RAPID CITY, S.D. — The nurse shark is a generally docile creature, spanning up to nine feet and 300 pounds and armed with a vise-like jaw lined with thousands of serrated teeth. Left alone, it is harmless to humans.
But Becky Hammon wanted a closer look.
So as she snorkeled near the family boat in the Florida Keys on a spring day in 2012, Hammon shouted a request to her father: Throw the chum this way.
With chunks of fish parts and blood soon bobbing around her, Hammon got the close encounter she wanted, and then some. A five-foot nurse shark surged toward her, and then again, turned away only when Hammon poked it on the nose with her spear gun.
"With food in the water," Hammon explains, "their personalities are being changed and altered. They're in hunting mode."
"So," Hammon says, "I got out."
But she got her fish story first.
There is very little in this world, on land or water, that intimidates the 37-year-old Hammon, a self-described "adrenaline junkie." She has been chased by a barracuda and frolicked with manatees. She has hunted wild game. She plans to skydive some day—not because she's fearless, but because, "I'm one of those people...I have to do it to beat my fear."
It takes a thrill-seeking soul to swim with sharks. And it takes a certain audacity to shatter a barrier, even the ones you never planned to shatter.
Becky Hammon will make history this week, as the first woman to open the NBA season as a full-time assistant coach, as a member of the San Antonio Spurs staff. To other women in the sport, she is an inspiration. To young girls, a role model. To some fans, a curiosity. To historians, a footnote.
All Hammon wanted to do was to teach the game she's loved since she was a toddler, bouncing a Spalding around her parents' home in Rapid City, South Dakota. Her first coaching opportunity could have come in the WNBA, where Hammon ranked among the top 15 players in league history. It could have come in the NCAA ranks or overseas, where Hammon spent much of her professional career.
But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a man with five championship rings and an impeccable record as a coaching mentor, simply called first. Hammon accepted the job this summer.
In Hammon, Popovich saw a fellow gym rat and an ideal pupil—passionate for the game, studious, intellectually curious and hard-working. Her profile matched those of every Popovich disciple of the last 20 years, a group that includes four current NBA head coaches: Philadelphia's Brett Brown, Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, New Orleans' Monty Williams and Orlando's Jacque Vaughn.
The only differences between those coaches and Hammon are an extra X chromosome and a ponytail.
Born To Coach
"When you've been around it, you know who can coach and who can't coach," Popovich said. "Becky is one of those people. She's a Steve Kerr. She's a Doc Rivers. She's those kind of people. They have a feel for the game that they want to continue to participate in."
Popovich and Hammon had bonded on a transatlantic flight back from the London Olympics in 2012 and developed a formal mentor-pupil relationship last season, when Hammon served as a coaching intern while recovering from knee surgery. Her coaching instincts came through in staff meetings and film sessions.
By the time Hammon announced her retirement from the WNBA, the transition from San Antonio Stars guard to San Antonio Spurs assistant coach seemed natural to anyone within the franchise's walls.
Popovich, the ultimate no-nonsense coach, did not set out to make a statement, only to bolster his staff.
"Honestly, I didn't realize it was gonna be this big of a deal," he said. "People kind of went crazy, like we've saved the world from fascism or something," he added, chuckling. "It was much more important to reward her—for who she is, what she's done and what I believe she can do, than worry about the reaction of people."
In so many ways, Hammon's transition to coaching is a natural progression. She played the game at an elite level. At every stage, she was lauded for her leadership and her acumen. As an All-Star point guard, Hammon had an innate feel for the game, for the angles and timing and nuances that lesser players could not see.
Those who know Hammon best say she is just as suited for the role of pioneer, even if she never set out to be one. Indeed, so much in her biography pointed in this direction, save for one detail: No one ever picked Becky Hammon first in anything.
