Becky Hammon talks basketball, game of life for women’s history month

Becky Hammon, head coach of the reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, strode through History Colorado sipping from a can of Monster Energy Zero Ultra. February was a hectic month for the woman who won a championship in her first year as head coach. She’s been to Miami, Minnesota, Orlando, Key Largo and then Denver, where she was the kick-off speaker for History Colorado’s “Bold Women. Change History.” series on Tuesday night.

After Denver, she headed home to San Antonio for a day, then traveled to Las Vegas for a wedding and then was due in Los Angeles to work for ESPN. Hence, the energy drink.

“Yes, so I can crush it!” Hammon said.

During the Tuesday night event, Hammon spoke to a full house about obstacles she faced on her way to becoming a record-setting point guard at Colorado State, what led San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to hire her as the first woman to work as an NBA assistant coach, the importance of Title IX and what makes the Aces a successful team.

She even took time to offer advice to a young female basketball player who wanted to know how to handle an aggressive defense.

“Oh Annie, you don’t want my answer on this one,” Hammon said amid laughter.

Then she told the child, “When teams get really physical you might have to get physical back. You can always outsmart people. If they’re trying to beat you up a little bit physically, plan ahead a little earlier in your movements and how you can try to be effective against that team. But sometimes you might just have to pop them back.”

The Denver Post sat down with Hammon for an interview before her talk and then listened to her field questions from Colorado Department of Higher Education Executive Director Angie Paccione and the audience. The following Q&A is taken from those interviews. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What led you to become such a barrier breaker as the first female assistant coach in the NBA?

A: Obviously Title IX. At the end of the day, if I don’t have these opportunities to play in college, to play professional basketball in the United States, Coach Popovich never sees me. That never happens and who knows where we are sitting? The opportunity came because he was able to see me be a professional basketball player in his city. The exposure, the ability to watch me work in my player capacity, definitely led me to the opportunity of him inviting me to be on staff.

Q: What are some of the most impactful moments of your journey to becoming a barrier breaker?

A: They talk about my highlights but I’ve got a lot of lowlights in there, too. And those are the moments that I tell people, that while they don’t make me exceptional because a lot of people have those low moments, it’s what you do with those moments, how you handle those failures. I just tried to let those things build in me. I’m very stubborn. It helped with resiliency, toughness and those things help you in life.

I didn’t get drafted. I remember going with an assistant coach to Perkins and crying. But I showed up to New York with a bag packed for the whole summer very intent on making that team. It’s been my reaction and how I responded to hard stuff that’s really helped me take the next step. It built something in me that I had to have for the next mountain, then the next mountain, then the next mountain. Everybody likes to talk about the highlights but I’m not changing the lowlights.

Q: How’s the transition to the WNBA been?

A: It’s been awesome because I have awesome basketball players. I’ve got to tell you basketball-wise there’s no difference Xs-and-Os-wise. It’s all the same: pick-and-roll coverages, plays, schemes, offensively, defensively, concepts. I’ve had a blast coming back to the W. It’s a little bit like a homecoming for me. I’m looking forward to this upcoming Aces season. We’ve got a lot to build off of, a lot of excitement, a lot of energy and a great product to put on the floor.

Q: The Aces already had all-stars and now you’ve added Candace Parker. How do you integrate her into the team?

A: It’s such a wonderful problem to have as a basketball coach: How am I going to use all of these great pieces? I just need Candace to be Candace — her passing, her mind for the game, her feel for the game. I’m looking forward to A’ja Wilson having that. Candace has been doing it a really long time at a really high level. I would definitely think they’re an iron-sharpens-iron type combo. I think Candace is going to be a lot of fun to play with for our girls.

Q: Do you think about going back to the NBA and trying to be the first woman to coach men?

A: At this point, no. If it happens, it happens. I won’t say no I’m never going back and I won’t say I’m always going to stay here. I’ve learned throughout my career the moment I say I’m never doing something, two years later I’m doing it. I try to keep an open mind.

Q: For a lot of your career you’ve been told you weren’t good enough. You’re too short. You weren’t highly recruited out of high school in South Dakota. You didn’t get drafted into the WNBA. You weren’t picked for the U.S. Olympic team. It’s been ‘Becky’s not good enough.’ How have you overcome that?

A: They’ve been telling me “no” for such a long time. I can either listen to them or decide I’m going to make my own journey and going to be in charge of my own journey. Ever since I was young they — the pros, the experts — have given me so many reasons to not be successful. At the end of the day they’re not in charge. Their thoughts are not in charge of my journey. I try to do the best with what I’m given. And whatever happens happens. I’m only responsible for me waking up every day and doing my best.

Q: What do you tell young female athletes who play sports for fun but probably are not going to make a living from it?

A: There are really a lot of valuable lessons you can learn from being on a team. About habits that you build. About wanting to be great. Choices that you make influence the direction of your life even at a young age.

I grew up in South Dakota and I knew I was the best player in South Dakota. But I had this awareness that that didn’t mean anything. I hadn’t played against the kids from New York or the kids from California or the kids from Texas. This idea, which was instilled in me by my parents, was just try your hardest. And sometimes your hardest might not be good enough but most times when you create a habit of trying hard opportunities tend to come out of different places that you never expected or saw coming. Who knows when that’s going to come?

Greg Popovich saw me for eight years. I had no idea his wheels were turning in the way that they were about me. Zero. I’d never even talked to him. But he had seen me. You never know who’s watching and taking notes about what you’re doing so go about your work, go about your day with excellence. The craziest things might open up to you.

Q: Let’s talk about CSU. How important was your time on campus?

A: I loved my time at CSU. When I think back to all the doors that were shut in my face, I also have a lot of gratitude for the doors that were opened for me. Colorado State was a door that opened for me. And I’ll tell you one thing I loved about Colorado State and going to school there, my best friend that I met at 17 is still my best friend, the relationships that I built with the people of Colorado and how so many people watched me grow up in Fort Collins.

I had a blast. I wouldn’t change a thing. If I could go back to 1994 (the year she graduated high school), I’m not picking Tennessee. I’m not picking UConn. I’m going to Colorado State because that’s how my journey was supposed to go. Not being drafted, all this hard stuff that has happened to me, the nos that have happened to me, only built toughness and resilience in me. I wouldn’t change those things because those are super useful in life. That’s coaching men, coaching women or whatever direction you want to go in.

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