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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Jeremy Pena could have some big shoes to fill. Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images.

MLB and the MLBPA are embroiled in yet another labor dispute. The owners and players have both dug in their heels and refuse to budge. No end is in site for the lockout as Spring Training is drawing more and more near each passing day. So what does that mean for our 2022 Astros' season?

One sigh of relief came when Justin Verlander signed his new deal. Two years for $50 million dollars isn't bad at all. Factor in he's closer to my age than my son (coming off Tommy John surgery), and some may worry. Not me. He's the closest thing to Tom Brady MLB has seen since Nolan Ryan. Jim Crane and James Click did a great job bringing him back. His spot as the ace with the rest of the staff they have should help shore up the bullpen if one or two starters can make that transition. I know I said I didn't want him back a few months ago, but time has passed, and wounds have been healed.

When it comes to Carlos Correa, I'm growing more and more comfortable with the thought that he may not be back. I talked about his potential replacement months ago. Maybe the reason being is that the club loves Jeremy Peña at that same position, and Pedro Leon could also factor in. Plus, Peña is tearing the cover off the ball in the winter leagues.

At 24 years old, turning 25 in September, he'll be under team control for the foreseeable future. That truly depends on the new labor agreement. So does Correa's new contract. His contract will be largely based on the parameters set in the new labor agreement, since he didn't sign before the lockout took place. And now we know that contact will be negotiated by Correa's new agent, Scott Boras.

I'm all for the doom and gloom when it comes to an MLB labor issue because they've historically screwed over fans. The most notable and egregious was the '94 World Series being canceled. However, there's way too much money at stake right now. More money than ever to be exact. That said, it's precisely why there's a dispute. That, and the fact that the owners have always gotten over on fans and players, and the players are poised to get their just due.

When the season starts, the Astros should be contenders yet again. Don't look for them to come out the gate firing on all cylinders as this team may look a bit different. Guys may not be fully ready after a lockout and there will be some roster turnover. The bulk of the core will be here, ready, and healthy. Whether Correa is a part of that group remains to be seen. Am I concerned? Hell no! This team has enough to fill that void at least partially and will have either guy under team control for a while. Think about this upcoming season as the time you fixed up your older car. New tires, headlights restored, rims polished, inside made over, and a fresh coat of paint after the transmission rebuild. It still has over 150,000 miles on it, but you wouldn't trade it in for anything because it still runs well and has sentimental value. You know one day it'll give out and need to be put out to pasture, but you're holding on and riding until the wheels fall off. Enjoy Astro fans, because the ride will be over one day. Hopefully much later than sooner.

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