In the NBA, there are head coaches, assistant coaches, strength coaches, player-development coaches, conditioning coaches, mind coaches and many others. Until this week, they all had one thing in common: they were men. Why not a female coach? Women have a special way of communicating to players. We can help disseminate the message of the organization’s philosophy to the players, and we can deliver the message of the head coach in a different tone, a different soundtrack. As a female coach in what is perceived as a man’s world, I feel unique, but no different than my colleagues in the way of the expected outcome. I, too, want to win. Many of the guys in college or the NBA have had strong, dominant women in their life, so many of these guys are used to taking advice and direction from women. And in my experience, the players respond to me just as they would to the men with clipboards that I sit next to. I love basketball, and I love to coach. My players have always known that my methods are for their betterment; therefore, the creation of trust and bond that I share with them supersedes my gender.
I recall clearly the day my coaching career began. I met with Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson at a Starbucks in Plano, Texas. We said hello and he greeted me with a hug that was tighter than his normal embrace. “We need to talk,” he said. Those talks became discussions about becoming the first woman to ever coach in a men’s professional basketball league. Donnie’s career had taken a huge leap, as he had just purchased the Development League team the Texas Legends, the affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks.
When Donnie was getting ready to announce that I would be the coach of the Texas Legends, he said to me: “No matter what happens, you’re my coach. We’re going to have a press conference, and we’re going to tell people about the Texas Legends.” People knew who I was, and they knew I had been around basketball for many years. They knew I was successful as a player and a coach in the WNBA, but this coaching position was new. This was historic. I was aware and prepared for people to judge that I’d be a woman coaching men, but my biggest hope was that our actions as a franchise would speak for themselves. As a head coach with my players and staff, I wanted to show people that our hard work, our dedication, our discipline and how we played and cared about each other were credible enough for the big leagues, despite my gender.
My life took another turn when I was blessed with the arrival of my son, TJ, in 1994. He has been one of the most important people in my life, and his support has carried me for the past 20 years. I stepped down from my coaching job with the Legends in 2011 because I felt it was necessary to be there for TJ’s senior year in high school. He deserved to have his mom sitting in the stands during his basketball games, so I traded roles and became the Assistant General Manager of the Texas Legends. Women are great multitaskers, and I wanted to be the best mom I could when raising TJ. Our empathy and passion are not bound by motherhood, but can be carried into sports and business as well. These qualities have served me well both personally and professionally
Becky Hammon will have to approach her new role as the first full-time female NBA coach in her own way. Becky knows the game of basketball and knows what it will take to survive on the path she is preparing to pave. Coach Gregg Popovich isn’t the type of guy who’s looking for media and press clippings; he’s the type of guy who’s looking directly at results. Can she manage working with his guys? Can she be an asset to the coaching staff? What is her basketball IQ, and what type of interpersonal relationship will she be able to forge with the team as an assistant coach? For Coach Popovich to hire Becky speaks to her credibility and his confidence in her. It’s no surprise to me that she won his heart and his mind with her basketball acumen and her understanding of the game, along with the respect he has seen her command from the players.
Once all of the press conferences are over and the interviews slow down, Becky is going to have to be “one” with the guys in the environment they live in. She’s going to have to be concise, know when to talk, know when to stop talking and know how to be a great leader on the bench and in the locker room.
I don’t think Becky set out to be an example for gender equality or a barrier breaker in sports or society. She started playing basketball because it was a game she found she loved, and she has played it at the highest levels. It seems natural for her to come off the court after 16 years and to use the experience and knowledge she has to coach and teach. The fact that she will end up coaching men speaks volumes for her as basketball player and as an individual. She has the ability to cross over and be respected and trusted by athletes, male and female alike. I look forward to getting an opportunity to do what I love, which is teach and coach at the NBA level one day. I will thank Becky Hammon for the door that she has opened with her relationship with the Spurs and Coach Popovich.
Nancy Lieberman is a Hall of Famer, two-time Olympian, three-time All American, WNBA coach and Assistant General Manager for the Texas Legends, in addition to an acclaimed broadcaster, motivational speaker and esteemed writer.