August 12, 2023 

From Rapid City, S.D., to Springfield, Mass.: Becky Hammon’s journey to the Naismith Hall of Fame

A'ja Wilson: 'She's just changed the game'

LAS VEGAS — South Dakota is a state with just over 900,000 people. It’s best known for housing Mount Rushmore. The state’s basketball Mount Rushmore isn’t full of as many stars as some other states, but it will get a little bigger on Saturday night. Becky Hammon, a native of Rapid City and the Las Vegas Aces head coach, will enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after an incredible playing career.

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Hammon started her basketball journey playing with her dad and brother in her front yard. As she put it, all they had in South Dakota was cornfields and hoops. When she was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, the WNBA didn’t exist, so she grew up watching the men’s game.

From a young age, she idolized NBA star Michael Jordan and had his posters all over her room. She watched the 1989 documentary “Michael Jordan: Come Fly with Me” hundreds of times — on VHS, no less.

“When I was growing up, it was Michael Jordan,” Hammon said. “… Sheryl Swoopes is one basketball player I had heard of, the first one in 1993, when she was playing for Texas Tech. My dad was like, ‘You should watch this girl play. They call her the female Michael Jordan.’ And so that was really the first time that I was like, ‘Oh, I want to be like that.'”

When Hammon was in high school, South Dakota played its high school basketball in the fall, earlier than every other state in the country. This limited how much Hammon was seen. However, at a camp in Indiana, Colorado State assistant coach Kerry Deering saw her and knew she needed to get Hammon to become a Ram.

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon walks down the sideline, turning her body toward the action on the court.
Becky Hammon watches from the sidelines as her Las Vegas Aces play the Minnesota Lynx. (Photo credit: John McLellan | The Next)

“I wasn’t heavily recruited, a lot of mid-majors,” Hammon told The Next. “But Kerry Deering saw me, and she was just all over me in the sense of, ‘You’re going to be Colorado State’s first All-American. You’ve got mojo; you’ve got stuff you can’t teach.'”

Once on campus in Fort Collins, Hammon had an immediate impact. She was named the WAC Freshman of the Year in 1996, helping the Rams to a WAC conference tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance. In her junior and senior years, she was the WAC Player of the Year.

“I really appreciate my time at Colorado State because they gave me the ball as a freshman,” Hammon said. “A lot of times, [if] you go to Tennessee or UConn, you’re sitting your first year probably for sure … I really got on-the-court training and experience all four years at Colorado State, and I’m really grateful for that.”

In her senior year, Hammon led the Rams to a 33-3 record and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which meant they got to host the first and second round of the tournament. She led them to the Sweet Sixteen, the farthest the Rams have ever gone in the tournament. Like her assistant coach told her she would when she was a high schooler, she became Colorado State’s first-ever All-American. She finished her career in the green and gold as the all-time leading scorer in the history of the WAC, regardless of gender.

The WNBA was next on Hammon’s list. Even though the league had just started while she was in college, it quickly became a goal of Hammon’s to get to the league. Although she didn’t get drafted out of college, she signed with the New York Liberty as a free agent in 1999. It was a quick acclimation process for her into the league in those first few days in the Big Apple.

“First day of training camp, [veteran guards] Vickie Johnson and Teresa Weatherspoon welcomed me with a lot of elbows and torso shots and a lot of bumps and bruises,” Hammon said.

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon stands in front of the scorer's table with her hands in her pockets.
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon watches during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 8, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Hammon soon found her rhythm in the WNBA. She was named an All-Star for the first time in 2003 and again in 2005 and 2006. She was also named Second Team All-WNBA in 2005. In her seven seasons in New York, she helped the Liberty to six playoff appearances, including three WNBA Finals appearances.

In 2007, Hammon was traded from the Liberty to the San Antonio Silver Stars. She was in Spain playing overseas on the day she was traded and said she had tons of missed calls from people trying to let her know.

Getting to San Antonio didn’t change Hammon’s trajectory; instead, she started playing the best basketball of her career. She set career highs in scoring and assists in her first three seasons there and led the league in assists in 2007. She was named an All-Star and First Team All-WNBA in both 2007 and 2009. She also scored a career-high 38 points in a loss to the Sacramento Monarchs in 2009.