Small Town Roots
Rapid City is the second-largest city in South Dakota, with a population of about 70,000, although it feels much smaller. Its historic downtown spans just 10 blocks and is dwarfed by the eastern slope of the Black Hills mountain range. Badlands National Park lies to the east, Mt. Rushmore to the south.
It's the kind of place where everyone seems to know each other, or at least knows your uncle, your sister or the guy who fixed your transmission last week.
Given its size and remote location, Rapid City has produced a striking number of professional athletes: Adam Vinatieri, Mark Ellis, Eric Piatkowski and Hammon, who graduated from Stevens High School in 1995 as the all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals.
The Hammon homestead sits on 3.5 acres in the Black Hills National Forest, 12 miles southwest of downtown. Their property borders the U.S. Forest Service property, which became a playground for Becky and her two older siblings, Matt and Gina.
It's not unusual to see deer wandering through the property and, occasionally, a mountain lion.
Growing up, the Hammons spent their leisure time fishing, hunting, riding three-wheelers in the woods and wakeboarding on Lake Angostura.
They also played a lot of basketball, on a broad, concrete slab in front of the house. The rim was mounted on the overhang of a wooden deck above. Long rebounds and loose balls would skip down a long hill into the woods. So it was best not to miss often.
"I didn't have any neighbors," Becky Hammon said. "And if you missed, the ball went and rolled for 30 yards."
Marty Hammon, Becky's father, who has coached basketball for three decades, likes to joke that she "came out of the womb loving basketball." It is only a slight exaggeration.
Becky Hammon had a basketball in her hands by the time she was a toddler. She learned to dribble around the time she began to walk. By age five, she was dribbling with both hands.
"I have pictures of myself, like two and three years old, and I had a basketball, full size," Becky Hammon said. "I never remember a time in my life where I didn't have a basketball. That's the honest-to-God truth."
A Basketball Prodigy
The problem with growing up as a basketball-loving girl in Rapid City is that, really, there just weren't that many other basketball-loving girls in Rapid City. If Hammon was going to play with any regularity, she would have to play with the boys. This proved to be a good thing.
Marty Hammon has two clear passions: basketball and his family. It is easy to see the intersection of the two, particularly in Becky and her older brother Matt, who both inherited their father's hoop addiction.
Marty was a regular in the local recreation leagues, and the Hammon kids were always in tow. At halftime, two-year-old Becky and four-year-old Matt would charge onto the court and hurl shots at the rim.
That the rim was 10 feet high, and Becky was maybe 3 feet tall, did not deter her. As she grew, and the rim inched slightly closer, her fixation only got stronger.
Ron Riherd was a regular in the city league games, a friend of Marty's and, as it happens, the girls' coach at Stevens High School. He got his first look at his future star point guard during one of those city-league games.
While the men played, little Becky—then in second or third grade—was off to the side, shooting finger-roll layups over the pull-up bars.
"She was committed to being better, from that age on," he said. "She could handle the ball. She would shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot."
Becky's entry into competitive basketball came in a coed YMCA league at around age eight. The teams were populated almost entirely by boys. But Becky's skills were so beyond her peers' that her parents moved her up two age groups. League officials bristled. Then they saw her play.
"When I was better than all the boys, even a grade, two grades ahead of me, they were like, 'Oh yeah, she can stay,'" Becky said. "'She can even bring up the ball.'"
By fifth grade, she was seeking out pickup games and finding only boys on the court. She simply shrugged and joined the fray.
"I was like, 'This is fun, and I like doing it and I didn't really care,'" she said, pausing, then chuckling. "Probably similar now."
A Ball-Handling Wizard
From the time she became a high school star, and all through her years at Colorado State and in the WNBA, Becky Hammon has been known for her mastery with the ball—not only her deft passing but her dazzling, how-did-she-do-that scoop shots and impossible spins off the backboard.
No one taught Becky Hammon this ball wizardry. This was creativity born of necessity.
As a kid, Becky Hammon was not just the only girl on the court but the shortest player in the game. The only way to get a shot up was to duck under and around taller defenders, then fling the ball through whatever gap she could find.
