Coach Becky Hammon directs a play against the New York Knicks on July 11, 2015. Photograph by David Dow, 2015 NBAE
Coach Becky Hammon directs a play against the New York Knicks on July 11, 2015. Photograph by David Dow, 2015 NBAE

GIBBS: Why Becky Hammon is the woman for the Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball job

Days after Vanderbilt men's basketball coach Bryce Drew was fired, Senior Writer Simon Gibbs gives his two cents on the coaching vacancy, and why Becky Hammon is the perfect woman for the gig.

March 24, 2019

If you’ve read my list of potential candidates for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball head coaching job, you’ll see one name that sticks out from the bunch: Spurs Assistant Coach Becky Hammon.

I acknowledged that “some [of the candidates] are more realistic than others.” Unfortunately, Hammon seems like one of the tougher gets. It’s never easy to incentivize an NBA assistant coach to leave their stable job, not to mention one that has the pleasure of working alongside an all-time great in Gregg Popovich.

For that very reason, this piece isn’t about why such a move will happen.

This piece is about why it should happen–why Vanderbilt University should make Hammon the first woman to be named head coach of a Division I men’s basketball program in history.

Hammon has the accolades, experiences, and skills necessary to make her the woman for the job.

Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon goes over the game plan with San Antonio’s Pau Gasol. (Getty Images)

This column will hardly touch on the magnitude of such a hire. Sure, it’s an important factor when it comes to a university committed to breaking barriers, but maybe it shouldn’t be. If Vanderbilt has their priorities straight, the social implications of this move should hardly play a role in the decision.

Hiring Hammon could do more than just “start a trend.”

It could mark the end of another–the trend of underwhelming athletic programs, and the apparent inability to build a basketball program that can perennially compete in the SEC.

It could very well put an end to widespread criticism predicated on the notion that Vanderbilt should accept mediocrity in athletics because, “You are, after all, Vanderbilt.”

An all-time player turned coach

Hammon’s story, much like the narrative of other successful coaches, begins with her playing career. However, her playing career was not simply a five-year tenure as a role player in the WNBA, followed by a failed attempt at playing ball overseas.

She is not just one of the greatest point guards in WNBA History. She is one of the greatest players in WNBA History.

In fact, at halftime of the 2011 WNBA All-Star game, the WNBA presented their list of top 15 players of all time.

NBAE/Getty Images
Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Hammon – six-time WNBA all-star, two-time All-WNBA First Team, two-time All-WNBA Second Team, WNBA assists leader (2007), United States gold medalist in the Jones Cup (1998), Russian Bronze medalist in the Olympic Games (2008), and Russian Silver medalist in the 2009 EuroBasket competition – made it onto the final list of 15 with flying colors.

Her immense success in the WNBA has informed her abilities as a coach. As far as I’m concerned, she’s already ahead of the curve when it comes to her successful background. However, at the collegiate coaching level, one particular characteristic of her playing career can set her apart: she went undrafted.

Despite the initial lack of interest in the WNBA Draft, she still turned a small window of opportunity into one of the greatest careers in WNBA history.

This should be considered a valuable asset in a college coach, especially in a Vanderbilt coach.

Bryce Drew played in the NBA for a few seasons after being selected with the sixteenth overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. This is not to take anything away from Drew, but as a first-round selection, he had his career cut out for him.

Picture giving a sales pitch to a college recruit, who appears to have interest in a school like Vanderbilt.

Say his main concern is the frequency at which Vanderbilt student-athletes are overlooked. Not by the selection committee, not by the AP voters, but by NBA teams. This high schooler is worried about building and maintaining a professional career for himself, and he’s in desperate need of reassurance that even if he’s not drafted, there are still hopes for a life in basketball. To be completely honest, this hypothetical high schooler would have a fair point: in the past twenty years, just ten players have been selected out of Vanderbilt University; only five of which were selected in the first round.

