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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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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