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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Editor's note: This was recorded before the Astros clobbered the White Sox, 21-5 on Thursday.

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