"A couple of pump fakes and throw it with some twist on the board," Marty Hammon said. "That just comes from playing with boys. We always had to find a way of getting that shot off. Where for anybody else that was crap, for her, that was necessary. That was part of her game."
Eventually, Becky's main competition became her brother Matt and his friends, playing two-on-two games on the cement slab outside the house or three-on-three games at a local playground. She was, of course, much smaller than all of them. But the boys offered no leniency, no clear paths to the basket and no easy shots.
"I mean, it was intense," her mother, Bev Hammon, said. "They did not want her scoring."
There was never much doubt about Becky's competitive instincts. Those, too, seemed to be part of the family DNA. The Hammons competed at everything—board games, word games, bow-and-arrow shooting, soccer matches in the basement. When there wasn't an actual game to play, they made one up: Who can eat all his or her vegetables first?
"Our family never loses very well," Matt said. "Everything was a contest."
On colder days, the Hammons played indoors on a Nerf hoop mounted on a door. Dad played on his knees.
Becky was in grade school, about 10 years old, when she rose up one day and dunked over half-sized Marty.
"Dad, Dad, when do you think I'll be able to stuff on a big hoop?"
"Beck, you're never going to be able. You've got to learn to play on the ground."
"Really, Dad, you don't think I'm ever going to be able to dunk?"
"No, Beck, you're never going to be able to dunk."
For the longest time, Bev Hammon wondered if her youngest daughter would ever reach 5'0".
"She was little for a long time," she said.
At Home in Woods or Water
Replace the basketball with a 7-by-57 rifle or a shotgun, and the appraisals remain the same. Becky Hammon is, according to her brother Matt, “a natural shooter,” whether firing at clay pigeons, sharp-tailed grouse or pheasant.
Becky received her first shotgun at 14, as a gift from her grandfather. She shot her first deer maybe a year later. It was also the last.
“She felt guilty,” Matt said. “Here’s this beautiful deer laying there. 'And I shot it.' She actually had some tears.”
Becky still shoots pheasant and other small birds. She still joins the family on their big-game hunts, but this is one area where she prefers to play spectator.
The ocean is another matter. When the Hammons take their annual vacation in the Florida Keys, Becky is the one in the water, scanning for nurse sharks, bull sharks and lemon sharks. An avid fisherman, she wants to land a hammerhead some day. And she wants to get in a shark cage and hang out with the great whites.
“Becky loves those big sharks,” her father said. “And they’re never big enough for her.”
A Basketball Revelation
When did Becky Hammon realize she was special? That her basketball instincts were just a little more finely honed than everyone else's? That the game simply meant more to her than other girls and boys?
It wasn't during those tagalong trips to Dad's city-league games, and it wasn't even when she started outplaying the boys. No, the realization came early in high school, when she started attending basketball camps.
An average day at camp might run from 9 in morning to 10 at night, by which time the rest of the girls "would be so sick and tired of basketball," Hammon said. "And I'd go right back to the gym."
"So I knew I was wired a little bit differently then," she said. "So I was constantly learning, because I was constantly putting myself in situations where I could learn."
It was no different at home. When it snowed, Becky and Matt simply shoveled off the cement slab. When the days grew shorter in the winter, they flipped on the outdoor floodlights and kept the games going, sometimes until 11 p.m.
When your home is on the edge of a national park, there are no neighbors to disturb with your late-night dribbling.
Friends will tell you that Becky Hammon was an ace softball player and volleyballer, but basketball was always primary.
"I didn't need anybody else," she said. "I had a ball, and I had my hoop, and I didn't have to have somebody to go play catch with or throw me pitches. I grew up in the woods, I didn't have neighbors. So it was a sport that you could get really good at by yourself."
When there was no one to play against, Becky practiced her jump shot and her twisting layups for hours at a time. Occasionally, the sound of the ball hitting the concrete stopped and was replaced by the sound of a basketball striking the side of the house. Becky was practicing passes off the wall.
