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'My journey is not by mistake' | How Becky Hammon became a champion head coach

Hammon led the Las Vegas Aces to a title in her first year at the helm. It wasn't about proving her doubters wrong... It was about proving herself right.

LAS VEGAS — "My journey is not by mistake," Becky Hammon said Sunday, soaked in champagne after leading the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA title.

It's a journey that she started as a young girl in South Dakota who loved basketball, but she wasn't heavily recruited despite the skills she developed. A record-setting collegiate career with the Colorado State Rams wasn't enough to be drafted into the WNBA, but she eventually became one of the best players in the history of the league. She spent eight years as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and still got passed over for NBA head coaching jobs.

Every step of that journey is filled with people who doubted Becky Hammon, and in her first season at the helm of a team, she implemented a new system, won the trust of her players and earned Coach of the Year honors as she became the first former WNBA player and the first rookie head coach to take her team to the mountaintop.

"Every hard thing that I've gone through has built something in me that I've needed down the road," she said after the Aces beat the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 to take the title. "And even though it sucks in the moment to not be picked or to get hurt or whatever it might be, the hard stuff builds stuff in you that's necessary for life, and you'll be using it down the road. It may not feel like that in the moment. But for me, you know, it's not really about proving other people wrong... It's proving myself right. If you guys haven't figured it out yet, I don't really care. You like me? You don't like me? I don't care. I'm just gonna be myself. And if you like me, great. If not, we just keep it moving."

The Aces used to be the San Antonio Silver Stars (later named just the San Antonio Stars), a team that Hammon led on the court for seven seasons. Hammon ranks 15th all time as a scorer in WNBA history, sixth all time for assists, fourth for three-pointers made, and second in terms of free throw percentage. 

Toward the end of that legendary playing career, Hammon tore her ACL and began sitting in on the Spurs coaches' meetings and contributing. Gregg Popovich cited her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills when he brought her on as an assistant for the NBA team.

The hire made history as Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA. She made history again when Pop got tossed from a game against the Lakers, pointed to her and said, "You got 'em." She said she wasn't thinking about becoming the first woman to lead an NBA team. She was thinking about beating the Lakers.

RELATED: Spurs' Becky Hammon first woman to direct NBA team

"(I was) trying to get the guys in the right spots," Hammon said. "Trying to get them motivated. Obviously, it's a learning situation for all of us, but I would have loved to have walked out there with a win with the guys."

Becky Hammon sees herself as a basketball coach first, and so do the players and coaches who work with her. The people who interviewed her for NBA head coaching gigs, however, were unwilling to make her the first female head coach in the history of the league. 

She said teams kept telling her that she had only been in San Antonio and had never been a head coach. That hadn't been an issue for many of the other Popovich assistants who got first-time coaching gigs coming right off of his bench.

Finding a home in Vegas

One place that definitely wasn't afraid to make a woman their head coach was Hammon's former team, now the Las Vegas Aces. Their management saw her for what she is: a highly qualified basketball coach capable of taking their team to a championship. Some in the basketball world viewed her taking the job as a step down. She saw it as a homecoming and a chance to be the head coach she knew she could be at the highest level of competition, and she would be doing it in a league that means the world to her.

RELATED: It's official: WNBA's Las Vegas Aces hire Spurs' Becky Hammon as head coach

"Obviously, the WNBA is home for all of us, and so when we come back to it, it feels like home, feels natural. For me, having been gone for eight years, and being able to learn under arguably the greatest coach ever, just really helped give me a really good foundation to come back and give back and invest not only in the WNBA, but invest in my players, individually and collectively. So it's been a really fun journey for me. I've said this before, but this is one of the best decisions I've ever made, was to come here and coach these women."

Hammon has had everything it takes to be an elite coach for a long time. An all-time great point guard, she has high-level basketball IQ and innate leadership abilities. She has the gravitas to command the respect of her players, and the lived experience to relate to them and build with them. 

"I understand the grind of the league," she said. "I was in there 16 years, so I understand kind of their day-to-day. The way I see the game, and how it should be played, I just think resonates with people because it's based on a little bit of structure and a lot of freedom. And I want them to be who they are. So for me, it was whether it's Chelsea or Kelsey or A'ja, Jackie, I mean, you could go down the list, I want them to be who they are and I want to highlight the things that they do great. All under the umbrella of, they're all required to play the right way, which means somebody's open, they get the ball. If you're open you can shoot it. If you're not, you've got to pass it or drive it. So it's kind of really basic."