In her first three years in San Antonio, Hammon led the Stars to the playoffs each year. In 2008, she helped lead them to their first WNBA Finals in franchise history. During that playoff run, Hammon had one of the most memorable moments of her career, a game-winning assist to Johnson that clinched the conference semifinals series against Sacramento.

Becky Hammon coaches the Las Vegas Aces against the Washington Mystics in 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Hammon played five more seasons in San Antonio but could never recapture the success of her first three seasons. She made her final All-Star appearance in 2011. She tore her ACL in the Stars’ first game in 2013 and retired after the following season, after 15 years in the WNBA. The Stars retired her jersey in 2016.

While she was out with her torn ACL, Hammon started attending San Antonio Spurs practices and games. She had always had an interest in coaching, so this felt like a perfect way to spend the time while she was rehabbing. Not long after retiring from playing, Hammon was hired as an assistant coach on the Spurs’ staff in 2014. She was the second-ever female assistant coach in the NBA, and her time with the legendary Gregg Popovich, who is also being inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, helped push her to where she is today.

“Talk about people that invested in your life,” Hammon said. “He’s somebody who I’ve spent literally thousands of hours with. We got smacked the other day [by the New York Liberty, and] he left me the cutest voicemail, just trying to make [me] smile. But he’s just become a really good friend and mentor and wears a lot of different hats. Him bringing me into the group and him thinking to himself, ‘Oh, there’s something there. I want to help invest in somebody’s talent’ … since that day, I mean, my life has taken on a whole other kind of craziness. I love him. I am forever indebted to him to the man, and he knows that.”

Just a year after being hired, Hammon got the opportunity to be the head coach of the Spurs’ Summer League team. In doing so, she became the first female head coach of an NBA Summer League team. It’s another moment in Hammon’s journey that she will never forget. Hammon hit many more milestones during her tenure coaching with the Spurs, including becoming the first female acting head coach in NBA history in 2020.

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After seven years coaching with the Spurs, the Aces — the new name for the Stars after the team moved to Las Vegas in 2017 — hired Hammon in December 2021. In her first season as head coach, she did something she had come so close to as a player but never accomplished: win a WNBA championship. She led the Aces to their first title in franchise history and won WNBA Coach of the Year.

“It’s super dope just to see how much she’s just changed the game and from a player and then now a coach,” reigning WNBA MVP and Aces forward A’ja Wilson said. “It’s huge. So we’re excited to hear her [Hall of Fame induction] speech. We’re excited just to cheer her on, always. … She’s given so much to this game, and to see her hold that trophy, that’s gonna be really, really dope.”

Now in her second season at the helm, Hammon has led the Aces to new heights. They lead the WNBA with a 26-3 record and rank first in points per game. Hammon has helped make all of her players better by breathing confidence and belief into them. She has brought the franchise she played for to new heights.

“She has just been tremendous,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said. “… You watch our team play and you watch the amount of fun we have, that just permeates from Becky. And I think that type of family culture, relational — Becky just cares about people as human beings, and you see that. I mean, she’s just been tremendous for my growth as a player, but [also] as an individual, and honestly, I just thank God all the time. … I really enjoy coming to work. It’s a lot of fun. And she’s a big reason for that.”

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon has her arms folded across her chest as she laughs with guard Kelsey Plum.
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon (left) and guard Kelsey Plum talk before a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 6, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Through all her success, Hammon has never forgotten those who have gotten her there. Family is important to her, and her parents and children will be at the ceremony on Saturday.

“I wish they could have seen me play, but it just wasn’t time yet to enter into motherhood,” Hammon said of her two sons. “But they love it. My little one, [Samuel,] he just knows Mom likes to wrestle and play in the pool. Cayden is starting to understand a little bit more.”

The opportunity she has gotten to share her basketball experiences with her sons is one she will treasure forever. They haven’t fully grasped what Mom has done, but they have seen clips here and there. They won’t understand the magnitude of what they are witnessing Saturday night in Springfield, but it will be another jewel in Hammon’s crown.

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Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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