The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, December 11, 2019
The Becky Hammon-Knicks question — Geno Auriemma's Queen Latifah story — Must-click women's basketball links
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The stakes for Becky Hammon
Look: purely for selfish reasons, the idea of the Knicks hiring Becky Hammon would make me deliriously happy.
That the barrier for a woman getting a head coaching job in the NBA needs to fall is not up for debate. It has to happen, and moreover, the number of assistants who are women in the pipeline used by so many teams to make head coaching hires has dramatically increased the chance it will happen, and soon.
First among those candidates, in part because of her abilities, in part because she simply got the opportunity to apprentice first, is Becky Hammon. With the Spurs, Hammon has impressed, working her way up the bench hierarchy. And it’s been generally thought in basketball circles that Gregg Popovich is grooming her as his successor.
That’s great in raw progress terms. But it also matters for what comes after Hammon, or whoever else is first, gets the job: how she succeeds or fails.
In realms across the sports industry, and really, all industries, the double standard of success and failure is drawn at the gender line. Men fail, and it is understood to be an individual man’s lack of success. Women fail, and it is so often defined as a referendum on all women.
In a sport where the conventional wisdom, just a few years ago, was that women wouldn’t ever get a chance at even an assistant’s gig, where there was widespread sexism even in the WNBA over the idea that women could get the proper respect as head coaches of women, you better believe that to best boost women coaching in the NBA, it’ll be extremely helpful for the first woman through the door to have success.
Which brings us back to Becky Hammon, specifically. With the Spurs, a stable front office, established protocols in place, she’d have a chance to come in and coach. Unless Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are returning, they’ll need some new players — at the moment, the Spurs would not be a Western Conference playoff team — but the Spurs are likely to recognize this as well, and give Hammon time to get it right, like former Spurs assistant Brett Brown got in Philadelphia, for instance — four losing seasons before a breakthrough.
The Knicks? Well, they just fired David Fizdale a year and change into his tenure, with 2.5 years left on his contract. The Knicks have gone through a dozen coaches in the past 20 years. The Knicks are… not known for their stability, is probably the nicest way of putting that.
Imagine, if you will, that Hammon was in Fizdale’s position. This roster, while there is some young talent on it, simply isn’t built to win in the NBA on a regular basis. There’s no secret lineup or magical play that turns the Knicks into a contender, not these Knicks.
Would Hammon have gotten more time than Fizdale, who had a track record of success in Memphis, did? Unlikely at best. And when the end came, just how many men who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this current NBA era of women on the benches as assistants would use a Hammon failure as a way to whisper into team owners’ ears not to go down the same road?
It would slow, stall or halt the progress being made by women here. It shouldn’t. It’s brutally unfair and short-sighted. But the first woman through the door has a lot riding on her shoulders.
And so, I can understand Hammon’s willingness to consider the Knicks. The Knicks should certainly be calling her, regardless. Hammon played at The Garden for years, has a base of support in New York. The team could use the best tactician available, someone with a Spurs pedigree, someone who can send a larger message that this is a different organization now than the one that… well, imagine me gesturing at essentially the entirety of the last 20 years.
But for the greater cause, Becky Hammon in New York may not be best. Now, that can’t be what informs how the Knicks proceed here, and frankly, it’s unfair for Hammon to have to consider such things, either. And who knows? Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo decides to go play in New York and the contours of their success arc change dramatically.
Maybe not, though. And there are bad-faith actors ready to pounce if that happens.
This week in women’s basketball
Bria Felicien catches you up on the Atlanta Dream’s thinking.
A very Philadelphia profile of Kenzie Gardler by Mike Jensen.
Only A Game retells one of my favorites, Nancy Lieberman’s comeback at 50.
My goodness, there has been a lot of New Jersey talent.
Speaking of New Jersey talent, great job by Paramus Catholic to honor Anne Donovan and Rose Marie Battaglia.
Christine Hopkins is here for Ohio State’s resurgence.
Phi Slamma Jamma? No, Phi Beta Kappa.
Love to see the NCAA make decisions that don’t help students, the programs, or even the competition level.
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX: Geno Auriemma
So we’re in the middle of the postgame press conference after Seton Hall-UConn at Walsh Gym, and Geno launches into a series of memories. Could any of us use it in a story? Maybe, I guess. But the point is, Geno is endlessly interesting, and I wanted to share some of what he said. The IX exists so we can all document what happens across women’s sports, making sure fascinating moments aren’t lost to history. This, to me, is one of them.
GENO AURIEMMA: It felt good being back in this gym. It felt really good being back in this gym. I’ve had some great memories in this place. I want somebody to look this up. But when I was coaching at Virginia, I want to say it was either 1983, ‘84, Walsh Gymnasium was hosting New Jersey Interscholastic girls high school basketball tournament, and I came here to watch a game.
Chris Dailey swears that it wasn’t here, but I know it was here. It had to be. I remember sitting in those seats. They haven’t changed. The colors haven’t changed. So that was my first time ever in this gym back then in 1983. And since that day, there has been a lot of great memories here.
I asked our players, ‘I saw the most famous person ever to play in this gym, played in that high school game.’ And they couldn’t guess who it was. Bet you wouldn’t guess who it was. Not unless you were here, and unless you were at that building, and unless you were following girls basketball back then, you wouldn’t guess who it is. But a kid we were recruiting named Tammi Reiss from Irvington High School, a hell of a player. And their coach was Benny Smith.
And Tammi was a hell of a player. She was like the Maya Moore of her day. That son-of-a-gun could play, man. Everybody in America wanted her. So I came up to watch the game and I was sitting with Bob Bradley, the U.S. World Cup Coach. Who lives, grew up in this area. We’re watching the game and…
…And then there was a kid on Irvington’s team named Dana Owens. And I watched the game and a full-scale brawl broke out at the end of the game between these two high school teams. Punching and kicking and tackling. I mean it was full-scale, like all out, and it got better. Cheerleaders from both teams came out and they square off against each other and then it just was a melee and I sat all the way up top and I watched it.
And when Dana Owens became famous, I remember hearing from her in 1995. It’s 12 years later, and we win our first National Championship and I get a box of Dom Perignon Champagne. And I opened it up and it’s signed, ‘Coach, really proud of you, blah blah blah,’ signed, Queen Latifah.
I tell people and they don’t believe me. The first thing they want to know: ‘Was she any good?’ What difference does it make? What difference does it make, right? So, yeah, she could have been a WNBA player if they had a WNBA back then. She ended up going to LA, became a trainer with Tammi, spent all that time out there and stumbled on to this. This kid, that was my first time in this gym, started off with a bang. I love coming here. We won our first Big East Championship here. We won a Big East Championship here in ‘95 when we won the National Championship. Had some great games here. Had some great games here. I love this building. I love the atmosphere.