More than one pi­o­neer

Becky Ham­mon has made the most of her chance thanks to those who gave her one.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Kevin B. Black­i­stone sports@wash­post.com Kevin B. Black­i­stone, ESPN pan­elist and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, writes sports com­men­tary for The Post.

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.

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