I really like this story courtesy of Michael Rosenberg writing for Sports Illustrated.
Title:- A’ja Wilson and Becky Hammon Found Each Other at Just the Right Moment
Subtitle:- One had to be told she could do anything. The other was always told she couldn’t. Now with Las Vegas, they both have their first WNBA title.
Author:- Michael Rosenberg
Date:- SEP 19, 2022
You can’t do it
Becky Hammon & A’ja Wilson
- They all contributed, but two women carried them: a star who had to be convinced she could do anything and a coach who was always told she couldn’t.
- Last spring, before Hammon ran her first Aces practice, Wilson visited her in San Antonio. Other than meeting when Hammon’s number was retired—she played for the franchise when it was the San Antonio Silver Stars—they did not really have a prior relationship. Yet they found each other at precisely the right time for both.
- Wilson and Hammon went to the gym and dinner.
- Wilson says she was there “just to get a vibe.”
- Hammon, who spent years in the wine-dinner-and-conversation orbit of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, says, “To me, leadership is about relationships. So the better I get to know them, the better I know how to coach them and get the best out of them.”
Having To Say Little
- Looking back, what was remarkable about their meeting was how little needed to be said.
- Hammon told Wilson she would scrap former coach Bill Laimbeer’s methodical, post-heavy system for a modern pace-and-space operation.
- She told Wilson that she would expect her to play center on defense for the first time in her pro career, so the Aces could spread the floor offensively.
- She could have told Wilson she would have to wear shoes on her hands, and Wilson would have tried it.
- Wilson had already committed to a new approach to her career, for three reasons: “losing, losing, losing.”
- Wilson has reached the innermost circle of basketball greatness, reserved for players who do not need to shoot well to help their team. She always rebounds, always defends, always demands double and even triple teams, and she is able and willing to pass out of them. Plum says, “A lot of times when we’re watching greatness, we don’t appreciate it in live time. We have to wait until they’re done playing.” The Aces don’t want to wait. Chelsea Gray says Wilson “absolutely” will be in the GOAT conversation. “It should already be starting to be talked about.” The Aces won the title because they knew they had the best in the world taking the opening tip—and on the bench, too.
- Hammon was a six-time WNBA All-Star point guard, but she did not take the UConn/Tennessee Highway to stardom.
- She went to Colorado State, became an All-American, and still went undrafted in 1999.
- Being told no so often became part of her legend, and that was before her name became synonymous with pro basketball’s glass ceiling: Time after time, she interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs, but she never got one.
- “She’s this really dichotomous character,” says one of Hammon’s best friends, Pacers assistant coach Jenny Boucek.
- “She’s got one side of her that is a stubborn, part-Italian fighter. You tell her she can’t do something, you’re gonna be sorry you said that. But she has this other side of her that is very strong in her faith and knows when to let life lead her. Sometimes there is tension between those two sides of her.”
Reasons for No
- Hammon had convinced the Spurs that she was ready to lead an organization.
- Longtime San Antonio assistant Chip Engelland, who is now an assistant for the Thunder, says, “We all knew she was a head coach in waiting. She’s ready to coach at any level she wants.”
- Like Popovich, Hammon is a master of making players want to hear what they need to hear.
- Imagine how frustrating it was, then, for her to not only get passed over for NBA coaching jobs—they’re hard to get—but have teams give silly reasons for it, like: You impressed us in the interview, but you’ve never been a head coach before.
- “I’m like, ‘You kind of knew that going into this, right?’” Hammon says. “At the end of the day, if you want to find a reason to not hire me, you’ll find it. And if you want to find a reason to hire me, you’ll find that, too.”
- Nobody was dumb enough to say they were wary of hiring a woman. Hammon, ever the straight talker, says it for them.
- “Look: It’s scary,” she says. “You’re gonna put your billion-dollar product basically into an unknown. … At least with a man, you know it’s been done before. You hire a woman, it’s never been done before. Do you want to be the one to pull the trigger? That’s hard for people. The optics is different. The feel is different. And so it’s hard. And you know, at the end of the day, people that are normally in the hiring position are on the hot seat themselves“.