"She was," her father said, "a basketball nerd."
A Fit for the Spurs
Gregg Popovich has employed a dozen assistant coaches in his two decades with the Spurs. Their personalities and backgrounds varied. But in each of them, Popovich saw certain essential traits—first and foremost, he says, "a natural proclivity to coach."
"When you've been around it, you know who can coach and who can't coach," Popovich said.
Popovich wants assistants with a strong work ethic, "a desire to get better, a desire to grow." He wants people "who have gotten over themselves"—meaning, they understand it's about the team, not the individual.
But he also wants them to speak up.
Contrary to his gruff public persona and his Air Force Academy credentials, Popovich is not an autocrat on the bench. He seeks out coaches with strong ideas and strong voices, who will challenge him and keep the creative sparks flying, whether in the video room or in a fourth-quarter timeout.
"She jumped right in," assistant coach Ime Udoka said of Hammon.
Other traits Popovich looks for in a prospective coach: "Are they comfortable in their own skin? Can they admit fault? Can they admit a mistake? Can they communicate? All those things you think about before you hire somebody, because the worst thing is a coach that can't admit that he or she was wrong, and it's their way or the highway. Or can't participate or give the players ownership in what's going on on the court. That's not going to work in the NBA. It's got to be a participatory sort of thing."
There is one other requirement, and it is the only one that Popovich calls mandatory.
"Sense of humor," he said. "No sense of humor, no job."
To make it as a Spurs coach, you have to be able to take some ribbing—and to dish it out.
"For lack of a better word, they are all ball-busters, for sure," Hammon says, smiling. "They love to have a good time. They love to work. But I think in the midst of working, you can't get too crazy serious. So they crack on each other, and they crack on me, which makes me feel right at home."
Early in training camp, Hammon and another staffer were trading barbs about their favorite NFL teams, the Denver Broncos (Hammon's team) and the Dallas Cowboys (the staffer's).
"Oh, you like the Cowgirls?" Hammon shot back.
"That's her, right there," assistant coach Ime Udoka said, chuckling. "I'm like, 'Isn't that [sexist]?' She says, 'I can say it.' Guys will joke, and she gives it right back."
And whenever possible, Hammon likes to buck the Spurs' black-white-silver color scheme and dress a bit more colorfully, which also draws a bit of ribbing around the gym.
On this particular day, the team is off, and Hammon is in teal sweatpants and teal shoes with pink swooshes.
"Today, I'm straying and wore my own funky stuff," she said.
A Star in High School
There was little doubt, by the time Becky Hammon reached high school, that she was destined for great things. She seized the starting point guard job as a sophomore, and by the time she graduated in 1995, she owned every significant record in the Stevens High record books. The only missing piece was a state championship.
Despite her superior skills, Hammon never looked to dominate the game or the ball.
"She was such an unselfish player, almost to a fault," said Amber Zimiga Hammon, a teammate in high school who is now married to Becky's brother Matt. "If you were open, you were going to get the ball. At some point it was like, she needed to shoot more. We would get down. And then she'd take over."
On the long rides to tournaments, Hammon kept her team entertained with mix tapes, featuring heavy doses of Boyz II Men and New Kids on the Block. In the parking lot, she led them in impromptu dance-offs. At home, she entertained friends with her karaoke renditions of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough.”
“Any time she had a chance to get people dancing or singing, she would,” Amber Hammon said. “Good singer, good dancer.”
Hammon’s high school career ended in the state semifinals, where she scored 29 of her team’s 34 points (or 36, depending on who's telling the story). With seconds left to play, and Stevens leading by a point, Hammon was fouled and sent to the line for a one-and-one. Riherd wanted to call a timeout, to let his players know they still had two fouls to give.
"No," said Hammon, a 90 percent foul shooter, "I want to shoot the free throws."
