NEW YORK (AP) Gregg Popovich is not the talkative sort. Yet he’s effusive about Becky Hammon, who after her WNBA career ends wants to coach – women or men.
Popovich suggested Hammon – whom the Spurs’ coach calls a ”lifer” in the sport – attend his team’s practices after a season-ending knee injury last summer kept the San Antonio All-Star from playing a 15th season.
”She wants to coach after she’s done,” Popovich said. ”Because she’s not just a good player but a smart player, a great person in our community, just somebody that we all respect so much, we gave her the opportunity to sit with us during the year. She came to our coaches’ meetings, argued with us. She did everything. She’s been wonderful.”
Hammon also attended film sessions and sat behind the bench at home games this season to watch Popovich at work. She’s been friends with Spurs teammates Tony Parker and Tim Duncan since competing in an NBA All-Star shooting competition in 2008.
”There’s a standard that he puts on them every day,” Hammon said. ”You’re expected to meet that standard and play to that standard. It doesn’t matter if you’re up 20 or it’s a one-point game. It’s kind of a beautiful thing to watch.”
Popovich, a winner of four NBA titles in his 18 years with the Spurs, has his team in the playoffs again. He believes Hammon and other women can cross over and coach men, even in the NBA.
”I don’t see why not. There shouldn’t be any limitations,” Popovich said. ”It’s about talent and the ability to do things. It’s not about what your sex is or your race or anything else.”
Men often coach women’s Division I college basketball teams – 121 of 333 were head coaches on a 2013-14 list provided by the NCAA – but few women get the opportunity to coach men’s programs.
Rick Pitino hired Bernadette Maddox at Kentucky as one of the first female assistants in Division I men’s basketball in 1990. Others who joined the assistant men’s ranks more than a decade ago include Stephanie Ready at Coppin State and Jennifer Johnston at Oakland University. In 2009, basketball legend Nancy Lieberman coached an NBA Developmental League team in Dallas.
Hammon went undrafted out of Colorado State, but the New York Liberty picked up the gritty 5-foot-6 guard in 1999. She played eight years at Madison Square Garden with stars Teresa Weatherspoon and Sue Wicks, energizing crowds with daring drives, dishes and clutch 3-pointers.
”(Liberty coach) Richie Adubato taught me so much on how to play the game,” said Hammon of the NBA head coach at Detroit, Dallas and Orlando during his career. ”He actually brought an NBA mentality to the WNBA.”
Hammon’s current Stars’ coach, Dan Hughes, has mentored 32 former players and assistants into the coaching ranks in his 13 years in the WNBA. He understands why Popovich and Hammon get along so well.
”(He) came to games and watched her play,” Hughes said. ”Becky knows about presence – when to step forward and when to listen. That’s an artful thing.”
Popovich recently joked about some changes at video sessions.
”The language is a lot cleaner with her in the room. We tend to bathe more, you know typical things you would think males would do around females,” he said.
Hammon calls Popovich a ”good communicator” with a ”brilliant mind” who knows how to reach the players.
”Just listening and observing you can learn a lot,” she said. ”How he manages players, how he manages the team and minutes. How he leads – a tremendous leader – but also X’s and O’s-wise.
”The Spurs, people think they’re boring, I think they’re amazing to watch. The way they move the ball, pass, cut, that’s really how basketball is supposed to be played.”
Hammon, who was second in the WNBA in assists and 3-pointers in 2012, broke a finger on her shooting hand before the 2013 season. Then she tore a knee ligament just 12 minutes into her first game back. So instead of playing in the offseason in Russia – where Americans can sign lucrative contracts – she rehabbed and attended Spurs’ practices.
Hughes considers Hammon ”tough” and an ”effective leader,” and he’s confident she and other women have the qualities to crack the gender barrier.
”Absolutely, a great coach is a great coach,” said Hughes, an assistant men’s coach at Toledo for six years before joining the WNBA. ”The world will move in that way. In the future, it will become more common.”
The 37-year-old Hammon joined the Stars’ training camp this week for a likely final run in the WNBA, which begins its 18th season May 16. She’s open to trailblazing on the men’s side of the coaching ranks.
”I do think it’s time that some of those barriers do come down,” Hammon said. ”I think it’s silly on a certain level. If you know and understand basketball, you know and understand basketball, period.”
The 65-year-old Popovich recognizes another career gym rat.
”Becky’s a basketball lifer,” he said. ”I have a feeling, even at her young age. You can see it. She wants to keep learning.”
Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.