Everybody everywhere is watching Becky Hammon. Almost overnight she’s become a pro athlete and symbol who transcends her sport whose name and face are now familiar to millions of people who have never seen a WNBA game.
The AT&T Center filled with “Becky, Becky” chants Friday night as Hammon closed out her celebrated WNBA career and prepares to become the first woman coach in NBA history under Greg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs, the reining NBA champions with five titles to their name in the Popovich era, hardly need another reason to attract fans and admiration, but the hiring of Hammon gives them one as they continue to demonstrate they are not only the winningest but also the most forward-thinking franchise in pro sports.
The Stars held a retirement ceremony for Hammon after their 92-76 win over the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, a victory that came with a playoff berth. A crowd of 12,659 fans came to their show gratitude for the player who became the face of the Stars after she came here in a 2007 draft-day deal with the New York Liberty. Her presence turned around the fortunes of the franchise almost overnight.
As WNBA President Laurel J. Richie said during the ceremony, “The fans were here before I got here, lining up, and they’re still here—for you, Becky, for you.”
The Spurs and Hammon made history this month when the deal to hire her as an assistant coach was announced. Overnight she went from being a WNBA star to something much rarer: a female professional athlete known by most male sports fans. Hammon finds herself receiving more attention now for a job she has yet to start than at any time in her six-time All-WNBA career.
The novelty of Hammon’s recent achievement made for an odd retirement ceremony. It was at once a bittersweet farewell to the Stars and the WNBA, and an open-armed welcome from the NBA and the Spurs. Part of the spike in attendance may well have been Spurs fans anxious to see their newest coach. One website that covers solely Spurs news, poundingtherock.com, offered a special Stars ticket deal to their readers for the game, promoting the chance to see the great WNBA player that will be the newest Spurs coach.
The night belonged to Hammon. She may even deserve to be credited with the victory; she told reporters Friday in the post-game interview that several teammates had guaranteed they would get the win for her.
The Spurs’ decision to hire Hammon appeared to be strictly a basketball decision. Popovich worked with Hammon when she was shadowing the Spurs coaches last season while rehabbing her knee. Pop, who does not impress easily, has said he was impressed.
Sports talk radio can be rough, but the response nationally in the media and among sports fans has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s safe to say you’ve become a breakout athlete and name when President Obama tweets his support. Still, there will be some, predicts writer Susan Mulligan, who will harbor objections to Hammon’s place in the men’s league and wait for the chance to pounce and say, “I told you so,” simply because Hammon is a woman.
President Richie expressed her wish that Hammon become an ambassador for the game. Richie offered Hammon an implicit reminder not to turn her back on the WNBA: “I know you’ll never forget where you’ve been.”
For the rest of us Spurs and Hammon fans, the excitement now is all about where she is going.
One regret I had about the ceremony is that the team did not take the opportunity to create a pep-rally type moment to create belief and support for their playoff run. Perhaps they decided not to plan this in case they lost the game tonight, and with it, their certainty of making the playoffs. Or maybe they just preferred to keep the night all about Hammon, which I can respect.
The Stars have locked up a playoff spot, although their position as the third or fourth team in the bracket may change depending on how the Stars and the Los Angeles Sparks do in the final games. The Stars play the lowest ranked team in the league this Sunday, Chicago Sky, before beginning our first-round series against either Phoenix or Minnesota on the road in Game 1 next week.