As we find ourselves in the midst of another New York Knicks coaching search, maybe it’s time to take a progressive approach and consider Spurs assistant Becky Hammon for the vacancy.
The year is 2018. The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl Champions. The idea that the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox were once the laughing stock of professional baseball is a distant memory. Cleveland owns it’s first NBA title and remain perennial contenders thanks to the return of LeBron James.
But for all of the remarkable feats we’ve seen accomplished in recent sports memory, one thing has remained constant. The New York Knicks still find themselves in complete and utter disarray.
Expectations were low and 2017-18 wasn’t seen to be anything more than a transition year. Then it all began to snowball. Kristaps Porzingis tore his left ACL on Feb. 6. The Knicks tanked unsuccessfully and find themselves at ninth in the lottery with a 6.1 percent chance to land a top-three pick and a 1.7 percent chance to net the first overall selection. And to put the icing on the cake, Steve Mills and Scott Perry opted to part ways with Jeff Hornacek, creating a head coaching vacancy in the Mecca of basketball.
For all us Knicks fan out there, this is not our first rodeo, nor is it our second, third, or fourth. Gregg Popovich is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NBA. With 22 years under his belt (all with the Spurs), the next closest candidate is Erik Spoelstra who has commanded the Miami Heat since 2008. In the time since Popovich took the reigns in 1996, the Knicks have been helmed by nine different coaches, which doesn’t even include interim ones.
As their coaching search presses forward, the Knicks have been linked to a variety of names that include but is not limited to David Blatt, David Fizdale, Jeff Van Gundy, Jerry Stackhouse, Mark Jackson, Mike Woodson, and Doc Rivers. Seeing most of those names will make the casual Knicks fan groan in disgust, which is why it is time to pivot 180 degrees and think differently. After four seasons on San Antonio’s bench, Becky Hammon is ready to become an NBA head coach and the Knicks should give her one hell of a look before they miss the boat on this.
Among the list of her qualifications, the most important one comes in the form of support from her mentor, Gregg Popovich. The two met by chance waiting to board a connecting flight in Atlanta back in 2012 and hit it off immediately. One year later, Hammon’s WNBA career was effectively put to an end by a torn ACL. It was at that point that she started sitting in on Spurs practices, a rarity for any outsider. Attending practices evolved into coaches’ meetings and eventually film sessions. When her official WNBA retirement came that following Summer, Popovich hired her to his staff.
With this move, Becky Hammon became the first female full-time assistant in the NBA. To the outside world, it almost seemed like a political stunt, but Popovich and Spurs GM R.C. Buford insisted that it was purely a basketball move.
“It has nothing to do with her being a woman. She happens to be a woman,” Popovich told Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker.
Just under three years ago, the Spurs tapped Hammon as their Las Vegas Summer League coach. She rewarded them by winning the championship. None of this came at any surprise to Popovich — he had seen her potential from the moment he took an interest in her playing career back in 2007. He would periodically check in with the San Antonio Stars’ head coach Dan Hughes to discuss her performance.
“She was, like, the ultimate leader. Energy, juice, vitality. At the same time, she was doing intelligent things on the court, making decisions that mattered.”
Some assistant coaches spend their whole careers waiting to be recognized as a suitable candidate for a head coaching position. Gregg Popovich was willing to go on record and tell Thomas that Hammon is qualified to lead an NBA franchise, digressing that her basketball I.Q. and innate ability to manage the human element of the game make her an effective coach. The endorsement of the most prolific active coach and one of the greatest coaches of all-time should not be taken lightly.
All the Accolades You Can Imagine
Accolades and awards are by no means the end-all when it comes to coaching chops, but the decorated success of a former player like Hammon is simply indicative of her hard work, perseverance, and commitment to being the best at her craft.
Hammon was a three-time All-American while playing for the Colorado State Rams and became the WAC’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Keith Van Horn. As a senior in 1999, she received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, awarded to the best senior player under five-foot-eight.
She garnered six WNBA All-Star selections, was named to both the All-WNBA First and Second teams twice, led the WNBA in assists in 2007, and was named one of the WNBA’s top 15 players of All Time in 2011. Her number 25 jersey was retired by the San Antonio Stars after she retired in 2014.
Hammon spent a good chunk of her career playing overseas during the WNBA offseason. In 2010 she won the Spanish National League Championship and Queen’s Cup as a member of the Spanish club Ros Casares Valencia. She also became a naturalized citizen of Russia after being passed up for the U.S. Olympic team in 2008. Due to her time spent playing in Russia, she found her way onto their Olympic roster and helped them take home the Bronze medal in Beijing.
New York Roots
Despite her prolific college career, Hammon was not selected in the 1999 WNBA Draft. A little over a month later, she was signed by the New York Liberty. Hammon spent the first seven seasons of her professional basketball career playing at Madison Square Garden, on the same court that Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing, and Willis Reed once graced.
The Respect of Her Players
Before she was officially a member of the Spurs’ staff, it was former Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker who first hinted to Hammon that Popovich may hire her.
“I thought it would be perfect for those two to get together—great basketball minds,” Parker also told Thomas, who had no doubt she would be accepted among the other players.
And he was right. The Spurs saw Hammon for what she is — a sharp basketball mind.
“She’s committed, she’s passionate, she’s smart, she’s worldly,” Ginóbili said.
A Rare Progressive Move for the Knicks
Under Adam Silver, the NBA has become the most progressive of all the major professional sports. Embracing the future has allowed them to rise exponentially in popularity. But the Knicks seemingly have yet to follow suit. Most of us are all still reeling from the sexual harassment scandal that rocked the franchise back in 2007.
Just interviewing Hammon would represent a change in course — that the Knicks were willing to step into the future and see the world as it is. Even though this should be completely a basketball decision, it doesn’t hurt that it would be a tremendously popular story and positive public relations move. Even Popovich was candid about the kind of off-the-court impact a move of this magnitude could have.
“If somebody is smart, it’s actually a pretty good marketing deal — but it’s not about that. It’s got to be that she’s competent, that she’s ready.”
The bottom line here is that Hammon is a rising star in NBA circles and is already drawing interest. Last year she turned down the women’s job at the University of Florida and was a strong candidate to be named the men’s head coach at Colorado State, her alma mater, before withdrawing her name from consideration. Per Louisa Thomas, the Milwaukee Bucks also interview her for their general manager vacancy.
What we have here is a unique opportunity to really change the public perception of the Knicks. Not because Becky Hammon is a woman, but because she is an exceptional basketball mind that has earned the praise of the legendary Gregg Popovich and several star NBA players. She is one of the most decorated female basketball players of all time and even has New York roots. Speaking as a Knicks fan, I think we are all better served to take a chance on her, rather than trotting out the same type of coach that has perpetuated their disarray for nearly two decades now.
It’s important to give credit where credit is due, as Louisa Thomas wrote a wonderful deep dive for The New Yorker about Becky Hammon’s ceiling as an NBA coach.