On August 5, the San Antonio Spurs announced the hiring of retiring WNBA star Becky Hammon as an assistant coach — making her the first official, full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.
On her role, Hammon told reporters that she’ll “be helping with scouting reports, player development, dialoguing with film sessions, scheming and stuff like that,” during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
This is huge.
The timing of this hiring is every bit as important as what the hiring represents. Sports culture has lost some of the fluidity that allowed for varying cultures to come together through the lens of a common interest. The proliferation of the internet and, especially, social media has brought people together even more to discuss all things athletics — but it’s also doubled as a breeding ground for attacks on social differences. In the 2014 calendar year, there have been huge news stories in sports about racism, sexism, classism, domestic abuse, addiction to various vices and homosexuality, most of which were juxtaposed against religion at some point in the national conversation.
Equality — or a general lack thereof — has dominated recent sports dialogue, leaving many mirthless and jaded over a source of entertainment that was intended to do the exact opposite. The culture of sport was once an escape from the world at large. Sports were often a place where men and women were able to burst through social glass ceilings and remove cultural barriers. Sports were a place where the imagination could reasonably wonder about the impossible. For the most part, sports have become a negative place where stories have been more Brothers Grimm version than Disney-adapted versions.
In the midst of all of this, however, we have Hammon’s story. While a woman working as an assistant coach in the NBA will most likely be under-appreciated by most, it is a story that will help re-create some of the fluidity that has escaped a community that needs it most. This is a move that helps reshape an institution that has been too male-dominant for too long. The beauty of Hammon getting work on an NBA bench is that it comes with an organization that has created its own subculture within the NBA with its overarching influence of worldly ball players.
More than any other organization, the Spurs have adopted the ideologies of basketball from other continents and have seen unyielding success because of it. You see it from R.C. Buford to Coach Gregg Popovich putting these teams together to the core stalwarts in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili sacrificing personal glory to help mold the culture to the role players in Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli buying in to the system to keep the engine running.
The Spurs have made it very apparent that there is room for those who know the game of basketball and for those who can play the game unselfishly. They’ve proved that there is room within those confines for a woman as long as she meets one of the two aforementioned criteria. It may not be an official goal for the Spurs, but it’s not hard to imagine that they’ll eventually prove that there is room for anyone, not just in their organization, but in the league at large, to work at the highest level in sports.
This is a beautiful story during a time that sports have been so ugly. Opportunities don’t come often for marginalized groups in any social construct, and it’s incredible to see this one finally come along. This opportunity did not come without trailblazers: Lisa Boyer served as a volunteer assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2001-02 season, and Nancy Lieberman coached the Dallas Mavericks D-League team in 2009. If this progresses naturally, Hammon will serve as a footnote in another great sports story.
As exciting as this story may be, sports are still a long way from the general equalities every person should be afforded. We’re still at a point where a sign of positive cultural movement is basic inclusion. Very little will change in the NBA next season, but that little will hold a commanding importance to the future of a culture that’s constantly evolving. This is just one step in the right direction, but it’s a giant, Shaq-sized step for positive change.