Credit: AP
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon counsels her players during a timeout versus the Connecticut Sun during the first half in Game 1 of a WNBA basketball final playoff series Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/L.E. Baskow)

As basic as it may sound, Hammon brought NBA terminology and fundamentally changed the way that the Aces play ball. She came into a good team, but they'd just lost Liz Cambage. In 2021, Vegas made the second-fewest threes in the league. In 2022 they made nearly twice as many, rising to the second-most in the league. The defensive schemes changed as well. Hammon said her players picked it up quickly and bought in, and the wins and accolades came soon after.

Championship culture

A'ja Wilson became the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP. Kelsey Plum made the All-Star game and earned an unfortunately tiny MVP trophy. Jackie Young was Most Improved Player. The team won the Commissioner's Cup, and Chelsea Gray won the MVP of that tournament. Hammon, who earned Coach of the Year honors, said that success came from a culture of collaboration and trust.

"Really. first thing you have to do in building championship culture is to set a tone of accountability, first and foremost," she said. "Bringing people together for a common goal that's bigger than themselves. And then you got to get the buy-in factor, and my buy-in factor on each one of these women has been high. And I think they respond to me well, and I tried to be very clear with what their job is, what the expectation is."

All of that leadership was on display in Game 4 of the Finals. The Aces won the first two games at home, but the Sun made some big adjustments and hit back in a dominant win in Game 3. Vegas led for most of a physical first half in Game 4, but the Sun closed the gap and made it a 30-28 game heading into halftime. At one point, Hammon handed the clipboard to eventual Finals MVP Chelsea Gray.

"I knew she was cerebral," Hammon said of Gray earlier in the season. "I knew she liked big moments, and she's proven all that true to who she is. So she is a bucket getter, and I don't know where we're at without Chelsea Gray, to be honest. She is the leader out there, the floor general. She's an extension of me. She's somebody who takes a lot of ownership in our offense and our defense. So it's been fun. I think I give her a tremendous amount of trust and she's trusted me so it's a really good working relationship."

Gray said that her coach believed in the group from the moment she arrived. 

"That was immediate," Gray said. "In training camp, you start making those habits and start creating that relationship. When the season starts, and when you're in the thick of things, you have things to fall back on, what type of person, what type of competitor they are. And so she started off from the beginning, making sure she's not gonna be easy on us, just making sure that we're ready for when the time comes."

Gray put up some mind-boggling numbers in the playoffs: nearly 22 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 72.7% to go with 7 assists. She felt she was snubbed from the All-Star team, so she shut up the doubters with her postseason play.

Hammon's basketball acumen and leadership skills are second to none, but the Aces would not be champions without the personal connection she had with the players and the connection they have with each other.

"I think the biggest thing that I wanted to do coming in was just to get to know them on a personal level," Hammon said. "Spend some time with them, get to know what makes them click, how they learn. Some people learn, they have to walk through it. Some people are visual learners, some people you can just draw something on the board, they can get it other people can't, they need to walk through it. So just learning the little nuances of each individual player and just investing time and sitting and talking with them, sharing with them. Going to dinner, whatever it might be. Because managing talent is probably almost as hard as parenting. I think you have to establish the individual relationships, you have to have the expectation, the accountability factor, and at the end of the day, they have to know you care about them. And I care about my squad, I love these girls. And so, at the end of the day, I think they can feel that for me, and how much I believe in them. I believe they have greatness, and so I want to pull that out."

Digging in

The Aces got to the All-Star break at 15-7, but five of those losses came right before the break. Hammon said the team reached a pivotal moment after hitting that rough patch. Her players dug in, leaned on each other and built trust in crunch-time moments.

"We got off to a great start," she said at a news conference where she was introduced as the Coach of the Year. "But our greatest amount of growth probably came during that rough patch. We learned the most about ourselves, and hopefully we built some resiliency in ourselves that will be able to assist us down this stretch run. We got tougher."

"I think bottom line, they don't like losing and they each had to make an individual commitment," she said. "I told them in their contracts this year with re-signing everything, I'm like, 'You guys literally made money investments into each other. Now you've gotta make the on-court investment of trust with each other down the stretch.' Because we have so many talented women. We had to learn to trust each other because you have just human nature, in that desire to take over at certain spots, and it's those times when it gets really hard or somebody wants to take over that we have to actually bunker down together even more, the ball has to move even more, the player movement has to move even more. And I think us having those opportunities to build resiliency, for us to be in crunch time, end-of-game moments, to build trust in those moments. And quite frankly, we've been closing games better the last half of the season, knock on wood. But those are all factors that I think I hit them between the eyes with what I was saying, and they're high-character people and they responded."

She made all of that clear to her team in a meeting at a hotel that she knew would be consequential. Beforehand she spent some time on the phone with Popovich, someone whom she talks to regularly.

"Me and Pop, he texts after games or he'll call me. We've talked frequently. I know before I had my little heart-to-heart with the team at All-Star break, I was on the phone with him for about an hour just mulling over different approaches and telling him what I saw and you know, just picking his brain a little bit," she said. "We have a lot of communication. Obviously I love him to death, and I miss him, so it's always fun to hear from him."

