It’s entirely possible that before we see a woman as the American president, we’ll see a woman as the head coach of a team in one of the four men’s major professional sports.
That’s not an expression of political pessimism, though I feel plenty. It’s a report on what’s actually happening in the NBA, where a gutsy, ebullient basketball wiz named Becky Hammon is reportedly being interviewed for the top coaching position with the Milwaukee Bucks.
She’s making cracks in a glass ceiling few people even noticed, because few could imagine a woman aspiring to – or being considered for – such a role.
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Men coaching women is commonplace in college and the pros. It’s expected. But women coaching men? That’s positively exotic, especially as the stakes rise. But there’s Hammon, all 5 feet 6 inches of her, ready and able not to play with the big boys but to tell them how to play.
What a stunning sign of progress when we sorely needed one. The #MeToo revelations, the “Access Hollywood” tape, and other facets of Donald Trump’s campaign and reign have presented reminder after reminder of how abominably men in high positions – and, for that matter, low ones – often treat and talk about women, who are still forced to fight for basic respect in the workplace.
Hammon’s story provides a bold counterpoint to that, in the most macho of settings. She made history in 2014 when Gregg Popovich, the fabled coach of the fearsome San Antonio Spurs, hired her as an assistant, the first woman ever placed in a full-time job at that level in the NBA, the NFL, the NHL or Major League Baseball.
The Bucks’ interest in her is also historic. And while she’s considered a long shot – at 41, she doesn’t have as much coaching experience as men in contention for the job – she’s also likely to get a close look from other teams in the years to come.
Popovich’s coaching disciples are coveted and poached, and he has demonstrated full confidence in her. She was the Spurs’ head coach in the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas in 2015. The team won the championship.
The world of big-time men’s sports is better known for objectifying women than for lifting them up. With galling regularity, players commit sexual abuse and domestic violence.
The culture of male entitlement was depressingly clear in my colleague Juliet Macur’s story this month about cheerleaders for the Washington Redskins. Several of them told her that at a photo shoot in Costa Rica in 2013, they were required to walk around topless and to escort the team’s wealthy patrons to a nightclub.
But the NBA has been trying to set itself apart. Adam Silver, its commissioner since 2014, “has expressed a desire to make the NBA progressive and inclusive – a league of the woke,” Louisa Thomas wrote in a profile of Hammon in The New Yorker last month. Thomas noted that two years ago, Silver rode on an NBA float in New York’s gay-pride parade – which Popovich, too, attended.
But Hammon is no statement or test case. She has defied odds and dazzled observers at every turn.
She grew up in South Dakota, discovered her love for basketball early and realized that her modest height meant that she had to be immodestly clever. She was immodestly determined, too. Despite her brilliant college career at Colorado State, not a single WNBA team drafted her; her size gave scouts pause.
But she was invited to training camp for the New York Liberty, worked her way onto the squad, was later traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars and became one of the most popular players in the league. Popovich watched her and was wowed – by her cunning, spirit and leadership.
There’s a dark side to sports, and we in the media write about it all the time. But there’s a sunny side, too, and it includes the way that differences – of politics, of race and, finally, of gender – can fade away when a team comes together. Talent is the currency that counts most, and one objective, victory, eclipses others.
On Twitter and talk radio, some sports fans have predictably rejected the notion that Hammon or any other woman could be a credible, effective head coach. The Spurs player Pau Gasol wrote a retort to that for The Players’ Tribune. He insisted that professional sports cannot be “a bubble for all of our worst ignorance” and that gender diversity matters everywhere, including the NBA. “It’s what’s right,” he said.
Hammon, for her part, shrugs off doubters. “My job is to be the best that I can be, and if that changes your mind, then great,” she told The New Yorker. “But I can’t be consumed with how you feel about me.”
Let’s shatter two ceilings at once: Hammon for president!
Gasol can be her Veep.