Becky Hammon’s trailblazing journey from South Dakota to San Antonio Spurs

Players, coaches talk about Hammon’s grit, hard work that helped her make history

SAN ANTONIO – The moment was years in the making and all Becky Hammon wanted to talk about was the final result of a regular-season NBA game in late December.

“I would have loved to walk out of there with a win, with the guys,” Hammon said.

The Spurs had just lost to the LA Lakers on a cold night in an empty AT&T Center, but the final score didn’t matter as much as what had been accomplished that evening by the Spurs assistant coach. Hammon had just become the first woman to coach an NBA team during a regular-season game.

On this same night, superstar LeBron James also set a record. He became the first NBA player to score in double figures in 1,000 straight games but realized the magnitude of what Hammon had accomplished.

“She’s been paying her dues over the last few years and coach Pop has given her the opportunity to, first of all, be the coach of the summer league team,” James told reporters. “Then being the interim head coach if anything ever happened to Pop. Tonight was a case where she got to step in and show her work, show her talents and her love for the game.”

And despite the praise, when asked by reporters about the historic moment, Hammon just wanted to talk about the game and basketball.

“The moment for me was just trying to come up with stuff to help us win the game,” Hammon said. “Trying to get the guys in the right spots, trying to motivate them a little bit, trying to execute the game plan and just carry out what we talked about in practice.”

This is the Becky Hammon that the Spurs players and coaches have come to know. A tireless worker who always puts the team above her growing list of career achievements. The players do not think of Hammon as being a female coach. They see her as a leader and simply as Coach Hammon.

“You don’t think twice about it. She fits right in like one of us,” Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said. “Whenever she speaks, we listen. Since I’ve been here, she’s been great to have.”

“She’s earned everyone’s respect just by the amount of work that she’s done,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said. “The amount of work she puts into all the little details, but there’s been a number of years now that has come to this point.”

(Becky Hammon Colorado State Images via CSU Sports Communications.)

Hammon’s work ethic dates back to her days growing up in South Dakota. Despite being named player of the year in the state during her senior year in high school, she was overlooked by all the major women’s collegiate programs. She landed at Colorado State.

Tom Collen coached Hammon for her final two seasons in Fort Collins and knew right away she was a special person.

“One of the reasons why I decided to take the job was because I was going to inherit Becky Hammon,” said Collen. “Her maturity level was beyond her years. She was raised in an awesome household. Her mom and dad taught her how to hunt and fish and go fend for herself.”

It was that sense of confidence and fearlessness that carried Hammon throughout college where she and fellow All-American player Katie Cronin led the Rams to the best season in program history and a top ten finish in 1999 rankings.

“She believed in herself and she was one of those kids that got stronger as the game went on,” Collen said.

(Becky Hammon Colorado State Images via CSU Sports Communications.)

Despite numerous accolades in college, Hammon went undrafted by WNBA teams. Collen made several calls to coaches and general managers imploring them to take a chance on Hammon. The New York Liberty finally answered the call and Hammon once again had to prove her mettle.

“She had no fear from going from South Dakota or Fort Collins, Colorado, to New York City. She just wanted a chance,” said Collen. “She had spent her entire life with people telling her she was too short or too slow. At that point in her life, I don’t think she had any doubts about whether she could or she couldn’t. She got her chance and worked her way up.”

Hammon went on to have one of the most prolific careers in WNBA history. She was a six-time All-Star and later named one of the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time.

In 2007, Hammon was traded from New York to San Antonio’s WNBA franchise at the time, the Stars. She led San Antonio to the WNBA Finals in 2009 and was an immediate fan favorite. After 14 seasons, she began to think about what was next.

In 2012, Hammon began to have discussions with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and a year later, started to attend practices and team meetings while recovering from an ACL injury.

Hammon retired in 2014 and was hired as an assistant coach with the Spurs in August, becoming the first full-time female assistant in NBA history. To Popovich, her gender was irrelevant.

“We didn’t hire Becky to make history,” Popovich said earlier this season. “She earned it. She is qualified. She’s wonderful at what she does. I wanted her on my staff because of the work that she does.”

In seven years on Popovich’s staff, Hammon has been elevated to one of his lead assistants. She’s is an invaluable voice on the bench and has built lifelong relationships with the players.

“I love Becky to death. We’re really close. She texts me on holidays and asks about my daughter, I ask about her kids,” Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray said. “The future is bright for her. She’s definitely on the right road.”

“Just confidence to know she has the ability to be able to step up and coach in the NBA,” Mills said. “I think she’s always believed that. We’ve always known that. But the impact that she’s had on this organization since she’s come here has just gotten bigger.”

(VIDEO BELOW: Spurs players, former assistant James Borrego discuss Becky Hammon’s impact on organization.)

It goes beyond the Spurs organization and locker room. Hammon has become an inspiration for many people, blazing a trail and impacting those around her.

“She’s shattering doors, windows and ceilings and making a mark on this league and not just for women all over the basketball world, but just young women in general that whatever your goal is, your dreams are, go pursue them,” Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego said.

Borrego was an assistant with Hammon on the Spurs coaching staff from 2015 to 2018. He’s seen firsthand the impact Hammon has had on younger generations, especially on his 14-year-old daughter Grace.

“My daughter looks up to her as somebody that she has great respect for and admiration for, and someone that I point my daughter to that you can go make this happen and knock the doors off,” said Borrego. “I was honored and blessed to be around her and more than anything, she’s meant a tremendous amount to me and my family, especially to my daughter.”

And like many others who have crossed Becky Hammon’s path, Borrego believes this is only the beginning. “Becky is far from finished,” Borrego said. “She’s got a lot more to do and she’s got high aspirations as she should.”

On that historic late December night after more reporter questions, Hammon — the underdog athlete who started her basketball journey in South Dakota only to become a pioneer coach in the NBA — finally allowed herself to reflect, just a bit, on the moment, knowing there was more work to be done the next day.

“It’s a substantial moment. I’ve been in San Antonio, part of the Spurs organization with the Stars and everything for 13 years,” said Hammon. “I have a lot of time invested and they have a lot of time invested in me, building me and getting me better.”

(Becky Hammon Colorado State Images via CSU Sports Communications.)
(Becky Hammon Colorado State Images via CSU Sports Communications.)

About the Author:

RJ Marquez has been at KSAT since 2010. He's covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area, and is the lead reporter for KSAT Explains. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms. You can see RJ regularly on KSAT Explains and Good Morning San Antonio. He also writes a weekly Spurs newsletter.