Hammon missed the first attempt, and the opposing team took the rebound, raced up court and scored on an awkward shot at the buzzer.
"I know to this day, she thinks she lost the game," Riherd said, "but guess what? We'd have never been in that situation if she hadn't scored all those points."
Overlooked as a College Recruit
Riherd, who began coaching high school girls in 1975, called Hammon, "by far the best player I've ever coached." Yet because of Rapid City's relatively remote location, few college scouts and coaches saw her play. The major Division I programs never came calling.
Those who did scout Hammon generally came away with the same impression: too short, too slow. She topped out at 5'6".
Kari Gallegos-Doering, then an assistant coach at Colorado State, saw something else. She first noticed Hammon at a spring showcase of high school all-stars. Scouts had come to see more highly rated guards, but Gallegos-Doering noticed how Hammon kept finding teammates in just the right spots, that no one could take the ball from her, and—despite her lack of speed—no defender could keep her in front of her.
"Becky had mojo," Gallegos-Doering said. "She's just got this something special that you don't see [often]. You just don't see a little white guard play like this."
(This would become a theme in Hammon’s pro career. Her New York Liberty teammates would later dub her “White Chocolate.”)
The next time Gallegos-Doering saw Hammon, at a national basketball camp, she was among 24 high school prospects playing pickup games.
"She made them look silly," Gallegos-Doering said. "She just could do things and go around people and make passes. I remember a player running down the floor shaking her head. She had just been duped. That was Becky."
That duped girl turned out to be Dominique Canty, who came out of Chicago as a Street and Smith All-American and earned a scholarship at Alabama.
"Here's a nobody making these players look bad," Gallegos-Doering said. "Everybody's sitting in that gym, and saw her do what she did and they missed on her...because of her color, because of her size, because yeah, she comes from South Dakota and she's not a big name, not from a big AAU team. They missed on her."
Hammon put Colorado State on the college basketball map, leading the team to a 33-3 record in 1998-99 and a trip to the Sweet 16. She finished her career as the school's all-time leader in scoring, assists and three-pointers, and she surpassed Keith Van Horn as the leading scorer, male or female, in Western Athletic Conference history.
And still, she was regarded as too short, too slow. No WNBA team drafted Hammon in 1999. She was signed by the New York Liberty as training camp fodder. And despite becoming a three-time All-Star in New York, the team traded her to San Antonio in 2007.
Instant NBA Credibility
There's an expression common on blacktops across the country: Game recognizes game. Translated: Great players respect other great players. On the court, talent is the coin of the realm.
Hammon walked onto the Spurs' practice court with instant credibility, as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, with the stats and accolades to match: seven All-Star appearances, seventh all-time in scoring, fourth all-time in assists, second all-time in three-pointers.
She dominated the intangibles, too. In annual surveys of WNBA general managers, Hammon was always among the leaders in categories like best leader and best basketball IQ, as well as "making teammates better," "hungriest to win a championship" and "taking the shot with the game on the line."
Anyone who's ever watched Hammon play appreciates her poise, her court vision and her commanding presence. And NBA players watch more WNBA games than the average male fan. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are among Hammon's most ardent fans.
After 16 years in the pros, first with the New York Liberty, then the San Antonio Stars, Hammon's bona fides are well established.
"She impressed me," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "Because of her size. She wasn't the fastest. You could tell she could find a way to become important. Even if she wasn't shooting great one day, but she was smart, one step ahead. The type of player that usually becomes coaches."
In fact, if playing the game means anything, Hammon is more qualified than most of her male peers. NBA benches are filled with career assistants who never played in the NBA and many who played sparingly, as role guys.
Among the NBA's 30 head coaches, 16 never played in the league—a group that includes Popovich, as well as the coach he faced in the Finals last June, Miami's Erik Spoelstra.
"It's a little tougher for us to earn that credibility," Popovich said of the non-players. "I think the people who have played and have had success deserve to have that immediate, almost conditional credibility. And it's theirs to either squander or let it grow."
