LAS VEGAS — Becky Hammon is sitting next to Sydney Colson in an office at the Las Vegas Aces’ facility and is struggling to keep a straight face. Colson has been called in to talk to Hammon and team president Nikki Fargas under the pretense that she offended a teammate’s family member.
But as Colson tries to explain herself, Hammon can’t keep up the jig any longer and bursts into laughter, letting Colson know the entire meeting was a charade. Some Aces teammates who had been on the receiving end of Colson’s many jokes decided to mess with the prank queen herself, and Hammon excitedly took on a central role in the act.
Hammon credits Kelsey Plum for coming up with the idea. But Plum says none of this happens without the environment Hammon has created in Las Vegas, where team members willingly come in on an off day to mess with the 11th player in the rotation.
“You watch our team play and you watch the amount of fun we have, and that just permeates from Becky,” Plum says. “I really enjoy coming to work. It’s a lot of fun, and she’s a big reason for that.”
Hammon adds: “If you watch our bench, you’re going to see a lot of people making fun of a lot of people. Mostly me. They make fun of me.”
It isn’t that Hammon, 46, doesn’t take her craft seriously, or that she’s lost her edge after transitioning from playing to coaching. She still wants to win as badly as anyone else in the Aces locker room; that competitive fire pours out of her during games, causing her to laugh after games when she reflects on her own sideline demeanor.
But in the grand scheme of things, basketball has already given Hammon more than she could have ever imagined. As she reflects on what is now a Hall of Fame playing career — she will officially be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday — she can’t help but appreciate how basketball has transformed her life. She wants to enjoy all the time she has in this sport and share that joy with the people around her.
“The crazy thing about my journey is that it’s just worked out the way it’s supposed to,” Hammon says. “Even though it was not always easy at times with me and basketball, you keep putting in the work and doing what you love, and eventually things work out.”
Becky Hammon’s @hoophall resume ‼️
— WNBA (@WNBA) August 9, 2023
Because it wasn’t always ordained that Hammon would have this path through basketball. It’s strange to think of that now after she was a six-time All-Star, a member of the WNBA’s 15th, 20th and 25th anniversary teams, and a championship-winning coach, but Hammon was almost an afterthought at the start of her pro career.
She came out of Rapid City, S.D., a city whose sports history was so modest before Hammon’s ascension that the local news would run features on her when she did something as remarkable as coming home for a school break. She had a decorated career at Colorado State, becoming the conference’s all-time leading scorer, but starring for a team in the WAC didn’t exactly make her a national name. In 1999, 50 players were selected in the WNBA Draft. Hammon wasn’t one of them and had to make the New York Liberty roster out of training camp.
“I don’t think (the Liberty) had any intentions of keeping me,” Hammon says, “except (then-head coach) Richie Adubato was like, ‘We’re not cutting her. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with her, but we’re not cutting her.’”
That foresight paid off for Adubato and New York. Years of backing up Teresa Weatherspoon (who will be presenting her on Saturday) and Vickie Johnson made Hammon a microwave scorer off the bench, and she eventually honed that efficiency into becoming an All-Star in her fifth season. She joined the starting lineup the next year and was an All-Star in each of the next four WNBA seasons, running the offense while also emerging into one of the league’s premier scorers.
Hammon was the seventh player in WNBA history to score 5,000 points, a mark that only 23 players have reached. She is fourth all-time in made 3-pointers and sixth in assists.
She didn’t win a championship as a player, though she made seven conference finals and four WNBA Finals appearances and posted a positive net rating in 11 of her first 14 seasons. Her playing career came to an abrupt end when she tore her ACL in 2013 and decided to sit in on San Antonio Spurs practices and coaching meetings. That provided a natural segue to the next phase of her basketball life when she retired in 2014.
The ability to bring out the best in her teammates as a point guard has translated to Hammon’s tenure as a coach. Aces point guard Chelsea Gray says she is playing the best basketball of her career under Hammon’s tutelage, a theme that’s echoed up and down the roster. Jackie Young is grateful for the confidence Hammon gave the 2019 No. 1 pick to expand her game, specifically as a shooter. Plum notes that Hammon has been “tremendous” for her growth.
“Seeing highlights and clips and hearing people talk about how good of a teammate she was, how good of a basketball player she was, and how smart she was on the court, off the court, she knows the game very, very well. It’s an honor, it’s a pleasure to have her as my coach and to be able to learn from her,” Kierstan Bell says. “It’s just a great thing coming in as a rookie to have a coach and have a staff and have the players that I have around me. I’m so blessed and grateful for the opportunity.”
It’s almost strange that Hammon will be honored as a player in the midst of a spectacularly successful start to the second act of her basketball career. She was the second female assistant coach in NBA history, the first to win a summer league title and the first to act as a head coach during a game. She’s already been named WNBA coach of the year and has won a WNBA title in addition to a Commissioner’s Cup championship. Her out-of-timeout plays in Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals against Seattle last year, propelling Las Vegas to a road win despite trailing by four points with 11.3 seconds remaining, likely cemented her bona fides as a game manager in her first season as a head coach. And the Aces are in the midst of a potentially historic regular season, one that could end in the first WNBA repeat title in more than two decades.
That continued pursuit of excellence sustains Hammon. She never lets herself get caught up in what’s already been accomplished. “When you start dwelling on your success is when you set yourself up for the next failure,” she says. Perhaps that’s why it’s been a challenge for the Hall of Famer to put herself in this moment and reflect on her playing career, specifically when it comes to writing her induction speech. Hammon is always looking ahead, trying to be better and do better.
“I’ve had basically writer’s block,” Hammon says. “I do a lot of speeches in the offseason. I mean, I write hour-long speeches, which most of the time in these appearances, I don’t want to hear myself talk that long. So it’s only going to be a five- or six-minute speech, but it’s been really hard to articulate what the game’s meant to me. I’m sure I’ll probably be emotional. I’m just really grateful.”
Hammon often says being overlooked has been a defining feature of her career, whether that was in the WNBA Draft or not being chosen to play for USA Basketball or being passed over for NBA head coaching jobs.
But the Aces picked her and were rewarded handsomely. And now the Hall of Fame has. That feeling of being underestimated drove the first phase of her career, now getting her to the point where she is the coach for whom players want to compete. The coach who brings out the best in her players and achieves at the highest level. The coach players come to with harebrained schemes, knowing she’ll happily take part.
She’s not the underdog anymore. She’s a Hall of Famer.
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(Photo of Becky Hammon: David Becker / NBAE via Getty Images)