Pop made an appearance in the Vegas locker room after the Aces took Game 2.

"You don't need me, that's for sure," he said. "But it was great watching you guys play. It's been great watching you on TV. And the way you execute, the way you play physically... it's just beautiful to watch. Honestly. You just play great basketball, and it's about consistency, so you got to keep it going," he said. "And for me, I always tell my teams: the sweetest wins are which ones?" 

He looked over at Hammon, who answered, "On the road."

"The ones on the road, baby, the ones on the road, and that's where you're going, are the sweetest," he said.

Coaching for the title

Back to Game 4. Vegas managed to build a 60-54 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Sun all but erased it with five points in a row. Hammon called timeout and went to a small lineup with Kelsey Plum.

"We were just kind of pulling straws over there and decided to go small, and I just felt like, 'I don't know if we'll stop them but I don't think they can stop us either,'" she said.

"And just scrap defensively. I told the girls at the beginning of the year we have to be scrappers because there's gonna be times where we're just smaller than everybody. But it just goes to show the the grit, the focus, and that it's not always how tall you are to play this game. It matters what's in here and in here," she said, pointing to her head and her heart.

Credit: AP
Las Vegas Aces' Kelsey Plum, top, and Connecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas fight for possession of the ball during the second half in Game 4 of a WNBA basketball final playoff series, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Plum immediately hit a three. Jackie Young nailed a pull-up jumper and then got to the line, and the Aces built their lead out to six. Then Plum got called for a reckless closeout on a three, gifting the Sun a 5-0 run. Connecticut tied the game and took a timeout with under three minutes to go. Hammon could have pulled Plum and gone back to a bigger lineup, but she didn't. She stuck to her guns, and her gunners.

The Sun jumped in front with 2:22 to go. Then Plum found Riquna Williams for three in a pick and pop set, then another one. The next trip down, Plum again passed to Williams, who hit a deep step-back two to make it a four-point game with under a minute left. With 25 seconds to go, Plum drove into the paint for a jumper that iced the game and the championship.

"I felt like if we could scrap and just dig out balls on the other end, that they would have a tough time guarding us down there," Hammon said after the game. "So it was kind of just whoever their their biggest player was on, we were running them into pick-and-roll actions, and then just kind of slipping out and making them pay in different ways. (Williams) is somebody who didn't shoot particularly well the other game, Game 3, and you don't get to the name Bay Buckets for nothing. So I know she's got a lot in the tank, and I have the utmost confidence in her, and she knows she's got the ultimate green light, and so it just happened to be who was on her. I wanted to run her into it because I knew she would eventually be the one that got open."

Credit: AP
The Las Vegas Aces pose for a photo with the championship trophy after their win in the WNBA basketball finals against the Connecticut Sun, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Celebrating Hammon's moment

Hammon shared credit with her players, who absolutely deserve it. She also deserves a tremendous amount of credit herself. A Coach of the Year and a champion in her debut season, she has proved her doubters wrong once again. The history she made this year had nothing to do with her gender, and everything to do with her doing something that no rookie head coach in this league ever has.

Choosing to view this as a stepping stone to an NBA job or merely an extension of Spurs excellence ignores the fact that it's a monumental accomplishment in it's own right for Becky Hammon the basketball legend, one that deserves to be celebrated in Vegas, San Antonio, and everywhere people love the game.

Speaking of celebrations, Hammon and the Aces returned to Vegas with hardware, celebratory champagne and victory cigars in hand for Sin City's first championship parade. 

A'ja made it clear in a hilariously turnt up postgame presser that she wanted the fans to have that same energy for the festivities, and they showed up and showed out. 

When Hammon took the mic, the roaring crowd chanted, "BECKY! BECKY! BECKY!" She took it all in for a few moments before saying, "Y'all are beautiful."

Some people will unfortunately and predictably continue to doubt and diminish Becky Hammon, but that's of no concern to her, and why should it be? She's already proved them wrong whether they can bear to admit it or not, and more importantly, she's proved herself right.

"When I took the job in December, I thought when I started breaking down their roster that I can do something with it. I had a vision of what I wanted to do with this team. And even when it got a little rocky, I think we stuck to it," she said. "We hit a kind of stay down in the dirt or get up kind of moment right after All-Star. And like usual, they chose to stand up. And we have tremendous leadership in that locker room. We have tremendous professionals, but I'll say it again, they're tremendous people. I mean, like my kids are living their best life with those girls, we try to make it a family atmosphere, bring everybody along. I say all along, happy players make better players and so in Vegas, we're trying to build a culture that players want to come and take part in something special, something bigger than themselves."

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