Who knows if she’d even want to join the craziness that is the New York Knicks, but Becky Hammon would be a historic, suitable head coach.
With the Christmas season in full swing, the New York Knicks‘ holiday shopping list probably spans the length of the Madison Square Garden hardwood.
A team desperate for a mere clue since the turn of the century, the Knicks (4-19) are once again searching for another head coach to patrol the bench on game day. David Fizdale was the latest name bid farewell, fired on Friday afternoon less than 24 hours after the Knicks’ 129-92 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Former G League standout Mike Miller has since been named the interim head coach. On Saturday, Miller became the 12th different man to serve as the Knicks’ head coach since Jeff Van Gundy’s departure in 2001.
For their next hire, it’s time to bring an MSG legend home. After all, the hire of Becky Hammon would be historic in more ways than one.
With the Knicks wallowing in misery for a majority of the new millennium, Hammon has helped provide some of the more recent positive moments in MSG basketball history. The Rapid City, South Dakota native defined New York resiliency from the moment she arrived in the Big Apple. A stellar career at Colorado State yielded no name-call in the 1999 WNBA Draft, leading to a rookie-year signing with the New York Liberty.
Backing up legendary guard Teresa Weatherspoon, Hammon was in a precarious spot as it was. After all, undrafted players designated to the bench often struggle to make an impact in any league. In the WNBA, such a predicament could lead to a best-case scenario of stardom overseas. Hammon took her opportunities and instead became one of the metropolitan area’s brightest basketball stars.
Hammon’s tenacity on both sides of the ball, as well as her never-say-quit attitude, made her an instant favorite amongst the basketball-loving public. One of the most iconic photos in WNBA history, for example, is the 5’6 Hammon attempting to box out 7’2 Connecticut Sun center Margo Dydek during a 2005 game at MSG. The Liberty remained a constant presence in the WNBA playoffs, and Hammon became a regular at or near the top of WNBA stat sheets. A rebuild forced the Liberty’s hand in 2007, trading Hammon to San Antonio.
The River City’s Silver Stars eventually faded, but Hammon has done anything but. Mere months after playing her final WNBA game, she became the first full-time female assistant on an NBA bench, joining the staff of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. Notions that Hammon couldn’t coach men were immediately silenced, and she remains a mainstay on the San Antonio bench to this day. Numerous women have since followed her to NBA sidelines, including Weatherspoon, a newly-minted assistant in New Orleans.
Nowadays, Hammon may well be the heir apparent to Popovich’s San Antonio throne. But, as former Spur Pau Gasol wrote on The Players Tribune in 2018, she may be ready to make the historic leap now.
“Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach,” Gasol wrote. “I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”
Familiar settings in Manhattan would be the perfect place to prove it.
Alas, there is a select group of Knicks fans that would rather have the team go 15-67 every season with a man than dare see their fragile egos shattered by seeing a woman on their beloved sidelines. Lost in the blind eyes of these fans is the fact that Hammon would provide something this franchise hasn’t had in a long time: hope.
As a head coach, it took Hammon less than two years to earn what the Knicks have been waiting 46 years (and counting) to get: a championship. Given control of San Antonio’s Las Vegas Summer League squad in 2015, Hammon guided the young Spurs to a title, winning in a landscape that featured future stars like Devin Booker and Zach LaVine. Five of San Antonio’s summer invites under Hammon would sign deals with NBA squads.
Jonathon Simmons was the MVP of San Antonio’s championship win, scoring 23 points in a 93-90 win over Phoenix. Prior to that summer in Vegas, Simmons’ professional journey consisted mostly of service spent with the Spurs’ G League affiliate in Austin. Two days after Hammon was done with him, he signed with the NBA club and went on to play 258 games over four seasons in The Association.
“It’s amazing. It was a humbling experience for all of us,” Simmons said of the Hammon experience to NBA TV. “I really love her, and I’ve only known her a couple days. She’s a real cool coach. She’s a player-coach. That’s something we all like.”
