Becky Hammon rose from undrafted WNBA player to barrier-breaking coach

Becky Hammon will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for her accomplishments as a player in the Class of 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Becky Hammon will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for her accomplishments as a player in the Class of 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2023 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting notable names in this class, leading up to the big ceremony.

Becky Hammon is used to people not picking her. Or at least she was when she said it last fall, days before the first-year head coach led the Las Vegas Aces to their first championship.

Hammon, who went undrafted before embarking on a 16-year career, should be settling in now to people wanting her. In the same Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort she celebrated her first title, she’ll begin the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2023 enshrinement weekend.

The awards gala will take place with the jacket and ring presentations at Mohegan Sun on Friday and the enshrinement ceremony will take place at Springfield’s historic Symphony Hall in Massachusetts on Saturday.

The league-leading Aces (24-3) host the Washington Mystics at home on Friday night. Hammon will attend the enshrinement ceremony and return to Vegas, where the Aces host the Atlanta Dream on Sunday.

Hammon, 46, will be presented by Sheryl Swoopes (Class of 2016) and Teresa Weatherspoon (’19). Swoopes and her Houston Comets dynasty defeated the New York Liberty, featuring Hammon and Weatherspoon, in back-to-back Finals in 1999 and 2000. They were Hammon’s first two seasons in the league after going undrafted out of Colorado State and making the Liberty squad in training camp.

“I’m small for a basketball player,” the 5-foot-6 Hammon told the Washington Post in 2015. “I don’t look like a basketball player. I’m a typical underdog story. My journey has been one of a lot of doors being closed, a lot of people saying I wasn’t able to. Yet if you know me — my character, my personality traits — you know I love challenges. I love proving people wrong. Just trying to be the best that I could possibly be was a big enough motivating factor for me. It got me through a lot.”

Though she never won a WNBA championship as a player, Hammon went on to a legendary playing career to earn her Hall of Fame accolade. She’s often named as one of the game’s best point guards, and has been named to the league’s best lists for notable anniversaries, including its W25 for the 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. Her legacy goes beyond her time in a jersey to a plethora of “firsts” in the NBA and an incredibly successful start to her head-coaching career with the Aces. Earlier this month, she earned her 50th career regular-season victory as head coach in her 62nd game at the helm.

Hammon’s ‘legendary highlight’ breaking barriers

The Class of 2023 includes Hammon’s mentor, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who bucked traditional NBA hiring practices and brought her on as an assistant coach in 2014. She was rehabbing an ACL injury at the time and had formed a relationship with the city’s men’s franchise. It’s a pivotal moment in basketball history, and one Popovich viewed as “business as usual,” opting to hire her for her talents rather than making a historic footnote.

“Women do the same jobs as well and better than men. That’s a fact,” Popovich said in January 2021, via ESPN. “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. And 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.”

She became the first woman to work full-time as an assistant in the NBA and in 2015 became the first woman head coach in NBA Summer League history. That group won the Las Vegas Summer League championship, another first. Hammon served as head coach for Popovich in his absences, but was still continuously passed over for NBA head-coaching positions.

Becky Hammon, then a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, talks to head coach Gregg Popovich during an NBA game in 2016. (AP Photo/Darren Abate, File)

Becky Hammon, then a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, talks to head coach Gregg Popovich during an NBA game in 2016. (AP Photo/Darren Abate, File)

A Hall of Fame piece on featured her “barrier breaking on the bench” as Hammon’s legendary highlight. When no NBA team would hire her as head coach, instead passing her over for men with less full résumés, she took an offer from new Aces team owner Mark Davis in December 2021.

“This was not really about the NBA or WNBA, this was about me personally being ready to have a team and wanting to have a team,” Hammon said.

She spent the back half of the Spurs’ season balancing the jobs, and last October led the Aces to their first championship in franchise history.

“It’s been great from start to finish,” Aces point guard Chelsea Gray said after the Game 4 title clincher at Mohegan Sun. “She demands excellence from us each and every day. It’s fun to do that with somebody that you know has your back, and she’s instilled that into us each moment, and so it’s fun to raise that banner with her.”

