Becky Hammon has been defying the odds her entire basketball life. Now, the ultimate underdog is preparing for her biggest challenge yet.
Hammon accepted a coaching position with the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, making her the first full-time paid female NBA assistant coach. She will begin her new job when her current one, playing in the WNBA for the San Antonio Stars, is over at the end of the season.
"I'm the person that always is kind of like left off the roster. I'm the one that's always kind of picked last," Hammon said. "So this whole thing to me is a little bit crazy and mind-boggling that an opportunity like this has come down the pipe."
The 5-foot-6 guard has always seemed to be going against the grain. Coming out of high school, a lot of college coaches told her she couldn't play at the next level. She proved them wrong, having a stellar All-American career at Colorado State. She wasn't drafted by any WNBA team, but went on to be honored as one of the league's 15 greatest players of all-time.
She also became the highest profile American women's basketball player to compete for another country in the Olympics when she helped guide Russia to a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Games.
"I do feel like those situations built character and built a persistence about me, made me work harder and study harder," Hammon said. "All those little things that you go through year after year, it builds something in you. Now, taking on this next challenge, I know the same thing that got me through those things are the fibers of what I'm made up of.
"Nothing in my life has really ever been easy. I've always been someone who did it uphill. I'm up for challenges. I'm up for being outside the box, making tough decisions and challenges. ... And I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. Throw those all in there and this was the perfect challenge and opportunity."
The 16-year WNBA veteran will work with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on scouting, game-planning and the day-to-day grind of practice like no woman has done before.
"It will definitely open some doors," Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman said. "People who know Becky will understand that she put herself in position to create this opportunity. Everybody knows that Pop is not about doing something for publicity because he doesn't need it.
"It is about his values and that who she is. It is a perfect marriage, I hate to use that in that sense, but it is 2014 with social media and everybody having eyes on it, I think it is really going to be something special for us."
Hammon, humble about her new job, quickly deflected the success women have had in other areas.
"As cool as it is, this is just the fact that this is basketball," she said. "There are women that have trail-blazed much bigger paths. And really, trail-blazed the path for things like this to happen. There are a lot more important things going on in the bigger (picture)."
Hammon also was quick to note that she got the job on her basketball ability and not because of her gender.
"Obviously, that's great and it's a tremendous honor, but I think the bigger point is I'm getting hired because I'm capable, because of my basketball IQ, and stuff that they've seen in me personally," she said.
San Antonio is the perfect fit for Hammon. Last season, she attended Spurs practices, film sessions and sat behind the bench at home games after suffering a torn ACL that kept her from playing. She's been friends with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan since competing in an NBA All-Star shooting competition in 2008, a familiarity that will help as she makes her transition to coaching the two stars.
"It's good she's also going to a situation where people recognize it's not a publicity stunt," Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "Popovich is comfortable in his own skin. They're the world champions. They're kind of a low-key organization. Doing something like this is something they feel is a good thing to do."
Hammon isn't the first woman to work with NBA players. During the 2001-02 season, Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas brought Lisa Boyer into the team's practices and some games. Boyer, now an assistant at South Carolina, wasn't paid by the Cavaliers and didn't travel with the team.
Nancy Lieberman and Charlotte Bobcats sideline reporter Stephanie Ready have both coached teams in the NBA Development League. Lieberman now serves as the GM of the Texas Legends. Phoenix Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale knows there will be more scrutiny for Hammon then she had when she tried out for the Indiana Pacers in 1979.
"You guys didn't come out like you are today. You have tweets, Internet, Facebook, all that stuff. ESPN was in its first year when I tried out with the Pacers," Meyers said. "Becky knows how to handle herself. People are going to say things. Media is going to rip her. There are going to be coaches out there saying they are just as qualified. Well, you know what, other people are just as qualified. It's being in the right place at the right time. They know what she is capable of doing."
AP Basketball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis and AP Freelancers Benjamin Standig in Washington, Al Bravo in Phoenix and Ned Griffen in Uncasville, Connecticut, contributed to this report.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg