Becky Hammon’s Career And The Futility Of Firsts

Someone might come first, but that's never what's most important.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

The first stop I made during a recent trip to San Antonio was to see a recently completed Becky Hammon mural. It’s a lovely mural, with Hammon looming large over the city’s skyline, and the words “NEVER STOP” emblazoned across the top. A little girl wearing a Hammon San Antonio Stars (RIP) jersey stands in the foreground, looking up at Hammon — a reiteration of one of the more noxious tropes about women’s success in sports, that it is only good insofar as it “inspires the next generation” to “work harder,” and yet an image that makes me a little misty nevertheless. Hammon’s work with the Spurs is remarkable on its own terms, and would have been whether she was first or not. 

“It’s important that we start to see leaders as leaders,” Hammon said at her first press conference as the head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces on Monday. “We can start peeling back the layers of society and what is viewed as [a leader] … and start hiring people based on what they bring to the table — based [on] their basketball knowledge.” 

Clearly, like so many women, Hammon is understandably tired of having all of her achievements automatically come with a gendered modifier. She wanted to coach her own team, and clearly the Spurs — as well as the other three NBA teams she’s interviewed with — were not going to give her that opportunity. So she went to a place that would. “It’s always good to be wanted,” Hammon added Monday, the implication being that no NBA team — not even the one where she toiled for eight years — had made her feel that way.

To parse this move almost feels counterproductive. We get to watch Becky Hammon coach her own team, finally, in the WNBA, and that is going to be great. It doesn’t have to mean any more or less than that. Not every choice a woman makes needs to feed some myth of societal progress, and contorting to make Hammon’s decision somehow not just good but Good, for all of us is almost patronizing. 

And yet, as Candace Buckner explains in a characteristically excellent column, it’s hard to shake a feeling of disappointment. “If the most qualified woman in the league can’t get a head coaching job, then who can?” Buckner writes. She describes Hammon’s credentials, and how the men who have been in her position have leveraged it to head coaching jobs around the NBA — which, all other things being equal (which they aren’t) inevitably pay more than her new position with the Aces. The only reason she doesn’t have an NBA head coaching job is because of her gender, and that is depressing — even moreso, as Buckner writes, because most people thought she was on a fast track to getting one. 

It is a derailment of our current feminist mythology, that equality will only come incrementally via slow and steady assimilation, a process that inevitably favors white, cisgender, heterosexual women who have less ground to cover when it comes to fitting into a white supremacist heteropatriarchical society. Hammon did all the things she was supposed to do to fit in with the “progress is coming” narrative, and they didn’t work. She could not, individually, overcome the unequal system. In the context of what writer and editor Koa Beck (and others) have termed white feminism, she has failed.

As we scramble to frame her decision as a win, it might be helpful, then, to try to shake the fixations of that specific brand of feminism — its obsessions with workplace success and accruing wealth, the consolation prize that many have tried to center in Hammon’s case since her new salary with the Aces makes her the highest paid coach in WNBA history. Such prizes are only worthwhile within our fundamentally unequal status quo.

For her part, Hammon has tried over and over to ignore those that would frame her work as “pioneering” or “boundary-breaking.” It takes more than one person to dismantle a barrier, as Hammon well knows — it’s not as though every NBA team has a woman (or women) assistants now. The only way to dismantle this artificial hierarchy is together, by refusing to accept one woman’s win as a stand-in for all women’s equality. As she put it, “There’s so many great women coaches out there that should be leading their own teams and given those opportunities.”