Resilient Becky Hammon

You don’t know because it wasn’t you. You weren’t there. It wasn’t your broken heart. It wasn’t your reputation. It wasn’t your patriotism questioned. It wasn’t Anne Donovan calling you a traitor. It wasn’t you who fans booed and yelled names at and believed the worst of. It was a long time ago but it happened.

In the present, Becky Hammon will interview for the Milwaukee Bucks head coaching job. Even as it is a long shot, everyone is in agreement that a NBA head coaching job is in Hammond’s future. It makes her past and what happened to her in the 2008 Olympics even more astounding/shocking. The United States snubbed Becky Hammon and she had to pick herself up because it was like what Mike Tyson said- everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And so Becky Hammon, tiny Becky, played for Russia and the hate started and Anne Donovan called her a traitor and she was not a U.S. Olympian. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

The year after Becky Hammon finished second in the MVP race, losing to Lauren Jackson, and the year after she led the WNBA in assists The List came out of the 23 players invited to try out for the Olympic team, to make the pool of eligible players the coaches would choose from. Becky Hammon’s name was not on the list. It was nowhere on it. Not written in pencil nor ink nor crayon.

Imagine being Becky Hammon. Imagine having to search for a scholarship, ending up at Colorado Sate. Imagine setting records for scoring and points and field goals made and free throws made and three point field goals made and assists. Imagine winning awards like the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award for the best senior under 5-8. Imagine making lemonade out of lemons because you were not entitled, you didn’t have a famous last name nor an easy path but still you did the right thing, you played the right way and then, you still were not drafted.

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It is 2008. It is a few months after her heartbreak, after coming to grips with the truth. There they are the lanky and the thick, the curly and the dark, the funny and the stoic. There they are in their workout gear clothes they had worn in some fashion or another all of their lives, the nurtured and the gifted and the talented, the girls who many teased and said wanted to be boys or said were gay lesbos or said they looked like men. They had risen and met their potential, developed by a plethora of tough coaches so they could be heard and listened to, these strong and willful and organized perfectionists, the United States basketball women trying out for the 2008 Olympic team. Becky Hammon is not among them.

Call it a travesty as Nancy Leiberman did when she complained about Hammon’s absence. To many it was inconcievable, it was ridiculous, it was unfair and it was just wrong. There were not 23 U.S. basketball players better than Becky Hammon.

“When their list of 23 players came out last year, we’re talking about 23 players and I was not on it that’s a pretty strong statement that we’re not considering you.” Becky Hammon to ESPN.

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Not only was Becky Hammon in 2007 a very good WNBA player she was also a very popular player too, representing an All American mystique with her gritty aggression and smiling joy and energetic personality. Her jersey was second to Candace Parker in sales as the South Dakota native was the embodiment of an American ethic: resilience, will and effort. She started her career in New York and became co-captain and a starter four years later. Three years after that she was traded to San Antonio where she had the best season of her career up to that point, 18 points, 5 assists.

And then came the snub. The rejection. The heartbreak. Nevertheless Becky Hammon had another great year as if the Olympic rejection never happened. She posted the same numbers as the year before, 18 points and 5 assists. While other American WNBA stars like Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi were preparing for the Olympics, red, white and blue style so was Becky Hammon.

After the U.S. left her off The List Russia swooped in. They offered Becky a very lucrative contract to play in the off-season. The contract included the possibility of an Olympic team berth.

“There’s nothing I wanted more in my basketball career than to represent the United States. I grew up dreaming to play in the Olympics for my home country. This is just a great opportunity for me to play in the Olympics and hopefully break some stereotypes, both here and over there.”

It was an opportunity to absorb backlash. She was called a traitor by Anne Donovan, one of the greatest women basketball players of all time and the U.S. Women’s coach.

“If you play in this country and live in this country and you grow up in the heartland and you put on a Russian uniform you are not a patriotic person in my mind.”

Complicating matters was the fact that Becky Hammon was not of Russian lineage or descent, had no particular affiliation with the country other than they paid her six times the amount the WNBA paid her to participate in their country’s women basketball professional league. An incentive was the opportunity to play on the Olympic team, something Hammond always wanted and something she was eager to accept.

She and her agent had one last meeting with American officials and they were left with the impression that the coaches were not inclined to include Hammon and that made the decision that much easier regardless of how American basketball fans would receive her. Becky Hammon took it in stride, the good and the bad, the cheers and the boos. She was 31 years old. When would she ever be this close to her dream?

* * * * *

On August 21, 2008 Becky Hammon faced very familiar opponents but this wasn’t the WNBA playoffs but the Olympics semi-final knock out round. The winner advanced to the gold medal game. It was close early and the Russians led by five in the third quarter but the Americans went on a 15-2 run and that pretty much sealed it. The Russians couldn’t control the dominance of Diana Taurasi who had a brilliant three point shooting game, 5-8, which set a U.S. record. Russia had been known as an expert three point shooting team themselves but the United States athleticism on defense made it impossible to make shots and they only made one three pointer. Sylvia Fowles on the glass overwhelmed the Russians.

Becky Hammon was the focus of the United States defensive strategy. Stop Becky and you stop the Russians. Because they knew her game so well, Becky had little impact upon the game itself, she missed 5 out of the 6 shots which seemed to make a lot of Americans watching particularly pleased as they seemed to categorize it as a personal failure. She had 3 points but Hammon put it all in perspective. “This was a game that was bigger than me.”

Diana Taurasi sympathized. Seven years later she would abandon her contractural obligations to the WNBA for a year in Russia. “Being American is about opportunity too and exploring those opportunities whether people like them or not. If you go to sleep happy with a clean conscience you’re an Amercian and that’s your right.”

In the next game the Russians bounced back as did Becky Hammon and she scored 22 points earning her team a place on the medal stand. A bronze medal was placed around her neck. She gazed at it dangling down her chest knowing that her Olympic dream came true. Even if it was altered somewhat which is what happens to most dreams, they never go according to plan, her dream still came true.

“I wasn’t drafted. I wasn’t heavily recruited. I didn’t go to a big college. So I’m used to people telling me no. But there are always other ways. So I’m very grateful to the Russian team to accept me as one of their own. And I still love my country- it doesn’t really have anything to do with that. I just want to play basketball.”

Play basketball she did.  And then years later, coach basketball.

Becky Hammond will be  the first female to coach professional men. It may not happen tomorrow. Or next year. But it’s the only way this story can end.  She defies fate at every turn. Every Becky Hammond struggle has a happy ending.