Recently, I came across a great piece written by Drew Steele. In it, he describes how the timing is perfect for Becky Hammon, a woman who is currently holding an assistant coaching job with the San Antonio Spurs, to become a head coach. Particularly, the recent vacancy created by Jason Kidd’s firing. You can and should read it, here. And while I understand the excitement everyone has for the first female head coach in the NBA, I think one should address the elephant in the room standing beneath a glass ceiling.
I’m sorry, Becky Hammon coaching the Milwaukee Bucks sounds great, but there is possibility of it not ending well. If the Bucks were to make such a move, and truly give the head coaching job to her as the most deserving candidate, an immediate reaction by their fan base would be imminent. Particularly, if she happens to struggle, which, given the experience of the team and their time together as a group, is likely to happen. The grumblings from the fans would likely reach the media, the media would reach the casual fan, and popular opinion would be Becky needs to be relieved of her duties.
The next narrative would be, “Just what were the Bucks doing hiring a woman in the first place? There’s a WNBA for a reason!” Which is completely unfair. Now, I am not of the belief that women and men can coexist on the same playing field as competitors. In that sense, men are admittedly just better athletes at their competitive peak, which is what the NBA is (olympic sports are a different story); however, I do believe that a great mind can be possessed and wielded by anyone. Hammon may, in fact, be one of those great minds, and should absolutely be given the right to coach at the highest professional level possible. It would be wrong to limit the potential of Hammon’s basketball knowledge simply because she happens to be female. But the possible trickle down effect of her early termination could cause the once open-minded opinion that a woman can coach a team of men to narrow, and ultimately result in her career as a coach (in the NBA) being short-lived.
I understand this is written in what can be argued as a negative tone. Someone can read this and form the conclusion that I myself am already writing Hammon off as a coach. This is not my intent. Steele’s piece is written like a glowing resume of Hammon’s work, and yet, even he entertains this unpopular notion:
With that said, there is also risk for Hammon if the gamble doesn’t pay off. If the Bucks do not improve under her and Antetokounmpo leaves in free agency in 2021, she may very well be the scapegoat. And if she does become the scapegoat and Milwaukee fires her, does she get another head coaching opportunity? Will a team like Milwaukee be patient or can Hammon persevere as soon as the organization faces the slightest adversity?
While her first tenure as head coach of the Bucks could very well be a Cinderella story of sorts (sorry), let’s take an honest look at coaches in the NBA. In fact, let’s go right to the top, and see how a few previous winners of the coveted NBA Coach of the Year have fared in keeping their jobs:
2012-13 George Karl, DEN (terminated within the same year)
2011-12 Gregg Popovich, SA (currently employed)
2010-11 Tom Thibodeau, CHI (terminated 4 years later)
2009-10 Scott Brooks, OKC (terminated 5 years later)
2008-09 Mike Brown, CLE (terminated 1 year later)
2007-08 Byron Scott, NO (terminated 1 year later)
2006-07 Sam Mitchell, TOR (terminated 1 year later)
2005-06 Avery Johnson, DAL (terminated 2 years later)
Notice a pattern here? And remember, these aren’t bad coaches, they are coaches whom the NBA has regarded as the top in their field. You would think patience would be at its highest for this group, but the NBA and it’s fanbase are a fickle bunch. Yesterday, they love you. Today, they hate you. Tomorrow, you’re hamburger meat. Coach of the Year or not, they all meet the same fate if results are not immediately produced. So, how quick would the clock be ticking on a rookie coach, who already has an unfair knock on her, coaching a young team in a small but demanding market?
That’s why the only conceivable way I can see Hammon breaking through the glass ceiling placed above her to become a head coach, is if she stays right where she is. Gregg Popovich’s job is obviously the most secure in basketball, but he can’t keep coaching forever. One day, Pop will retire. And in can walk Hammon, to an organization and fanbase that isn’t skeptical, but welcoming. To a team with a few veteran stars whose trust she has earned, and can help her in getting new teammates and rookies to put aside their egos and lend her their ear. Not to mention, a passing of the torch from Pop, one of the greatest basketball minds who ever lived, would be a ringing endorsement.
This is a safe plan that works extremely well for rookie head coaches. Let’s take, for example, a coach like Erik Spoelstra, who worked under Pat Riley during the Shaq and Wade Miami Heat era. After Riles strong armed the team away from Stan Van Gundy (he gave him his best Guile impression, telling him to “Go home and be a family man”), and while winning a championship in 2006, he groomed Spo’ as his heir apparent. When the going got to tough for Riley (a season and a half later), he walked away, leaving Spoelstra the keys to the team. Riley was legendary as a coach, but he gave Spoelstra his blessing when he made him his replacement. This was the main factor in keeping his name off the chopping block during those down years in Miami, and it allowed him the time he needed to prove himself. Spoelstra would continue to coach the team to two championships (2012, 2013), and is still the team’s head coach to this day, more than a decade later.
Hammon needs this same opportunity, because, even if we all love her, let’s not all be naive and pretend that her mistakes will not be magnified. I personally do not know much about her ability as a coach, but I believe coach Popovich when he tells the media she has the attention of the team. That’s the kind of pull Pop has, and the kind of help Hammon will need to succeed as a coach in the NBA. As I fear in every other scenario, everyone, from the players to the organization to their fans, will be quick to pull the plug on her early before she can even get started. If she truly is another great mind in this league, it would be a shame for her to not earn an equal chance of realizing her dream. On the other hand, by being patient and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself, she could greatly improve those odds, and insure that the chance she receives is just that.
As always, http://www.basketball-reference.com was used in gathering information for the above post. Please follow me on Twitter @cleanupglass for more of my misogynistic and pig-headed views, as well as some quick basketball rants throughout the NBA season. I am also well aware that Becky Hammon didn’t get to the position she holds today by sitting idly and waiting for things to happen. She must obviously be very ambitious, and is likely aware of the barriers she must break through to earn the respect of her peers, the players, and fans alike. This is simply a proven strategy that I think she could benefit from, because I too would like to see her succeed.