At least once during every Colorado State women’s basketball practice and game, Becky Hammon would do something that would remind her coach just how special the young guard was. Thread a pass through a crowd of bodies, drain an impossible three-pointer, maneuver around a defender like she wasn’t dribbling a basketball. Over the course of his nearly 30-year career on the sidelines, coach Greg Williams had never seen anything like it—and this was a man who’d led the likes of Nancy Lieberman, one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time.

“People were seeing things they weren’t used to seeing in women’s basketball,” Williams says today of Hammon’s four-year stint as a student athlete at CSU, which began in 1995. Three decades later, Hammon is still redefining what’s possible in basketball.

After eight years with the San Antonio Spurs, with whom she was the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history, Hammon led the Las Vegas Aces to their first-ever WNBA championship last year in her debut season. This year, the team is even better: Two-thirds of the way through the regular season, the Aces are putting together what could be the most dominant campaign ever for a WNBA team, with an astonishing 27-3 record. On Saturday, Hammon was officially enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Those accomplishments and milestones have turned the CSU graduate into a figure unlike any in the long history of basketball. “Her path has led her to this spot for a reason, and she’s running with it,” says Katie Cronin, Hammon’s former teammate at CSU and one of her good friends. “She’s content. She’s happy. She has worked very hard and stayed true to herself, her talent, and her skillset. If you work hard, treat people right, do the right things, and have confidence in your abilities, things work out as they should. They obviously have for her.”

Changing the Game From the Get-Go

Becky Hammon (left) and Katie Cronin chill during a Colorado State basketball practice.
Becky Hammon (left) and Katie Cronin chill during a Colorado State basketball practice on January 11, 1996. Photo by The Denver Post via Getty Images

“We’re going to sell this place out,” Cronin recalls a young Hammon telling her as the pair walked through Moby Arena, the Rams’ home gym, as freshmen at CSU in 1995.

Even as far as dreams go, it was a bold prediction. The previous season, Colorado State finished 14-13 and averaged just 751 fans each game. The Rams had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament and had just six winning seasons since the program was founded in 1974.

But the change the wide-eyed, young women envisioned for Colorado State wasn’t that farfetched. The Rams went 26-5 the duo’s freshman season and didn’t let up, finishing with a 104-21 record over Hammon and Cronin’s four-year run. They made the NCAA Tournament three times, including advancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen during their senior season in 1999, when the Rams went 33-3 and finished the year ranked in the top 10 nationally. That season, the team averaged 4,765 fans at its home games, a program record.

A guard from South Dakota, Hammon rewrote the program’s record book in her four years at CSU. Almost a quarter of a century after her final college game, she’s still the program’s career leader in points, points per game, field goals, three-pointers, free throws, and steals. After going undrafted by the WNBA in 1999, she spent the next 15 years in the league, earning six All-Star appearances and a place on the WNBA’s 25th anniversary team.

Along the way, those closest to her saw someone with the traits and temperament of a coach. “She just had a real calm demeanor,” says Williams, who recruited Hammon to Colorado State. “Nothing bothered her. You could see early on that pressure was just not a factor with her.”

It would be more than the pressure of a game that she’d need to withstand on the next step of her basketball journey. In 2013, Hammon tore her ACL while playing for the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars. As she rehabbed from the injury, she spent time around the practices, games, and coaches’ meetings of the Spurs, San Antonio’s NBA team, which went on to win a championship that season. In that time with her, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saw Hammon’s potential, and in August 2014, he hired her as an assistant coach, making her the NBA’s first paid, full-time female coach.

Becky Hammon drives on Diana Taurasi in the McDonald's NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on February 18, 2005.
Becky Hammon (right) drives on Diana Taurasi in the McDonald’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game on February 18, 2005, in the Colorado Convention Center. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Once in the Spurs’ system, Hammon continued breaking barriers. In 2015, she was tasked with being San Antonio’s head coach in the NBA Summer League and led the team to a title. The following year, she was the first woman to be part of a coaching staff for the NBA All-Star Game. When Popovich was ejected from a game in 2020, Hammon took over and became the first female acting head coach in league history.

