The mantra, “I wasn’t supposed to be here,” is a cliché uttered by professional athletes who approach their sport’s heights, asserted as the ultimate testament to their hard work.
For Becky Hammon, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday afternoon, the mantra rings true. As Hammon said after leading the Las Vegas Aces to the 2022 WNBA title, “My journey’s not a mistake. Every hard thing I’ve gone through has built something in me that I’ve needed down the road.”
Hammon’s now a titan in the women’s game. Yet in 1999, as she completed her collegiate career at Colorado State, she was anything but.
Hammon went from undrafted to undeniable
At 5-foot-6 with a baby face and bobbing, blonde ponytail, Hammon did not look like a WNBA player to the league’s talent evaluators. Her college coach described her as an “average white girl” when he first saw her. So despite earning All-American honors as a senior, she went undrafted, instead joining the New York Liberty’s training camp as one of 20 invitees.
Hammon quickly defied expectations and impressed some of the Liberty’s most important stakeholders — starting guards Teresa Weatherspoon (herself a Hall of Famer) and Vickie Johnson. According to Sports Illustrated, Weatherspoon and Johnson urged New York’s decision makers to “keep that little white girl who keeps getting up when we knock her down.”
Over the course of her WNBA career, Hammon would keep getting up, never to be kept down.
Beginning as a scoring guard off the bench, she steadily would ascend into superstardom. In 2003, she earned the first of six All-Star honors. Two seasons later, she was selected to the first of four All-WNBA teams. And two seasons after that, her first with the San Antonio Silver Stars, she authored her signature season, finishing second in the 2007 MVP voting as she averaged a career-high 18.8 points per game, shooting better than 40 percent on 3.5 3-pointers per game as she also dished 5.0 assists.
Hammon would play eight seasons in New York and eight in San Antonio, totaling 450 career games with averages of 13.0 points and 3.8 assists. After playing just 12 minutes in 2013 before tearing her ACL, Hammon returned for a final swan-song season in 2014 before retiring to become an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs.
Hammon’s HOF craft, creativity
Although her “All-American girl” image that initially raised doubts about her pro potential would endear her to fans in New York, San Antonio and across the WNBA, Hammon ultimately earned the praise she received with her play. Her craft, just as much as her counting stats, explain why she’s heading to the Hall of Fame.
Richie Adubato, who served as head coach of the Liberty during six of Hammon’s seasons in New York, said in 2015, “I’ve had 17 NBA All-Stars, and nobody drove and finished better than Becky Hammon...Becky is 5’6’’ and only jumps an inch. When she drove you couldn’t see her in the crowd in the lane — just the ball coming out of there and into the basket.”
On fearlessly finishing amongst the trees, and trying to draw fouls while doing so, a youthful Hammon told the New York Times in 2001, “I have to work to get the call. It seems like when I’m in the paint, the officials give the foul to the big guys. It’s like, what’s a little girl like you doing in there. But that’s my game. Besides, if I work the refs, maybe I get the call the next time.”
In 2014, an older Hammon explained the refinement of her offensive approach to Sports Illustrated:
My game was never really about superathleticism or speed, but it did evolve as I got older. I got craftier. I began to see things and became great at making split-second decisions. I learned to use angles differently and understand footwork. I learned how to attack defenses better. I think I became better, and quicker.
Is a Hall-of-Fame double in Hammon’s future?
The Basketball Hall of Fame includes six men who are enshrined as a player and coach.
Hammon, like Dawn Staley (class of 2013), appears well on her way to becoming one of the first women to achieve this elusive double enshrinement.
In only her second season as head coach of the Aces, Hammon hasn’t just earned the championship that eluded her as a player. She also is leading her team to wins at pace that threatens to exceed dominance of the dynastic Houston Comets from 1997 to 2001. A head coach for 65 regular-season games, her record currently stands at a sparkling 62-13, good for a winning percentage of 80 percent. By season’s end, the Aces could surpass the Comets for the best single-season winning percentage in WNBA history, while also becoming the first team to repeat as champions since 2002.
In short, Saturday might not be Hammon’s only trip Springfield.