Hired for Basketball Reasons
By every measure—experience, diligence, demeanor—Hammon seems perfectly suited for this moment, this role, this challenge. And if there were an ideal place for it to happen, it's San Antonio.
There is no more stable or respected franchise than the Spurs, no coach with more gravitas than Popovich and no roster more capable of embracing the moment than this one. The Spurs are a mature, veteran group, with strong leaders in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili. There isn't a knucklehead in the bunch.
Parker was already firmly in Hammon's corner. The two San Antonio point guards became friends over the last several years. There seems to be little concern that Hammon can thrive in a male-dominated work place.
"Not concerned at all," Ginobili said. "I really can't tell about other places in the league. But in here, no."
This is a franchise that covets diversity, whose roster reads like a United Nations subcommittee, with players from Australia, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Popovich's staff now includes the Italian-born Ettore Messina, an international coaching legend who is making his own NBA debut.
If anyone was going to hire the first female coach, it was going to be Popovich, perhaps the most progressive-minded soul in the coaching ranks. And if anyone could make this historic move and declare, with absolute sincerity, that history was the last thing on his mind, it is Popovich.
Fans viewed the Hammon hiring as either groundbreaking or a gimmick. To Popovich, it was just about adding another smart coach.
"We thought about it, and we didn't care," Popovich said of the response. "I'm not going to do something that's going to hurt my franchise just to have a gimmick. I think that we've built up enough credibility with the way we do things that people would understand that this was for real and that she had gravitas."
Her Olympic Snub
Growing up in the 1980s and early '90s, Becky Hammon idolized Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and dreamed of playing in the NBA. Until around age 10, when her father bluntly advised her, “No matter how good you become and no matter how hard you work at it, you’ll never play in the NBA.”
The WNBA did not yet exist. So young Becky set her sights on the Olympics, dreaming of a day on the medal stand, “The Star Spangled Banner” playing. That dream was dashed by more powerful forces.
In 2007, Becky Hammon was a certified WNBA star, with a killer jumper, superior court vision and the respect of the entire league. She finished second in the MVP voting that season to Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm.
Jackson is Australian. You could make the case that Hammon, then, was America's best female basketball player at the time.
Yet for reasons that were never fully explained, the U.S. women's national team declined to include Hammon among the 23 players invited to try out for the 2008 Olympic team.
Friends and family suspected favoritism—that the national coaches selected guards from their own teams, leaving Hammon out in the cold.
"They never answered a phone call from her agents, or anything," Bev Hammon said. "She was devastated."
Shut out by her own country, Hammon accepted an invitation to play for the Russian team, a natural move since she was already playing in the Russian league, for CSKA Moscow, during the WNBA offseason.
The backlash was swift and fierce, with the harshest words coming from Anne Donovan, the American team's head coach.
"If you play in this country and you grow up in the heartland, and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person," Donovan said in 2008.
Donovan would later back away from that statement and also disputed reports that she and her staff shut out Hammon during the selection process.
The words stung Hammon but not as deeply as the initial snub. Joining the Russian team meant keeping her Olympic dreams alive. Hammon shot poorly in a semifinal loss to the U.S., but she led Russia to a bronze medal, scoring 22 points in a victory over China. After all of the controversy and the resentment, it was one of her proudest moments.
On a side table in the Hammon living room rest two mementos: a candle holder bearing the 2008 Beijing Games insignia and a music box designed in the shape of an onion-domed Russian cathedral.
"It turned into such a great thing," her father said. "She said, 'I wouldn't a change a thing now.'"
In nearly two decades of competitive basketball in the public spotlight, this chapter is the only hint of controversy associated with Becky Hammon.
Just one clarification, this one from Mom: "She's very patriotic."
An NBA Pioneer
Societal barriers are rarely broken by a single event, a single impact, a single person. It takes repeated blows, stretched across decades, before the cracks give way and the walls collapse.