- “A lot of it is just the old generational mindset that women can’t lead. And then you talk about hiring a woman, hiring a gay woman … it has to be the right situation, the right group and the right feel. I don’t think it’s an experiment, but other people would be nervous because it’s never been done before. But at some point, someone won’t care that I’m a woman.”
- It was clear from the beginning that Hammon would not treat the Aces as Plan B. She had a system she wanted to run and a list of assistant coaches she wanted to help her run it. Assistant Natalie Nakase, who has worked for NBA championship-winning coaches Doc Rivers and Tyronn Lue but barely knew Hammon before working for her, says she has never seen a coach as passionate about breaking down video clips at halftime as Hammon.
- Engelland says this desire to adjust stems from Hammon’s career-long need to prove she belonged: “That’s just how her brain works. It was never laid out for her.”
- This was her chance to step out of Popovich’s shadow, but she didn’t seem all too worried about that. After Game 2, Popovich chatted with Hammon outside the Aces’ locker room. Hammon asked him to come meet her staff. In typical Pop fashion, he demurred. “They love you,” she insisted. She dragged him over to her coaches, then pulled him into the locker room.
- “The way you execute, the way you play physically, it’s just beautiful to watch,” Popovich told the Aces. “Honestly. No bulls—.” He left them with one piece of advice: “Listen to what the young lady says. She knows what she’s doing.”
- Hammon trusts what she sees, even if it doesn’t necessarily align with the scoreboard. Nakase says, “Even when we’re up by 20, and we start playing selfish, she’ll just call timeout: ‘Uh-uh. This is about us. This is about how we play. I don’t care if we’re up 20.’”
- Forward Kiah Stokes says sometimes when the Aces win, “Becky comes in mad, like, ‘We got lucky, we didn’t do this, this and this.’” At other times, “We go on a dry spurt, but she’s like, ‘We’re getting good shots. We’ll knock them down.’”
Not Having To Say Much
- Coaches in every sport preach processes over outcomes, but so many succumb to emotions when they’re losing. Hammon is consistent—and she knows when her message is resonating. At halftime of Game 1 of the Finals, she blistered her players. But maybe the most telling moment of the series came after the Aces’ no-show in Game 3, and Hammon was asked whether she would rip them again. She said, “I got a ticked-off crew in there. I’m not going to have to say much.” Three days later, the Aces were champions.
- Wilson has long tried to balance her desire to fit in with her ability to be great. She says, “My rookie year [in 2018], Bill Laimbeer handed me a basketball and was like, ‘This is your team.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a rookie. I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. I haven’t even played one WNBA [game], and you’re handing me this franchise.’”
- She became a great player but not a great leader: “I lose sight of who I am, because I’m trying to take care of everyone around me.” After Vegas lost in the conference finals to Phoenix, and the league’s ultimate alpha, Diana Taurasi, last season, Wilson had a realization: When you’re the most talented player on the team, trying to be the best player on the floor every night is actually unselfish. The Aces might have won the title last year if Wilson had completely bought into Laimbeer’s idea that they were her team.
- “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Wilson says. “And same with [South Carolina coach Dawn] Staley. All of my coaches see that. So they kind of let me figure it out. And then I think this year, I’m finally starting to grasp what it really means … making sure my teammates understand that I’m gonna be there no matter what and I’m gonna hold it down.”
- “She’s afraid that she’ll lose a friend, or a teammate will not respect her,” Staley says. “A’ja is likable. She always wants to be liked. She’s now realizing [the way] to be liked is saying and doing the right thing.”
Process and Progress
- “Coach Staley was trying to instill it in me,” Wilson says. “Bill was trying to get it out of me. And now it’s out, and now Becky’s starting to guide me.”
- The old A’ja showed up once this postseason—in Game 1 of the conference finals against the Storm. After a poor start, she says now, “I was trying not to step on toes. I wasn’t instilling myself into the game. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to mess it up. I’m shooting terrible. I don’t want to get in the mix.’ But that got us an L. … They did not deserve that from me. So I went back to the gym, prayed about it and got back on my horse.”