THE PRESS RELEASE release read like any other: The San Antonio Spurs had just hired a new assistant coach. It would have made barely a ripple in the sports world, except as the release spelled out the coach's qualifications, the pronoun used was she, not he.
Becky Hammon has spent 16 years in the WNBA, the last eight with the San Antonio Stars. She has been named to six All-Star teams and on July 11 was named one of the league's top 15 players of all time; she is seventh on the WNBA's career scoring list. In July 2013, the point guard suffered a serious left-knee injury; last month she announced that she would retire after the 2014 season, at 37. Two weeks later the Spurs made her the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major men's pro sports.
MY GAME was never really about superathleticism or speed, but it did evolve as I got older. I got craftier. I began to see things and became great at making split-second decisions. I learned to use angles differently and understand footwork. I learned how to attack defenses better. I think I became better, and quicker.
The frustrating thing is that I'm so much smarter than I was when I was younger, but my body can't do what I want it to do. Dang it, had I known then what I know now, I'd have beaten everybody. Obviously, there's no way a 22-year-old can see what a 37-year-old can. Only time and experience can give you that. But by the time you reach your mid-30s, your body just doesn't recover like it used to. This year, in my comeback from a torn ACL, doctors told me it was going to be 18 months before I would start feeling like myself on the court. Sometimes I wondered if the rehab was as difficult as it felt, or if I was just old. When you can't tell the difference anymore, it's a problem.
I've always loved being in a gym, being on a team, and I love people. Those are my passions, so coaching is a natural fit for me. I had also thought about doing television, but when my injury happened, I started this relationship with the Spurs. Last August, a few weeks after my surgery, I talked to Stars coach Dan Hughes. I said I was going to be in San Antonio doing rehab during the fall and winter instead of going to play overseas. I asked him if he could talk to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich to see if I could come to a few practices. They invited me to come to everything, including film sessions and meetings. But even as I began this transition, I was still a player. I had to take care of my career, make money during the off-season, do my rehab to get back on the court. They were fine with that.
I need to learn everything I possibly can before the NBA season starts in October. Obviously, the NBA is different from the WNBA, but my experiences as a basketball player and the fundamentals of the game carry over. What works on a team with girls works on a team with guys. Pick-and-rolls, reading defenses, scheming defenses—it's all similar. It's basketball. I'm just grateful the Spurs value that.
Last year, sitting in with the Spurs, there were so many moments when I would watch Pop, just shake my head and say, "That was a good one, Coach." Whether it's in the film room or on the court, working with Pop, you start seeing the things he's seeing and the way he approaches things, and I'm starting to learn. I think the beauty of Pop is he doesn't complicate things. This is basketball. This is not brain surgery.
Now that my role with the Spurs is official, I think about coaching every day. But I also have a few games left as a player. [The Stars will face the Lynx in the first round of the WNBA playoffs this week.] I'm cherishing the moment. The news of my Spurs job was really, really big, and I wasn't used to the attention, so I turned to basketball. Whatever I've gone through in my life, basketball has always been a temple for me. That's where you find peace and quiet. Even among the screaming fans, you're still solitary. It was actually nice to get back out on the court after my coaching announcement. That's what I know. That's normal to me.