On the night before New Year’s Eve in 2020, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s emotions got the best of him.
With 3:56 to go in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers, Popovich was thrust out of the game after arguing a non-call on a sequence involving two of his players: DeMar DeRozan and Drew Eubanks.
As Popovich left the game and reverted to the locker room, a familiar face on the Spurs bench took over in his place.
That familiar face didn’t play for the San Antonio Spurs during their professional playing days, but rather the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars.
They didn’t win any NBA Finals with Popovich or make it to any NBA All-Star Games, but they piled together six WNBA All-Star appearances and two All-WNBA First Team honors during their career.
They may have never suited up in a Spurs uniform, but they still had their number retired by a basketball team in San Antonio when their time in the city came to a close.
That new, acting head coach tasked with replacing Popovich for more than a half of a game was none other than Becky Hammon, who has been an assistant coach with the team since 2014.
No one will remember the game for its box score, especially if they were to ask Spurs fans who were seated at home watching the game on their TVs. But, the night will go down in NBA history for a completely different, much more important reason.
When Hammon stepped in as the Spurs’ head coach, she became the first woman to lead an NBA team in league history.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal,” Hammon said after the game. “It’s a substantial moment. I’ve been a part of this organization, I got traded here in 2007, so I’ve been in San Antonio and part of the Spurs and sports organization with the Stars and everything for 13 years. So I have a lot of time invested, and they have a lot of time invested in me, in building me and getting me better.”
Many were rightfully excited about seeing Hammon under such a massive spotlight, even if it was just a quick stint during a 121-107 loss. But, Popovich viewed it more as something that was a long time coming.
“It’s been business as usual from the beginning. We didn’t hire Becky to make history,” Popovich said. “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. And she happens to be a woman, which basically should be irrelevant but it’s not in our world, as we’ve seen as it’s been so difficult for women to obtain certain positions. It was business as usual for us.”
While it may have been a culture shock to some watching at home, those on the Spurs bench operated under that same “business as usual” approach that Popovich preached, including one of the players indirectly responsible for making Hammon’s dream a reality.
“Becky played, and any player who knows the history of women’s basketball knows what she meant to the sport,” DeRozan said. “You don’t think twice about it. She’s one of us. When she speaks, we are all ears.”
The moment was undoubtedly a positive one for the sports world, whether it was a life-changing moment for a young girl watching at home and wondering if she could ever coach in the NBA, or an older woman looking for more representation on basketball’s grandest stage.
Yes, the night was earth-shattering, not only for the NBA but for sports as a whole. However, it’s unfortunate that it had to be considered such a big deal in the first place, given the amount of time it’s taken for the monumental occasion to happen.
While many celebrated the groundbreaking accomplishment, others, like Popovich himself, wondered what took an NBA team so long to get the job done.
“Women do the same jobs as well and better than men. That’s a fact,” Popovich said after the game. “There’s no reason why somebody like Becky and other women can’t be coaches in the NBA.”
“On a larger scale, that’s why it wasn’t a big deal to me — because I know her,” Popovich continued. “I know her skills, and I know her value and I know her future is very, very bright. I understand the attention it got, but in all honesty, I assumed that most people already knew that she was qualified to be a head coach in the NBA.”
As Hammon stepped into the new role, even for just a few quarters, basketball fans began to wonder who else could make a similar jump from collegiate women’s basketball or the WNBA to the NBA.
What about Seattle Storm star Sue Bird? Los Angeles Sparks star Kristi Toliver? Former University of California coach and current Washington Wizards assistant Lindsay Gottlieb?
“There are many, many, many qualified women who are being held back,” Popovich said. “And it’s just the nature of the world. It’s slowly changing, but the sooner the better.”
And, similar to how things went on one of the last nights of 2020, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hammon take the reins down in San Antonio on a more permanent basis in a few years, and subsequently set the tone for more female head coaches in the NBA.
“She really knows her stuff and obviously she’s here for a reason,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “She’s equipped, intelligent (and the) guys have great respect for her. She’s going to be a great coach one day.”