The first woman to interview for an NBA head coaching job proves the value of a great career sponsor

Follow the leader.
Follow the leader.
Image: AP Photo/Darren Abate
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Becky Hammon, the first woman to be an NBA assistant coach, may soon be the first woman to be an NBA head coach.

Hammon reportedly will interview with the up-and-coming Milwaukee Bucks, after spending the last four years with the San Antonio Spurs, where she’s worked for one of the league’s most successful, and influential, coaches, Gregg Popovich.

Hammon, 41, has a reputation as a sharp coach who can command the attention and respect of professional basketball players. But it’s clear her advancement potential also speaks to her pursuit of Popovich’s sponsorship, which, more than mentorship, can elevate the careers of women in traditionally male fields.

Popovich knew of Hammon as a player on San Antonio’s WNBA team. After they both took part in London’s 2012 Olympics—he as a  coach, she as a player— they ran into each other in the airport and spent the flight home discussing basketball, according to a profile of Hammon in the New Yorker.

Popovich left the encounter impressed, and Hammon could have left the flight with a new mentor advising her from afar as she transitioned from athlete to coach. But when her season ended early because of an injury, she asked to sit in on Spurs practices, a courtesy not often granted. Popovich let her, however, and soon invited her to join coaches’ meetings and film sessions. When an opening on the Spurs coaching staff appeared, Popovich named Hammon his newest assistant.

Popovich’s sponsorship extended to naming Hammon the coach of the Spurs’ team in the Las Vegas summer league, a showcase for rookies and fringe players. She used the opportunity to prove she was more than a curiosity, winning the league’s championship.

Popvich denies he was trying to make a statement when he hired her. (“It has nothing to do with her being a woman,” he said. “She happens to be a woman.”) But his record for progressivism perhaps speaks otherwise. Popovich has been outspoken about the police’s treatment of black men in America. A US Air Force veteran, he has supported anti-gun protests, and vocally criticized US president Donald Trump. With five NBA championships under his belt, he knows he has near-total job security, and he’s willing to use his clout to advance his beliefs.

Hammon is just one of at least six rumored candidates for the Bucks job, so it’s far from certain she’ll get the gig. The Bucks are owned by a group that includes hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry, a prominent donor to Democrats, and it’s possible that he, too, wants to make a statement by including Hammon on his slate of candidates.

But even if Hammon’s candidacy is just about values-signaling, her consideration marks progress. In the NFL, the Rooney Rule—which requires professional football teams to interview at least one African-American candidate for head coaching positions—has raised the profile of many black assistant coaches and made them credible candidates for future openings. Likewise, Hammon’s interview with the Bucks means the next time there’s an NBA head coaching vacancy, her inclusion on a slate of candidates won’t just be a novelty.