THE GYM RAT.
Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers will take the long two-point shot, the most inefficient outcome in basketball. Late in the shot clock your defense should force the ball to Kuzma so he will take the low-percentage shot. Becky Hammon knows this fact; she also knows a thousand other facts about the Los Angeles Lakers.
Becky is a gym rat of the highest order; from her youngest days she exerted a laser-like focus on the game of basketball. Always undersized and too slow, she did nothing but win. Not good enough out of high school to play in Division 1 college ball, the scouts said. Okay, I will become the Western Athletic Conference’s all-time leading scorer, Becky replied. The WNBA is home to world-class athletes, not scrappers like you, intoned the general managers to the undrafted Becky Hammon. How about a 15-year career, all-WNBA and jerseys retired in two cities, Becky answered.
After her illustrious playing career ended, Becky wanted to coach. Fine, there are plenty of women’s teams to coach, the executives said. Hammon had a different idea. While playing for the San Antonio Silver Stars, Becky would sit in on San Antonio Spurs’ practices. She tried to soak in as much hardcourt knowledge as was humanly possible. Head coach and renowned iconoclast Gregg Popovich welcomed Hammon. Coach Pop would also put her on the spot, asking Becky questions and opinions about tactics. Apparently, Popovich liked what he heard because he hired Becky as the NBA’s second female assistant in 2014. Again, Becky did what they told her she could not do.
PUTTING IN THE WORK.
The saying that well-behaved women do not make history might have an exception. Becky paid her dues, studying endless hours of film and working day and night to find the tiniest edge for the Spurs. Other than that, you never heard from Becky Hammon. NBA teams have many assistants, but over time Becky moved closer and closer to Popovich. Last Wednesday in a game against the Lakers, Popovich pointed out the injustices inflicted on the Spurs by the referees. Those same referees asked the coach to take the rest of the night off. Always agreeable, Popovich left the game, handing the clipboard to Becky Hammon because she knew all about Kyle Kuzma.
Which is how Becky Hammon became the first woman to act as a head coach in a NBA game. The story tells us quite a bit about Becky. Like all champions, she is a driven, focused person several deviations off the median. And similar to many history makers, Becky was in the right place at the right time. The Spurs have achieved their success through innovation and Gregg Popovich, who is the winningest NBA coach of all-time with five league titles to his credit, can afford to take risks.
Without minimizing Hammon’s talent and work ethic or the Spurs’ corporate culture, there is another way to look at it. Becky Hammon’s story is about society changing over time. Becky made history because our recent ancestors were radicals. Which means that the next crazy idea you hear might actually be a work of genius.
THE ARC OF HISTORY.
Most archeologists date our oldest organized civilizations at around 3,000 BCE, over 5,200 years old. One hundred years is a small fraction of the time during which humans have lived in what we call “society”. For comparison, Americans currently have a life expectancy around 78 years; 100 years in the history of civilization is like 1.5 years of your life.
So, it is an interesting coincidence that Becky Hammon made NBA history almost exactly 100 years after Tennessee ratified the 19th amendment granting women the vote. Only 60 years ago did women gain convenient, effective control over their reproductive systems when the FDA authorized use of the birth control pill. Congress first granted some protection against gender workplace discrimination in 1964. Eight years after, Congress passed and Nixon signed the “Title IX” legislation that feminists used to force more athletic opportunities for women.
Each of these events were acts of a federal government transforming Jefferson’s seminal distillation of the American ethic, that “all men are created equal,” into the idea that “all people are created equal.” In each instance, the status quo’s defenders argued bitterly that the federal government had no business rearranging society. Even worse, the reordering defied the natural order of things and would end us all. Of course, as they did not know Becky Hammon, maybe we should think of them more generously.
As suffragettes paved the way for Becky Hammon to be a NBA coach, civil rights activists fought valiantly for African-Americans. In 1948, the first real sign of progress came via executive order when Harry Truman integrated the U.S. Military with a stroke of his pen. In 1954, an “activist” Supreme Court ended separate but equal, at least as a workable legal doctrine. In the 1960’s, Congress finally passed legislation protecting the rights of those descended from our original sin.
Workplace fairness for laborers is similarly recent. When we founded the country, striking for wages was a federal crime. Union busting enjoyed the consent, and sometimes the muscle, of the federal government throughout the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt, our first modern president, was also the first to move us toward worker protection with the Federal Employers Liability Act in 1908. His cousin Franklin followed with child labor and minimum wage laws in 1938. OSHA workplace safety regulations arrived in 1970.
As with the laws favoring the future Becky Hammons, opponents denounced civil rights legislation and labor protections as the work of socialists and Satan. Again, the country could not possibly withstand these assaults on liberty and free enterprise.
CAUSE AND EFFECT.
In the big picture, Becky Hammon coaching less than a full NBA game probably registers a few notches below Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president. As much as I love the Spurs, Becky’s coaching stint is less important than eliminating child sweat shops. Still, Hammon’s historic turn is an opportunity– like Obama’s election and improvements in laborers’ lives– to see how far we have progressed.
Any review of Becky Hammon’s life reveals that God put her on earth to excel at the game of basketball. A lifetime of devotion and passion makes her as talented at what she does as any of her male colleagues. You do not have to take my word for it; ask NBA All-Star Pau Gasol:
Becky Hammon would not be fulfilling her purpose in life absent the crazy radicals who badgered Americans for 70 years before getting women the vote. Barack Obama would not have been president but for the work of firebrand civil rights lawyers and Supreme Court justices willing to extend the essence of our Constitution to all races as well as all genders. Workers would still exist on slave wages and face more death and injury except for “socialist” congressman willing to legislate against corporate interests.
All of these monumental changes happened in about a century’s time; just a year and a half in the life of the civilized world. So what can progressives take from Becky Hammon patrolling a NBA sideline? Real progress is happening; opportunity exists for many more in our world. We live outside of Utopia with no reason to stop pushing for equality, but despair is an inappropriate emotion.
What about conservatives? Two things, rally. First, Becky Hammon made history because she worked for everything she received; professional sports is a cut-throat business where the score matters. No matter how much we moan about participation trophies, America is still a meritocracy. Second, not every change in culture, Supreme Court decision or new statute is a socialist plot to destroy America. All of these things happened and the United States still became the richest, most powerful nation in the world’s history. Indeed, if you would rather live in 1920 than 2020 your name must be Rockefeller; otherwise all those socialist radical agendas made the world a better place for you.
Becky Hammon’s appearance was timely. In two weeks we will have a new administration with new priorities. In considering those priorities think about the girl who became Becky Hammon, what her life might be like without Title IX. How about the lives of children educated in separate schools? Certainly a child whose only use in life was to provide cheap labor deserved better. Radicals altered the trajectory of those lives; just a surely as Jefferson and his colleagues altered the trajectory of the world with their radical ideas.
The passage of time transforms what is radical today into common sense tomorrow. They say that “fortune favors the bold”. Let’s be bold enough to give us another generation of Becky Hammons.