There have been other women and other firsts. And the impacts are not always enduring.
In 1990, Bernadette Mattox became the first female assistant in a Division I men's program, on Rick Pitino's Kentucky staff. Just two other women have done so since then.
In 1997, the NBA hired its first two female referees, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer. Kantner was fired in 2002, and the NBA is just now introducing another female official, Lauren Holtkamp, who was recently promoted from the D-League. Palmer is starting her 18th season.
In 2002, Lisa Boyer served as a part-time, volunteer assistant on John Lucas' staff with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In 2009, Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman was hired to coach the Texas Legends in the D-League, making her the first woman to lead a men's professional team.
Now comes Hammon, with a full-time gig, a two-year contract and the support of the NBA's most revered coach. Every landmark matters. This one feels weightier.
Twitter lit up the day Hammon was hired, with everyone from Billie Jean King to Hope Solo to Chelsea Clinton to Nancy Pelosi and the White House offering praise and congratulations.
Actress Elizabeth Banks gave Hammon a shout-out on Twitter and again in a YouTube video titled, "Should Girls Play Basketball?"
"That's right, she's going to be coaching dudes," Banks says in the clip, "because she's that badass. Way to go, Becky. Way to follow your dreams."
Lieberman—whose trail blazing began in 1980, when she played on the Lakers' summer-league team and later in the United States Basketball League—reached out to Hammon personally.
"She has broken a tremendous barrier," Lieberman said, "and I don't think it should be lost."
Asked if she offered any advice or cautionary tales, Lieberman said, "I have no horror stories; I only have gratitude."
Palmer also said her gender has not been an issue with players or coaches, although there have been at least two instances when team broadcasters have made sexist remarks about her on air.
"At this point, it's not about gender," Palmer said. "They [coaches and players] more so respect the work."
Referring to Hammon, Palmer said, "I don't think it's going to be difficult, in the sense that she's a woman coming into a male-dominated sport to coach. Her reputation, her work ethic and her ability to do the job I think will speak for itself, period."
A generation of young women are poised to follow in Hammon’s footsteps.
Natalie Nakase, a video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers, helped coach their summer league. Jenny Boucek, a coach with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, was a guest at the Dallas Mavericks' training camp this month.
Before too long, there could be three or four women on NBA benches.
Thirty-four years after rushing the gender barricades, Lieberman finds herself still trying to break though and looking to Hammon as her spirit guide.
"I'm happy to be a trail blazer,” Lieberman said. “But I'm ready to get an opportunity to coach in the NBA. Instead of people thanking me, I need to thank Becky."
How She Got Here
At a glance, the journey looks so logical and linear. Young girl discovers the sport she loves, devotes her life to the game and rises steadily through the ranks. High school starter. All-State selection. College star. Scoring champion. Olympic medalist. Professional. All-Star. Coaching prospect.
The outline is deceptive, omitting all of the painful details—the scouts who told Becky Hammon she was too short and too slow, the college coaches who ignored her, the WNBA executives who declined to draft her, the Olympic coaches who snubbed her.
Validation only came to Hammon when she demanded it. She has spent more time ramming into locked doors than walking through open passages, arriving at this moment after a thousand unforeseeable and sometimes-fortuitous twists.
Had she never joined the Russian Olympic team, Hammon would have never been on that transatlantic flight next to Popovich in 2012, discussing basketball philosophy. Had she never torn her ACL, she might never have spent a season as an unpaid intern with the Spurs' staff. Had the Liberty never traded her to San Antonio, she might never have connected with the Spurs, period.
In so many ways, Becky Hammon is the perfect individual at the perfect time to make history. In so many ways, she is the unlikeliest candidate.
On the day Popovich called with the job offer, Hammon could hardly contain her emotions.
"She actually had tears in her eyes," Bev Hammon said. "She says, 'Mom, they picked me. Nobody has ever picked me. They picked me.'"
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.