NEW YORK—Becky Hammon soaked in a few seconds of solitude just before the bright lights of Madison Square Garden went down on a packed crowd at halftime Sunday afternoon. Her 5’6” frame struck a familiar stance. Shoulders back, arms folded behind, a quiet confidence exuding from her stillness. It was as if Hammon was standing with her teammates for the national anthem, preparing her mind and relaxing her body to play on that familiar hardwood, just as she had done for eight years in a New York Liberty uniform.
But in this moment, at the start of a video tribute preceding her induction into the Liberty’s Ring of Honor, there were no teammates next to Hammon and there was no game for her to play. She simply stood alone on the court and reflected on the game, and the city, that made her. "I knew that when I arrived, this city would either make or break me,” Hammon said during the halftime ceremony of Sunday's matchup between the Liberty and Seattle Storm. “And you guys made me.”
On Sunday, the 38-year-old Hammon became the sixth member of the New York Liberty Ring of Honor, joining former WNBA stars and teammates Teresa Weatherspoon, Sue Wicks, Kym Hampton, Rebecca Lobo and Vickie Johnson. Before joining the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and becoming the NBA's first female full-time assistant, Hammon was a star point guard for New York from 1999-2006. She led the franchise to three WNBA Finals appearances. Hammon ranks second in Liberty history in games played (227) and three-point field goals made (331), and is third all-time in scoring with 2,367 points.
Hammon’s journey to Liberty immortality started far from the World’s Most Famous Arena, however. As a wide-eyed sharp-shooter growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, her dreams were always much bigger than her diminutive stature. “My dream was to play in the NBA," said Hammon, who also played with the San Antonio Stars for eight seasons before retiring from the WNBA in 2014. “My dad told me straight up right from the beginning 'you will never do that.’ He said, ‘but if you’re really good, maybe you can get a college scholarship.’”
Hammon heeded her father’s advice and did just that. The self-proclaimed “gym rat” was voted the South Dakota Player of the Year as a senior at Stevens High School after averaging 26 points per game, and landed a scholarship to Colorado State University. The dynamic scorer earned All-America honors with the Rams, and was named the WAC Mountain Division Player of the Year during her senior season.
Upon graduation from Colorado State, an undersized and overlooked Hammon went unselected in the 1999 WNBA draft. She later signed as a free agent with New York in May 1999.
But on a loaded Liberty team with veteran guards like Weatherspoon and Johnson, Hammon was the unlikeliest of future stars. She averaged just 6.7 minutes with New York in her rookie season, and mostly watched as her team came within one win of capturing a WNBA title. "Nothing came easy to me,” Hammon said. "I had to fight and scrap for every little bit of playing time that I got.”
Hammon credits her time spent on the bench learning from veterans and working to get on the court during her rookie year as the secret to her dominance over her next 15 seasons in the WNBA. “I learned how to take a hit and get back up and keep moving forward,” Hammon said. "I like being able to say I worked for my career and worked for my success, nobody handed me anything. I would not do it any other way."
And much like the invaluable lessons Hammon learned as a bench player during her early days with the Liberty, her experiences as an assistant coach with the Spurs parallel similarly. “I’m in a great learning space,” Hammon said. “There are a lot of fantastic basketball minds there, not only Coach Pop [Gregg Popovich]. I really just go in there and listen a lot of times.”
Last month, Hammon became the first female summer league head coach in the history of the NBA, and shortly thereafter, led the Spurs to a title in the 17-day tournament in Las Vegas. This upcoming season will be Hammon’s second under Popovich, to whom she attributes the recently broken gender barriers in the NBA. “Someone had to be brave enough to do the right thing and not care about gender,” Hammon said. “Pop saw a need on his team and felt that I could fill that role and brought me onboard.”
Hammon believes the possibilities are limitless for women coaching in pro sports. Women's basketball legend Nancy Lieberman recently accepted a full-time assistant coaching job with the Sacramento Kings and the Arizona Cardinals tabbed Jen Welter as the NFL's first female coach last week. “I think anything is possible,” Hammon said. "Just because something’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Leadership has no gender.
"The point is, do you know basketball? Do you know what it takes to lead people?”
After answering these questions with her own actions and results, the girl who once dreamed of playing in the NBA is now doing something just as remarkable. She is proving that women have a place in men’s professional sports and leading a revolution that extends far beyond the dimensions of a basketball court.
“If you have a daughter, or even a woman in your life, it is worth supporting because of the bigger picture, because of the opportunities it will lead to down the road for little girls," Hammon said. "We’re not asking the male to get up and leave his seat. We’re just saying scoot over a little bit. Make a little room at the table for the ladies."