Becky Hammon's careerlong 'underdog' mentality has helped defending champion Aces get back on track


HENDERSON, Nev. — Becky Hammon has had to prove she belongs among the best in basketball throughout her career.

She was a consensus All-American in 1999 at Colorado State but went undrafted that year. Though Hammon became a multiple WNBA All-Star she wasn’t initially invited to the U.S. Olympic training camp in 2008.

The mentality of having to earn respect helped drive Hammon to a Hall of Fame playing career, It continues to drive her as coach of the two-time defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces.

“If you want to put me as an underdog, I’m perfectly comfortable in that role,” Hammon said. “I’m not somebody who has gotten here by luck. I’ve had to work. I’m not afraid to work. I enjoy working and I enjoy working hard.

“I don’t like sucking at anything.”

She coaches with much the same mindset. What’s helped her in Las Vegas is Hammon and her players are a reflection of each other.

A’ja Wilson has turned not being named MVP last season into a crusade that has carried over to this year with a historic stretch of games. Kelsey Plum said she told her coach in their first meeting to “kick rocks” when it was suggested Plum come off the bench. And point guard Chelsea Gray is as gifted a passer as any in the WNBA, but she won’t hesitate to put the team on her back by taking game-deciding shots as she did in being named the 2022 finals MVP.

That shared mindset has created their championship chemistry, rewarding owner Mark Davis’ decision to offer Hammon the league’s first $1 million-a-year coaching contract in 2022 to leave the San Antonio Spurs’ bench after eight seasons.

“She’s as competitive as they come,” Plum said of her coach. “If you’ve seen her play cornhole, it’s a scary sight. Her journey and not having things handed to her is what has made her her. Becky is someone that’s always going to win. She’s going to figure it out.”

Hammon has had to figure some things out this season. The Aces started the year with a 6-6 record, the same number of losses they had all of last regular season. But since Gray returned from injury, Las Vegas has won seven of its last eight games.

Regardless of their record, though, as the defending champs Hammon expects everyone to get up to play against the Aces.

“We just have to understand that other teams are going 110 (mph) against us,” Hammon said. “It’s not a good time for us to be on cruise control, and I think we’ve been on cruise control a little bit.”

That comment doesn’t surprise Wilson, who compares Hammon’s candor to South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. Wilson said both will be brutally honest in their assessments, but that they also will go to the mat to defend their players.

“It makes my job a lot easier because I know I’m never alone,” said Wilson, who leads the league in scoring (27 points per game), blocks (2.7) and is second in rebounding (10.9). “Her and Coach Staley are so familiar in that sense. It’s like, ‘I’m going to coach you and I’m going to push you hard. At the same time, I’m going to love you even harder.’ And I love that because it allows me to make mistakes and allows me to not be perfect.

“In some cases, I try to be perfect and they always bring me back down to earth.”

Being a former All-Star herself has helped Hammon relate to players. The 47-year-old has acknowledged that her lack of size and speed forced her to excel in other areas.

“She had to work hard for everything that was given to her,” said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who coached Hammon in San Antonio. “I think she just has a good feel for the game. They say not all point guards make great coaches, but a lot of them do. She’s been through so many experiences as a coach.”

Hammon was the three-time Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Colorado State, leading the Rams to the Sweet 16 in 1999.

Then despite going undrafted, Hammon made the Liberty’s roster and played in New York for eight seasons — her last three as the starting point guard. The Liberty traded Hammon to San Antonio in 2007, and she played an additional eight seasons and averaged 15.6 points and 5.1 assists, twice making first-team all-league.

The Silver Stars moved to Las Vegas in 2017 and were rebranded as the Aces. Hammon’s No. 25 jersey hangs in the rafters at the Aces’ home arena.

Her playing career earned Hammon induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame last year, and on hand to watch her speech was San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a fellow inductee. Through tears, Hammon thanked Popovich “for doing what no one else in professional sports had done.”

She was rehabbing from a torn ACL in 2013 and asked Popovich if she could watch some practices. Soon, Popovich was asking Hammon to not only see every practice, but sit in on coaches’ meetings and attend home games.

Popovich offered her a job on his bench a year later.

He handed Hammon the keys to the Spurs’ Summer League team in 2015. Hammon became the first woman to coach a team to the title.

“That was the first time I was actually in charge of the team,” Hammon said. “As an assistant, you’re trying to help Pop make the best decisions, but ultimately the decisions fall back on him. Good or bad, he’s the one that takes the hit. So when I did summer league, it was a big deal.”

Hammon made more history on Dec. 30, 2020, when Popovich was ejected in the second quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Hammon then took charge to become the first woman to coach an NBA team.

She could one day return to the NBA and make more history as a full-time head coach.

Hammon, however, insists that foremost on her mind is the Aces possibly joining Houston as the only teams to win three consecutive WNBA titles (the Comets actually won four in a row).

“So if that doesn’t excite you, that opportunity?” Hammon asked rhetorically, “then just the plain old simple fact that I hate losing.”

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AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.

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AP WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball



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