The Pistons aren’t looking for a woman to be their coach.
They’re looking for a coach.
That search likely will lead them to consider Becky Hammon, an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs since 2014.
That Hammon is a good coach only enhances her profile; that she’s poised to become the first female full-time head coach of a major sports team in North America certainly is notable.
Hammon, 41, is on the Pistons’ radar as they look to fill their coaching vacancy after parting ways with Stan Van Gundy last week. Hammon last week reportedly interviewed with the Milwaukee Bucks, who reached an agreement to hire Mike Budenholzer as their next coach Wednesday.
It’s not some affirmative-action rule that is drawing interest for Hammon. She’s learned from the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, one of the most revered coaches in the NBA, and has earned the players’ respect, from Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
The recent debate has centered on whether a woman can lead a male-dominated team sport.
“If you don't want a female coach, don’t hire one!” Hammon said in an interview with The New Yorker last month. “If you want to hire somebody who’s qualified and will do a good job, then maybe you should consider me.”
Hammon’s name is one of the possible candidates mentioned for some of the three remaining vacancies for head NBA head coaches, with the Pistons, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors. Hammon coached the Spurs’ summer league team to the championship in 2015 and has fit well with Popovich’s mantra of a no-frills team concept, with no single player more important than the rest.
Hammon is an intriguing candidate — and not for public-relations purposes.
The NBA is a copycat league and if she brings the same principles to the table, she could be the change that a fair-to-middling franchise needs to turn things around.
“She is an interesting — and by all accounts, qualified — candidate,” a league source who declined to comment on specific coaching searches told The Detroit News. “She’s a legitimate candidate for a head-coaching job, alongside several other rising assistant coaches in the league.”
The Pistons, who finished 39-43 last season and have one playoff appearance in the past decade, are looking for a new direction and it’s unclear whether they’re targeting an experienced head coach or whether they’d take a chance on a young assistant who could lead their renaissance.
In any case, it’s about finding a good fit, as the Pistons have had six coaches in the past decade — and Van Gundy was the longest-tenured, at four seasons and 328 games.
Having a woman as a head coaches isn’t as controversial to the players as some of the national discussion would suggest.
“I’m not sure how others would receive it and I understand it may be a transition that would have its own challenges, but I just want the best person for the job,” Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson said.
Another coaching candidate could be former Piston Jerry Stackhouse, who was an assistant with the Raptors and head coach of their development league team. Stackhouse, 43, won coach of the year and took the Raptors to the championship game.
Players tend to gravitate to coaches who are former players, something that Hammon and Stackhouse have in common. Hammond played for the San Antonio Silver Stars in the WNBA and for the Russian national team in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012.
“I wouldn’t have an issue with it at all,” Pistons forward Anthony Tolliver said. It would take some getting used to at first but as long as she knows what she’s doing, guys would respond just fine."
The national conversation isn’t about whether Hammon is good with play-calling or with player relationships; rather, it’s how male players would react to having a woman as their head coach.
In an open letter for The Players’ Tribune, Spurs big man Pau Gasol, a 17-year NBA veteran, endorsed Hammon as a more-than-viable candidate.
“I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach,” Gasol wrote. “I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”
That’s a hearty endorsement, but there almost certainly are players and fellow coaches who aren’t fond of the idea. They likely wouldn’t voice their displeasure publicly, but that’s part of the stigma that the first female head coach would have to overcome.
“I would absolutely support the hiring of a female coach,” Pistons forward Jon Leuer said. “I agree with essentially every point (Gasol) makes.”
The NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have been progressive is promoting social change and opening doors that had been pried shut.
Hammon’s is regarded as the most likely to ascend to a head coach.
Two other full-time assistants, Jenny Boucek and Nancy Lieberman worked for the Sacramento Kings and Dawn Staley and Stephanie Ready have had success in the NCAA and NBDL as well.
It’s not a publicity stunt for Hammon and the Spurs but whether she’ll get a chance — either this year or in coming seasons — seems to be a proposition of when, not if.
“My motives shouldn’t be to change people’s minds,” Hammon told The New Yorker. “My job is to be the best that I can be, and if that changes your mind then great, but I can’t be consumed with how you feel about me.”
Hammon seems to be ready.
But is the NBA and the rest of the world?