enough to think, "maybe we should double cover Travis Kelce, he's open more than my corner 7-11 store."

While Sarah Fuller kicking for Vanderbilt will not begin a stampede of women playing college football, you just watch Hammon be the first of many female head coaches in pro sports.

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Yordan Alvarez's homer in Wednesday's game gave him 100 RBI on the season. Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Winners of three straight, six of their last seven, and eight of their last ten, the Astros had the chance to move yet another game closer to clinching their playoff spot if they could secure the series with a win against the Angels on Wednesday. Even though it looked as though they were headed towards a loss in extra innings, they would ultimately come out ahead.

Final Score (12 innings): Astros 9, Angels 5

Astros' Record: 91-61, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yimi Garcia (4-9)

Losing Pitcher: Sam Selman (0-1)

Garcia goes six shutout innings

Although he didn't have swing-and-miss dominance in this start, Luis Garcia could still capitalize on a struggling Angels offense and post a shutout quality start against them. He allowed three walks and three hits throughout his outing but stranded all of them while getting outs on balls in play. His final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 79 P.

Alvarez reaches 100 RBI as Houston's offense keeps rolling

That performance had Garcia in line for the win, as two homers handed him a 3-0 advantage which he held. Houston once again used early offense to take a first-inning lead, as a leadoff walk by Jose Altuve turned into a monster 456-foot by Yordan Alvarez, pushing him to 100 RBI on the season. The score held at 2-0 until the top of the fifth, when Jason Castro led that frame off with a solo homer to extend the lead to three runs.

Extras in Anaheim

Phil Maton was first out of Houston's bullpen in the bottom of the seventh, but a single, double, and walk loaded the bases with no outs to put him in a jam. A lineout kept the runners put for the first out, but a single and a walk would make it a one-run game and left the bases loaded as Maton would get pulled.

Kendall Graveman entered to try and stop the bleeding, but after a force out at home to put that within reach, Jack Mayfield came through for Los Angeles with a go-ahead three-run double, giving the Angels their first lead of the series at 5-3. In the top of the eighth, a walk by Alex Bregman brought Alvarez back to the plate, and he would nearly miss a game-tying homer and instead got an RBI-single to make it 5-4.

Alvarez would still come in to tie the game, hustling home from second on an RBI single by Yuli Gurriel to knot things up 5-5. Brooks Raley was Houston's next reliever, and he sat down LA in order with two strikeouts. Still tied in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Pressly came in to force extras, and despite being shadowed by the winning run on the bases after a leadoff single, retired the next three batters to send the game to the tenth.

Astros keep battling and take it in the twelfth

Jake Meyers took second base as Houston's free runner in the top of the tenth, but he would go nowhere as the Astros went down in order, giving the Angels another chance at a walk-off. Instead of giving Shohei Ohtani a free pass immediately, Houston would let Blake Taylor throw two balls to him before giving him the intentional walk.

Taylor then gave up a single to load the bases with no outs, and after getting a force out at home for the first out, Yimi Garcia would replace him. Thanks to a great play by Chas McCormick, giving him multiple in the game, the Astros would live to see another inning as he would make a great catch in right field and then throw out Ohtani at home.

In the top of the eleventh, a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel moved Aledmys Diaz to third, but that's as close as Houston would come, leaving them stuck at five runs. After Garcia retired three more batters in the bottom of the eleventh, the game moved to the twelfth, where Houston would get back in front on an RBI single by Jake Meyers, then padded the new lead on a two-RBI double by Jose Altuve, who would also score on a sac fly by Alex Bregman, making it 9-5. Josh James came in and wrapped things up in the bottom half as Houston secured the series victory and reduced their magic number to two against Oakland and three against Seattle.

Up Next: The finale of this four-game series, and the last time these two teams will meet this year, will be an 8:38 PM Central start on Thursday. The expected pitching matchup is Alex Cobb (8-3, 3.59 ERA) for Los Angeles and Lance McCullers Jr. (12-4, 3.11 ERA) for Houston.

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