Last week, when the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon as the first full-time salaried female assistant coach in NBA history, one of the first people to congratulate her was another basketball groundbreaker, Nancy Lieberman.
Hammon and Lieberman have been close friends for nearly two decades.
So it was natural for Lieberman to reach out to Hammon on what was a historic day in professional sports in general and in the NBA in particular.
“She’s like my little sister,” Lieberman said. “We’ve known each other since she was in college.
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“She’s so humble, she’s thanking me, and she’s like, ‘Nancy, man, thank you. You opened this door up.’ I’m like, ‘Be quiet, this is your day, this is your time, this is your opportunity and I’m really proud of you.’ ”
Lieberman is the current assistant general manager and former head coach of the NBA Developmental League’s Texas Legends, an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. In November 2009, she became the first woman to coach an NBA-affiliated team and the first to coach a men’s pro team. She led the Legends to a playoff berth in her lone season as the team’s coach in 2009-10.
In February, Lieberman was named to the board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.
On July 29, the National Basketball Players Association named Michele Roberts as its first female executive director.
Now Hammon, a six-time WNBA All-Star, has been thrust into the historical spotlight.
One person singing Hammon’s praises is Leta Andrews, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and longtime Granbury High School coach who retired in June after finishing her career as the nation’s all-time winningest prep basketball coach, boys or girls. Andrews won 1,416 games over 51 years.
One of Andrews’ former Granbury players, Jia Perkins, was Hammon’s teammate on San Antonio’s 2011 WNBA team.
“You go girl! Winston Churchill said change is good and you better change often if you’re going to get better and improve, and I think that’s exactly what the Spurs have done,” the 76-year-old Andrews said of Hammon.
“They’ve gone and made a big change — it’s called progress — and I’m so excited. I think there’s a season for everything and I think the season is perfect that the Spurs have stepped out of their comfort zone and made a dynamic move.”
Hammon is finishing her eighth and final season as a point guard for the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars. The former Colorado State All-American believes people will mainly question whether she’s truly qualified for the job — and not because of her gender.
“I’ve got to be perfectly honest, it’s never been about the women thing,” Hammon said. “It’s been about, ‘Hey, she’s got a great basketball mind and we think she’ll be a great addition to our program.’ ”
Still, the moment is surreal to Hammon, 37, voted one of the top 15 WNBA players of all-time.
“I’m just thrilled for the opportunity to coach these unbelievable athletes and, from what I’ve known, unbelievable people,” Hammon said. “But I think the bigger point is I’m getting hired because I’m capable, because of my basketball IQ and stuff that [the Spurs have] seen in me personally.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also took notice of the hire.
“All that matters is whether or not she will be a good coach,” Cuban said. “For the Mavs’ sake, I hope she can’t. But I’m guessing that’s not the case.”
So what challenges can Hammond expect?
“I don’t think there are any special challenges,” Cuban said. “The best teams in this league are all about winning, not about judging issues that don’t relate to winning.”
Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ president of basketball operations who doubles as owner of the Legends, tipped his hat to the Spurs for hiring Hammon. He also praised the NBA.
“It’s a reminder that it doesn’t matter what color you are, religion or what sex you are,” Nelson said. “If you’re good enough for the job, you’ll get it more times than not get it.
“I’m really proud of the NBA and I think the Spurs did a really great thing. Like Nancy, [Hammon] will be a motivation for every little girl across America to hold onto your dreams.”
Gar Heard, who was head coach of the Washington Wizards, an interim head coach with the Mavericks and an assistant with the Indiana Pacers and Mavericks, wasn’t surprised that it was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich who made the landmark decision to hire Hammon.
“You’ve got guys coaching the girls in the WNBA, so why not give it a shot?” Heard said. “I hope it works out because I think it’ll open the doors a lot more.
“I remember when they first had female reporters coming in the [men’s] locker room [in the 1970s]. Guys were all up in arms about that, but it’s changing times and I think it’s good.”
Hammon is playing her 16th and final WNBA season before she transitions to the Spurs’ coaching staff. Last year, while recuperating from anterior cruciate ligament surgery, Hammon attended Spurs games and practices, and Popovich encouraged her to voice opinions during coaches’ meetings.
In a statement regarding Hammon’s hiring, Popovich said: “I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff. Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”
Lieberman said Hammon’s hiring is another move in an ever-changing NBA and social landscape.
“Hillary Clinton could be our president in two years,” Lieberman said. “There’s great change going on in our society, but you’ve got to be qualified for the job.
“Becky’s going to have to work really hard, and she’ll have to prove herself just like any other coach would. But I know that she’s going to be fine because she’s going to have great support around her.”