Hammon has since broken through to numerous names, including her notoriously curmudgeonly bench-mate Popovich.
“She has the ability as far as (an) innate knowledge of the game, a feel for the game, a work ethic,” Popovich told Greg Moore of the Arizona Republic in 2018. “She’s gained the respect of all of our players, including guys that are no longer here, like Manu (Ginobili) and Tim (Duncan) and Tony (Parker), so all that’s in place. But my personal belief is, it’s gonna take somebody that has some courage and isn’t steeped in the old status quo of who can coach and who can’t. Why can’t a woman do what I’m doing or what anybody else is doing in the NBA?”
Fizdale may have been the scapegoat in the latest Knicks disaster, but his lack of development amongst the younger players sealed his fate. The final two losses during an eight-game losing streak that concluded his tenure were losses to Milwaukee and Denver by a combined 81-point margin. Few were expecting a miracle New York playoff run, but such shellackings were becoming commonplace. Nine of the Knicks’ 19 defeats have come by double-digits.
Granted, inserting Hammon into the head coaching column is not an instant solution. After all, the woebegone Knicks still lack the superstar firepower necessary to survive in today’s NBA. Under Hammon, though, there would be a chance to develop such potential with the tools offered on the present roster. Young guards like RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina could certainly take big steps in their careers with Hammon’s services. It’s perhaps a move that should’ve been made years prior. Fizdale boasts a strong resume as an assistant (winning two titles with Miami in 2012-13), but his head coaching career has been dogged by conflict. A prior stint with the Memphis Grizzlies yielded a playoff cameo in 2017, but he was likewise sent off in his second season after conflicts with players, namely Pau’s brother Marc.
With respect to the accomplished Fizdale, the maturation of the Knicks could’ve begun sooner had they opted for Hammon and prowess among the young. This new coaching search, provided Miller doesn’t miraculously lead this squad back into the conversation for eighth place (currently7.5 games behind Orlando), could be a chance to rectify that mistake.
All it’s going to take is a heck of a lot of convincing from a management group defined by crisis and controversy.
While Hammon has reportedly expressed interest in a hypothetical Knicks offer, she could hardly be blamed for turning down a chance to join a franchise in a constant state of dysfunction. Noted names of basketball past have come and gone in the eternal rebuild of the Knicks (Lenny Wilkens, Mike D’Antoni, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, and Donnie Walsh). Despite their illustrious resumes, they were hardly able to make a difference in the cleanup. Off the court, the Knicks still rightfully face backlash for the Anucha Browne Sanders case, which saw then-general manager Isiah Thomas accused of sexual harassment. An $11.5 million settlement from MSG followed, but Thomas was inexplicably named the president of the Liberty eight years after the case wrapped.
The Liberty have since escaped Dolan’s clutches and now enjoy stability under Joseph Tsai in a new union with the Brooklyn Nets. Hammon is too strong of a person and basketball mind to be subjected to this hoops wasteland. After all, involvement with the Knicks appears to be an NBA kiss of death.
But where others would cringe and make excuses, Hammon has, true to form, offered to roll up her sleeves and get to work, provided there’s stability, of course.
Hammon is expressing interest in the potential opening. According to Jabari Young of CNBC, Hammon would entertain a return to New York if a long-term deal is offered. Raising the Knicks from basketball ash was never going to be an overnight project, but patience has been anything but a virtue above Penn Station. The last Knicks coach to reach three full seasons at the helm was D’Antoni, who resigned midway through the 2011-12 campaign.
That’s always been the basketball mindset Hammon’s had. Now, it could lead to her biggest barrier broken, as well as her most difficult challenge.
Of course, at the end of it all, a mindless faction of the fanbase will reject Hammon’s chances on the basis of gender, still toting the virtues of false, male prophets. If the prescience of tweeters who don’t deserve 28 characters, never mind the full 280, who can’t stand the sight of a young team’s work in progress that’s led by a smart, victorious woman is the Knicks’ biggest problem in three years, some semblance of victory can at long last be achieved.