“When we think of a [men’s] coach, we think of dominance, aggression, confidence, leadership, in charge, loud,” says Nicole LaVoi, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota who studies the intersection of sports and gender. “That leads you to predominantly think about men, which is the effect of gender bias. For women coaching men, there is this idea that, ‘Well, she didn’t play men’s sports, so therefore, she can’t coach them.’ That’s just untrue. Men don’t play women’s sports and there are plenty of very successful men who coach women. We know women can coach men. They’re just not given the opportunity to because of gender bias and power.”

With her connection to Popovich and the Spurs—one of the most successful coach-franchise pairings in NBA history—Hammon could become the first female head coach in a major American professional sports league, something that once seemed like a fanciful notion. In 2021, she interviewed for the vacant head-coaching positions with the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers. She was a finalist for the latter, but ultimately didn’t get the job.

The WNBA came calling at the end of 2021, and Hammon jumped at the opportunity to lead the Las Vegas Aces. “They knew exactly what she was capable of and they came after her,” Cronin says. “You want to go where you’re wanted and appreciated.”

Controversy on the Court

Once in Las Vegas, it didn’t take long for Hammon to find success. The Aces had been a winning franchise before Hammon arrived, but they hadn’t yet won the WNBA championship. In Hammon’s first season, the team broke through, winning eight of its 10 playoffs games, including a best-of-five victory over the Connecticut Sun in the championship. Hammon was named the WNBA coach of the year and became the first rookie coach in the league to guide a team to a title. “I don’t know if you could have written the story any better than what she did her first year in the WNBA,” Williams says.

Still, Hammon’s slew of achievements hasn’t come without some controversy. In May, a league investigation into the Aces found that the organization had violated WNBA rules governing “impermissible player benefits” and Respect in the Workplace policies. The probe stemmed from allegations made by former Aces player Dearica Hamby, who said she was “traumatized” by the “unprofessional and unethical” way she was treated by the franchise following the announcement of her pregnancy. She was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in January, and as part of the team’s punishment, Hammon was suspended for the first two games of this season.

Hammon denied the claims while adding that she was upset if anything she said or did “inflicted pain or stress on anybody.” To reporters, she said in May, “I don’t recall my relationship with Hamby being anything but on the up-and-up, and I’m just—obviously along with the organization—disappointed with the findings. It’s never [good] to have your name be associated with something like that, which is not who you are as a person. That’s not how I operate.” Multiple emails to an Aces spokesperson requesting an interview with Hammon were not returned.

Becky Hammon delivers a speech at the 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Induction at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, on August 12, 2023.
Becky Hammon delivers a speech at the 2023 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Induction at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, on August 12, 2023. Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

It’s a noticeable blemish in an otherwise squeaky-clean story. But with the suspension behind her and Las Vegas chasing league history this season, Hammon’s coaching future remains bright. Earlier this year, she was interviewed by the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for their head-coaching vacancy and though she wasn’t chosen, her involvement in the search reflects the interest NBA franchises still have in her. She has the full-throated endorsement of Popovich, who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. And now, she has head-coaching experience—and a championship ring, to boot.

The lingering question of when, if ever, Hammon will receive a head-coaching job offer in the NBA now rests more with the league than it does with her. “Having a woman infiltrate the highest positions of leadership in a men’s sport—you’d have to have a really brave owner or general manager [willing to] fall under a lot of criticism,” LaVoi says. “We haven’t seen anybody take that risk yet.”

Then again, Hammon may not need the NBA and whatever validation it might provide. Legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt once famously rebutted speculation that she would leave to coach a men’s team, noting that she “wouldn’t want people to think I looked at the men’s game as a step up.” Hammon may feel the same way.

She could chase whatever prestige the NBA has to offer and further cement her status as a pioneering figure, but she could also remain in the WNBA and preside over dominant teams while helping nurture the growth of a league that has seen a significant uptick in TV viewership, attendance, and online engagement over the past several years. “I envision her doing anything she wants,” Cronin says. “Right now, I know she’s extremely happy where she’s at. She’s in a really good place.”

Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer is a Denver-based freelance writer. Before moving to Colorado in June 2022, he spent the previous 10 years as a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, primarily covering college basketball and football.