More than one pioneer
Becky Hammon has made the most of her chance thanks to those who gave her one.
Kathrine Switzer was a pioneer.
When the Boston Marathon still refused to allow women to participate in 1967, Switzer gained entry after filling out her application nondescriptly: “K.V. Switzer.” She managed to run a fewmiles, her gender camouflaged in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, before being discovered by race official Jock Semple, who then assaulted her in midstride, trying to rip off her bib number and literally toss her from the race. She fended off the attack with help and finished, and five years later the country’s most famous race finally granted women the right to run. Billy Spiller was a pioneer. When he was barred in 1952 from yet another PGA tournament, the San Diego Open, because of the color of his skin, Spiller created a national stir by sitting in— like civil rights lunch counter protesters would do a decade later— at the first tee on the morning of the opening round. Later that week, the PGA announced that Spiller and other black golfers could play tournaments that invited them, and a week later, the Phoenix Open invited Spiller and five other black golfers, including Charlie Sifford, who became the first black golfer to play the PGA Tour, and boxing legend Joe Louis, to qualify.
Pioneers bum rush; they cut the swath. They aren’t beneficiaries of arrangement and by invitation only.
But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others among us confused Becky Hammon with being just that after she coached the San Antonio Spurs Summer League team to a title Monday night following a regular season in which she was, with the Spurs, the NBA’s first full-time female assistant. It led many observers, including some NBA players, to suggest she was ready to become the league’s first female head coach and open the locker room door for other women.
“You need pioneers, and there’s been other pioneers before her, but I think you couldn’t ask for more of a complete package in terms of former player, student of the game and someone who’s able to work within a strong organization like the Spurs,” Silver said Wednesday at the Beyond Sport United Conference in New ark.
There was no protest Hammon could have waged successfully to win first chair— or any chair— on an NBA bench. There was no clamor for a woman to coach in the NBA. But it shouldn’t have taken until someone so seemingly perfect to gain such an unprecedented moment in professional basketball history. It shouldn’t have taken someone like Hammon— someone twice as good for her lot, as the old African American proverb says— to gain an opportunity.
John Thompson reminded us of that years ago as a panelist on one of President Bill Clinton’s nationally televised town hall meetings on race. The show Thompson participated in, broadcast on ESPN, concerned the sports world’s slow embrace of people of color as coaches and executives of the games they predominated as athletes.
Vince Dooley, at the time the athletic director at Georgia and also a panelist that evening, praised Thompson and Tubby Smith— who had just become the second black coach to lead a major college basketball team, Kentucky, to a national title— as examples of why college basketball should give clipboards to more black men who aspire to be head coaches. Look how well Thompson, who led Georgetown to the NCAA crown in 1984, and Smith succeeded, Dooley pointed out.
“I’m sick of us having to be perfect to get the job,” Thompson shot back. “There are a whole lot of whites who aren’t successful. All we want is the right to get a chance to fail.”
But almost 20 years later, that truth about opportunity is still being reckoned with around the story of Hammon. She isn’t being judged just on her own merits as a basketball lifer who overtook the doubts of others about her ability to play. She starred at Colorado State before becoming a seventime all-star in the WNBA, which didn’t even see her fit enough to draft. She became an Olympian— but for Russia— after Team USA shunned her for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Upon Hammon’s retirement last summer, the Spurs, who had come to know her during her years starring for San Antonio’s (Art Shell), its first female chief executive (Amy Trask) and one of its first Hispanic head coaches (Tom Flores). He’s not unlike former White Sox general manager Ron Schueler or Yankees GM Brian Cashman, each of whom made Kim Ng a first as a woman as assistant director of baseball operations with the White Sox and assistant GM with the Yankees. Ng got those before the turn of the millennium but has yet to find an owner, or rather a pioneer, willing to make her baseball’s first female GM.
Hammon was lucky to find Popovich, the real pioneer in her story.
The wonderment is not whether there will be other Hammons, for there are already, like the Clippers assistant video coordinator and former National Women’s Basketball League and UCLA player Natalie Nakase. The question is whether there will be other Popoviches.