When the San Antonio Spurs start their quest to defend their title tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, they will have many familiar faces. Legendary coach Gregg Popovich is still at the helm, and on the court, the Spurs are still led by the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. In fact, the Spurs only made one change to their entire roster in the off-season (the Cleveland Cavaliers, by comparison, only return five players of fifteen players from their 2013-14 roster). So why did the Spurs – a picturesque model of consistency – make waves with a change they did make over the summer?
On August 5th, San Antonio hired Becky Hammon as an assistant coach, making her the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.
First of all, who is Becky Hammon? Hammon is widely considered one of the best WNBA players of all-time, ranking in the top ten all-time in assists, points scored, and games played. She spent most of her career playing with the San Antonio Silver Stars and has become close with
Spurs’ stars Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. After tearing her ACL, Hammon went to Spurs’ practices and film sessions to work with some of the players while she could not play. Obviously, she is highly respected by Popovich, who cites her high basketball IQ and sharp eye for the game as reasons he hired her.
“I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff. Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs,” Popovich said in a release.
Many outside of the Spurs organization – those who know how excellent the organization is in every sense of the word – truly believe that the Spurs were not looking to make a splash or hire Hammon just because she is a woman. Popovich and the Spurs truly believe that Hammon was the best, most qualified candidate for the job. This line of thinking falls in line with the idea of “open competition”, which was talked about in Mika LaVaque-Manty’s book The Playing Fields of Eton.
LaVaque-Manty defines open competition as “the freedom to enter an event in which one meets eligibility requirements with respect to times and distances, with no consideration given to functional or medical consideration” (147). In this case, the Spurs set forth standards that they looked for in a coach, and while we will probably never know what those standards are, Hammon obviously fulfilled them and then some. The Spurs did not care that Hammon is a woman and that no woman had ever been a full-time coach in the NBA before. They admired her basketball IQ and ability to help lead the team, and hired her accordingly.
Another point that LaVaque-Manty mentioned (this time in a Political Science 101 lecture) is the difference between institutional and value barriers. An institutional barrier is an official barrier to inclusion (i.e. an official rule barring women from being hired as a coach), while a value barrier is an unofficial barrier based on a gender norm or societal expectation (i.e. the belief that women are not able to coach men). While there is no NBA rule saying woman cannot coach (or play, for that matter) in the NBA, there is an gender norm associated with it: women are not strong enough (physically, mentally, or emotionally) to play with or coach men.
Only one woman has tried to play in the NBA, when Ann Meyers tried out for Indiana Pacers in 1980. She did not make the team, which furthered the idea that women could not compete with men. Now, with Hammon, that perception is fading. Although we may not see a woman play in the NBA anytime soon, women coaches will become more common. Women have the same ability to analyze and understand basketball as men, and have the same passion for the game. Soon, that will be seen with women coaching throughout the league.
Despite what some people may believe, the importance of Title IX in this situation is not relevant at all. While Title IX does promote equality and equal opportunities for men and women, it does not apply to the NBA. Title IX refers to educational programs that receive federal financial assistance. Obviously, colleges fit under this umbrella, meaning college athletic departments must comply with Title IX and have equal spots for males and females participating in athletics. The NBA, on the other hand, is its own entity, meaning Title IX is not any consideration for them at all. This makes the Spurs’ decision to hire Hammon all the more admirable.
All in all, the San Antonio Spurs made a groundbreaking decision when they hired Becky Hammon to be an assistant coach, as she is now the first woman to be a full-time assistant coach in the NBA. However, in the mind of Gregg Popovich and other members of the Spurs organization, this decision had nothing to do with gender. They truly believed Hammon had the best combination of pedigree, intelligence, and passion. Soon enough, this will be the main consideration when hiring coaches in the NBA, with gender being an afterthought.