LAS VEGAS (AP) — Every few minutes, Becky Hammon would check some notes and then stuff the list back into her hip pocket. She huddled with her assistant coaches while scribbling up plays that she would show her team during timeouts. She paced the sidelines at times, maybe burning off a bit of nervous energy.
In other words, she coached.
And while it might have seemed normal, it was different.
Hammon made another piece of history Saturday, becoming the first woman to lead a team in an NBA summer league game. Hammon and the San Antonio Spurs lost 78-73 to the New York Knicks in the Las Vegas league debut for both squads.
“I’m learning all sorts of kinds of things, not just about Xs and Os but how to handle a team, how to speak to guys,” Hammon said. “I feel like I’m just a flower that’s getting great roots — but far from blooming.”
Other women have coached in summer league — Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman was invited by Sacramento’s George Karl to be on the Kings’ staff this summer and Lindsey Harding, a former No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, is a guest on Toronto’s staff in Las Vegas — but no female had been actually in charge of a roster.
That is, until now.
“It shouldn’t be a big deal because it’s coaches coaching. She’s been given an opportunity to do what she’s done her whole life,” said Lieberman, who became the first woman to coach a men’s pro team in the NBA Development League. “The thing that catches everybody’s eye is that we’re women coaching men. Eventually, it’ll be normal. But certainly, Becky has opened up a tremendous door. She’s the right person for the job.”
Things didn’t always go as Hammon would have wanted. But she showed plenty of coaching savvy.
She subbed out all five of her starters after 4 minutes, with the Spurs already down 13-2 — and she was fairly animated on the sideline while explaining how she wanted certain situations handled at that point. San Antonio got up by nine in the fourth, but the Knicks answered with a 16-0 run capped by a wild jumper from rookie Kristaps Porzingis.
Hammon wasn’t fazed. She had two timeouts in the bank and used one with about 25 seconds left with her team down by three — then used the other with 16 seconds remaining when the first play she had drawn up for that situation fell apart. Hammon briskly moved to half-court, got a ref’s attention and called her final timeout.
It almost worked out. Jarrell Eddie got an open 3-point try from the right corner, but it rimmed out.
“I drew up a play. I didn’t draw it clear enough,” Hammon said. “And I called a timeout. Let’s get it right. We got a good look … so I’m learning. Do I want to absolutely go down to the wire every game? No, because it’s … stressful.”
Hammon is going into her second year as an assistant for the Spurs. The former WNBA star spent 16 seasons playing for New York and San Antonio, so it seemed fitting that her summer-coaching debut was against the Knicks.
She was clearly enjoying the moment pregame. Down on the far end from the Spurs bench, Lieberman blew her kisses and bowed, which earned her a smile and wave back from Hammon. She waved at a couple other well-wishers as well, chatting with members of the Spurs staff.
Other than the black warmup pants (all the other Spurs coaches and staff were in in shorts), the hoop earrings and the ponytail, Hammon was just like everyone else. And that’s exactly the way she wanted it.
“To me, it’s always about bigger picture,” Hammon said. “And we want to make sure that when your wife or your daughter goes for a job interview she gets the same opportunity that a guy gets. That’s the bigger picture. That’s the bigger goal. Whether it’s basketball or the Army or CEOs or in operating rooms, we want women there.”
Lieberman is close friends with Hammon, and they’ve talked plenty about being women who are making it in a world where men fill most of the coaching chairs.
“We know we’re women,” Lieberman said. “We’re just trying to do this thing and make it normal. To all these other people, they haven’t seen that before. It’s our job. It’s like President Obama. He knew he was black before he got the job. It was his job to make it normal. It’s our job to make it normal.”
It got a little more normal on Saturday.
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