The Aces clinched their 2023 postseason spot with one-third of the season left to play and are heavy favorites to become the first repeat WNBA champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2000-01. That ’02 Sparks team defeated Hammon’s Liberty in the Finals.

Her barrier-breaking stint with the Spurs and successful Aces coaching career are only the recent ways Hammon has put her stamp on the sport.

Hammon undrafted start to WNBA career

Hammon was named South Dakota Miss Basketball as a junior at Stevens High School in Rapid City and the South Dakota Player of the Year as a senior. At 5-6, she was overlooked by most recruiters and instead committed to Colorado State.

There she was named Colorado Sportswoman of the Year and an All-American three times. The Rams went 33-3 in 1998-99 and advanced to the Sweet 16, the farthest they’ve made it in a tournament. Despite her record-breaking collegiate career (she leads the program in points, points per game, 3-pointers and assists), she went undrafted in the 1999 WNBA Draft.

Hammon stuck on the New York Liberty roster as a rookie in the league’s third season and averaged 6.7 minutes and 2.7 points per game. As a second-year player, she started half of the regular-season games and averaged 11 points. But it wasn’t until 2004 when she became a full-time starter.

The New York Liberty's Becky Hammon, right, defends against the Connecticut Sun's Wendy Palmer-Daniel during a WNBA game in 2004. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)

The New York Liberty’s Becky Hammon, right, defends against the Connecticut Sun’s Wendy Palmer-Daniel during a WNBA game in 2004. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)

In her eight-year New York career that ended when they traded her on draft day in 2007, she averaged 10.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 24.4 minutes per game. They reached the Finals in three of those seasons and the Eastern Conference finals in two additional seasons.

“The fans have always embraced me, even when I was the last person on the bench,” Hammon said in 2015 when she was inducted into the New York Liberty Ring of Honor. “I had to fight and scrap for every little bit of playing time that I got, and I would not do it any other way. I like being able to say that I worked for my career and worked for my success. Nobody handed me anything.”

On April 4, 2007, Hammon was sent to the San Antonio Silver Stars along with a 2008 second-round draft pick for No. 2 pick Jessica Davenport. She spent the second half of her career in San Antonio, which relocated to Las Vegas for the 2018 season. That was four years after Hammon retired as a player.

From Silver Star to leading Aces championship stars

Hammon finished second in MVP voting her first year in San Antonio. She averaged 15.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 31.4 minutes per game over her eight seasons with the franchise. She started all but one game and became known as “Big Shot Becky” for her ability to hit clutch buckets. The Silver Stars reached the Finals in her second season there, losing to the Detroit Shock. She led the playoffs in scoring (163 points) and assists (41). The franchise had never made it past the semifinals again until the 2020 Aces reached the Finals.

Hammon was named to four all-WNBA teams, including two first-team honors, and ranks in the top of multiple career categories. She is fourth in 3-pointers made (829), sixth in assists (1,708), 23rd in steals (488), 15th in points (5,841), fourth in games played (450) and 17th in minutes played (12,544). Her 44.9 career win shares rank 21st and she’s top-20 in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage and assist percentage.

Her basketball playing accomplishments include time with the domestic National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL), plus an Olympic bronze medal with the Russian national team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a fourth-place finish with Russia at the 2012 London Games. She has called the choice to represent Russia, where she played overseas in the WNBA offseason and acquired citizenship, as “one of the hardest decisions I ever made.” But she wasn’t being added to Team USA, despite “coming off my best year in the WNBA,” she said. (She lit into Russian leadership over the past year during Brittney Griner’s detainment.)

Becky Hammon celebrates with Russian teammates during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Becky Hammon celebrates with a Russian teammates during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

The life choice also led to her sitting next to Popovich on the plane home from Russia in 2012 and engaging him in basketball chatter that led to her joining his staff.

The Las Vegas/San Antonio franchise retired her No. 25 jersey on Sept. 13, 2021, as part of Davis’ focus on embracing their former players and city roots while celebrating the league’s 25th anniversary. It is what led to Davis offering Hammon the coaching job.

It has been nearly 25 years since she went undrafted. Maybe 30 to the first time a college recruiter looked over her. She has lived a career of not being picked, but in a matter of days, she’ll be able to call herself a Naismith Hall of Famer with one of the game’s best underdog stories.

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