Becky Hammon, the first-ever female NBA Summer League head coach, spoke exclusively with Fortune about leadership: "Basketball is basketball...and great players want to be coached."
One year ago, the San Antonio Spurs grabbed headlines when the team named Becky Hammon one of its assistant coaches. Various news outlets wrote that the Spurs “made history.” Hammon was flooded with interview requests. Then she helped coach the team to the first round of the NBA Playoffs, where the Spurs lost in seven games to the L.A. Clippers.
Now Hammon is making history again, after the Spurs tapped her to be the head coach of its Summer League team. Yes, she’s the first woman to do it. But if you ask her, basketball is basketball and she’s simply a developing coach using the Summer League to sharpen her skills, just like the rookies and prospects that she’s coaching this summer.
Speaking to Fortune from Las Vegas Monday morning after her first Summer League win (the Spurs are 1-1), Hammon talked about her unintentional role as a trailblazer for women in the NBA, her experience in the WNBA (she played from 1996 to 2014), and what it’s like to work alongside the famously prickly, disciplined coach Gregg Popovich (who made Fortune‘s first ever World’s Greatest Leaders list last year). What follows is an edited transcript.
The NBA has taken steps to make the Summer League more of an attraction—can you feel that from the fans, does it feel important?
The crowds have been great. When we played in Utah last week, there were a lot of people in the stands, the whole lower bowl was full.
I feel like the Summer League is for development, but it’s also about these guys being seen. Some of these guys, even, hopefully they’ll get contracts from other teams. The bigger goal is just development, so that when people come in for training camp they have a foundation for how we do things and what’s expected of them.
What is expected of them by the Spurs? And what makes the Spurs special?
I think so many things are special about the Spurs organization. I don’t think you’re that good for that long without doing something right. We have great leadership with [General Manager] R.C. Buford and with Pop, who has been there a long time, and they have their way of doing things.
I think a big thing for the Spurs is character. You can be the best basketball player in the world, but if you have low character, you don’t play in a Spurs uniform. In the locker room, gelling together, playing as a team, you have to have good character to do that.
It seems like the Spurs are not only good on the court every year, but also stay away from drama and controversy. You rarely see bad press about the team, or player conduct issues. Is that just because San Antonio is a smaller media market, or is that by design?
I think it’s a little bit of both. We try to bring guys in that are trustworthy and good in the locker room. TMZ is not sitting outside the night clubs in San Antonio—nor are we. We expect the guys to come in, do their job, be effective, and also, at the end of the day, we understand that a lot is out of your control. But you can control how hard you work, how you carry yourself, and what you put in your body. We expect them to control those things so that we don’t have to. I feel like a Tim Duncan, a Tony Parker, a Manu [Ginobili], they are who they are and those are the leaders in our locker room, so they lead by example. They walk the walk.
Have those three veterans, plus Coach Popovich, had the biggest influence on the team today, simply by their longevity?
Those guys are building blocks. When you have people who have strong character as the foundational pieces of the organization, you build off it. That speaks to the type of people they are. It has nothing to do, even, with how hard Tim Duncan works on the court—and he is one of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen. He is a machine. You guys get to see him in games, but when you also observe the way he conducts himself every day, it’s like, “Wow, okay, that’s why he is who he is.”
Pop is a guy of his word. He values character. He’s a straight shooter. He’s going to tell you the truth even when it doesn’t feel good. And athletes respect that.
What have you brought from the WNBA to the NBA? Does your experience as a player inform your coaching?
Without the WNBA, we’re not having this conversation. Without the WNBA, I go to Colorado State, I play there, maybe I go play overseas for a few years after that and make some money, and then come back and do some other occupation. The WNBA gave me a platform to be the best player I can be, but also to learn all the ins and outs of being a professional, of conducting myself. Without the WNBA, Pop never sees me play basketball, he never sees me in my community, he never sees me interact with teammates, and he never sees me run a pick-and-roll. It’s a huge reason why I’m here.
But what I’ve brought over? Just basketball experience. You could drop the ‘W.’ It’s on-court experience. And there’s no way to simulate that. Basketball has been my life for the past 16-20 years—actually, my whole life.
Do you think that because of you, more WNBA players may want to coach in the NBA?
I don’t know if it has crossed their minds, but now that it’s been done, I hope more will do it and more will come to chew on the idea that, “Hey, maybe I want to do the coaching thing.” Generally, former basketball players either get into TV or they go coach at the college level. Just like on the men’s side. But now that this door has been opened, maybe we’ll see more of it, and hopefully it will not be a news story.
How does all the attention over you being the first female NBA assistant coach sit with you? Do you want to be seen as a trailblazer in that way?
When Pop told me that I was going to be coaching Summer League, for me that was like, “Wow. That is going to be a challenge, and two weeks of tremendous growth for me as a developing coach.” That’s immediately how I looked at it. It had nothing to do with, “Oh, I’m the first” whatever. Pop is just developing me as a young coach, and he’s throwing me into the fire. The female thing? I knew the story broke when my phone started blowing up. But I did not think it was going to be another whirlwind. It was just an opportunity to grow as a coach. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, and it’s hard, because I understand the significance of it, and it is a huge deal, but I am also a young coach that is learning here on the fly. And unfortunately my guys have to live with my mistakes too. So we’re all just growing together out here in the desert.
Is it any different being surrounded by male players and coaches, rather than female?
My neck hurts because I constantly have to look up because they’re all taller. But not really. Basketball is basketball, athletes are athletes, and great players want to be coached. You just coach them as athletes, try to make them better.