Drew couldn’t relate, but Hammon could. She is different in that regard. With a proven track record as both a player and a coach, she can provide a refreshing perspective to prospective students. Whether it’s far exceeding the expectations as a player, or turning that same basketball IQ into a prestigious coaching career, Hammon serves as living proof that there is always hope.

Hammon paved her own path to greatness – twice. Once as a player, and now, as she’s using that same knowledge to do it as a coach.

Hammon’s success on the sidelines

“One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need?” said Pau Gasol, one of Hammon’s players on the Spurs, in an exclusive piece with The Players’ Tribune.

Gasol is one of the few products of Hammon’s system to reflect on her abilities as a coach. Not because other players disagree, but because it should go without saying.

Mind you, Gasol had been in the league for 18 years at the time this article was written. By that point, he had won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award, two NBA Championships, was named to to six NBA All-Star games, two All-NBA Second Teams, and two All-NBA Third Teams.

All things considered, Gasol still had the following to say about Hammon:

“I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation, and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”

Becky Hammon consults Gregg Popovich on the sidelines (AP Photo/Darren Abate).

As a seasoned veteran, Gasol’s insight should illustrate the perspective of her players. As for the coach’s perspective, Popovich was about as clear as Gasol.

Hammon has game.

“Becky can do anything she wants,” Spurs head coach Popovich said to The Coloradoan before a game in Denver. “I just know how gifted she is, and she’s earned the respect of everybody in our program, from top to bottom. She’s a valued assistant, somebody that I depend on. I really respect her knowledge and her way of doing things. She’s a natural. So, whatever she wants to do in her future, I think is her choice. She’s got it all.”

This is not just anyone complimenting Hammon. This is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. Popovich has surely served as a terrific mentor for an up-and-coming coach like Hammon, and for him to speak so highly of her is extremely meaningful.

College basketball programs salivate at the opportunity to hire a coach who once learned from an all-time great like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams or Tom Izzo. Popovich is no different. In fact, he’s acknowledged that she is simply too talented to keep by his side forever.

For someone like Hammon, who has interviewed for, but has yet to accept a head coaching gig, Vanderbilt presents a potentially life-changing opportunity. She could completely rebuild a program from the ground-up, and build it to her liking.

A project of such large proportions would require more than just a knowledgeable coach; it would require the perfect fit. In her brief sample of coaching with the Spurs, Hammon’s style seems far too fitting for Vanderbilt to overlook.

Once upon a time, the Vanderbilt Commodores thrived on discovering overlooked, three-to-four star recruits that can play as a team. There was no fame in the way these successful Vanderbilt teams played, there was no stardom for players scoring 20 points on a given night, and there was certainly no “I” when it came to the team. Vanderbilt basketball simply took pride in a balanced, old-school, team-first mentality.

And it worked.

In 2006-07, the Kevin Stallings-coached Commodores made it all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. That team had nine players average over ten minutes per game, nine average over ten points per forty minutes, two average over one block per forty minutes, and nine average over one steal per forty minutes.

Formerly a program that mastered the art of team-first play, this year’s Commodores could not have looked more different.

Likewise, the Spurs have functioned as a well-oiled powerhouse for over two decades, thriving on their immense sense of teamwork. It’s won them five championships, 14 division titles, and has turned the Spurs into one of the greatest NBA franchises.

Hammon could bring that team-first attitude to Vanderbilt. After all, it’s worked for her in the NBA.

When Hammon was given the opportunity to serve as the San Antonio Spurs head coach in the 2015 NBA Summer League, she made history. Not just because she was the first woman to do so, but because she won the Las Vegas Summer League championship in her first attempt.

Her San Antonio Spurs thrived under her immense leadership, and above all, they won with an exemplary display of team basketball. The old-school, Vanderbilt way.

Extended team statistics for the 2015 Summer League are no longer available on the NBA’s website, but the box scores revealed Hammon’s versatile attack. The Spurs were one of the few teams to not have a single player exceed 21 points in a game. Almost every contest, they had two, three, or even four-way ties for team-leader in assists, rebounds, steals, and a number of other statistics.

Hammon’s team even had the Summer League’s MVP, Kyle Anderson, and the championship game’s MVP, Jonathon Simmons. Still, they played as one cohesive unit, with each player acting as a unique chess piece in Hammon’s complex gameplan.

From Devin Booker to Jahlil Okafor, to Markus Smart and Rodney Hood, the Spurs faced some of the NBA’s best and brightest young talents that summer. On the other hand, Hammon’s 19 player roster sported 14 rather unknown, undrafted rookies. The other five were far from lottery picks themselves, as the group included three late second-round selections and two first rounders – one picked 30th, one picked 28th.

On paper, Hammon’s summer league squad should’ve never held a candle to the other star-studded teams.

Once again, this is an awfully familiar narrative for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt has never been known for bringing in the greatest five-star recruits in the country, yet they are constantly playing against them. Just this year, the list of SEC talent includes the likes of Grant Williams, P.J. Washington, Admiral Schofield, Tremont Waters, Quinndary Weatherspoon, and many more.

If this team wants to succeed, Turner must bring in a system coach–one like Hammon–who is capable of hanging with the best, even when her squad seems outmatched.

The Spurs are known for their unique, selfless style of team basketball. Vanderbilt was once the same. Hammon is more than capable of bringing that style back to Nashville.

How this translates to Vanderbilt

If Vanderbilt brings in a head coaching candidate that sports a specially catered style of play (examples include the run-and-gun offense of Nate Oats, the slow, possession-based offense of Mick Cronin, or the defensive-first mentality of Johnny Dawkins), the Commodores could be stuck in a tough situation. It would force them to recruit players based on their playing styles, and would effectively narrow down the pool of recruits they have to choose from.

Hammon doesn’t scout out playing styles. She scouts out talent. With her immense leadership and versatility, the Commodores would be well on their way to a revival.

To my skeptics: if you truly think that Hammon would not be capable of recruiting players to Vanderbilt due to her lack of collegiate experience, consider how Popovich turned the Spurs into a 15+ year dynasty. It wasn’t by making a splash in free agency and reeling in big-name players. It was through exceptional scouting.

(Photo: Soobum Im, Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s almost hard to believe the sheer talent Popovich and co. have uncovered in players that never attended an American college. The list includes names like Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa, Ian Mahinmi, Tiago Splitter, and Goran Dragic. Perhaps Hammon could be successful in recruiting hidden-gems from overseas, something not uncommon for Vanderbilt basketball (most recently, Ejike Obinna and Yanni Wetzell, and in the past, Festus Ezeli, Djery Baptiste, James Siakam, and many more).

While much of the credit for the scouting is rightfully given to Popovich, Hammon has certainly learned from the best.

Getting recruited by anyone of Hammon’s nature – a top-15 player in her league’s history, a name that has already been included as a candidate for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and a coach with any form of connection to the legendary Coach Popovich – would leave high schoolers starry-eyed by the opportunity of playing at Vanderbilt.

“She’s got a big name,” said Bryn Forbes, a third-year player for the Spurs. “Anybody with the right priorities, they wouldn’t care whether she’s a man or a woman. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. She’s a solid coach; that’s what I’m looking for.”

Vanderbilt has a storied history of being the breaker of barriers and glass ceilings, particularly in athletics: from hiring David Williams as the first African-American athletic director in the SEC, to recruiting Perry Wallace, the first African American student-athlete to compete in an SEC game, this school prides itself on being a trailblazer. Hammon’s potential hiring would uphold that standard.

At the end of the day, none of that should really matter.

This is not about finding the right kind of person for the job. This is about finding the most qualified candidate.

This is not about gender, this is about basketball.

It’s time for a fresh start.

It’s time to bring back Memorial Magic, and I believe that Becky Hammon is the woman for the job.

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