Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN has reported that Becky Hammon, an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, is interviewing for the head coaching job with the Milwaukee Bucks. In almost any other private or public organization in the 21st century, a woman interviewing for a management position would hardly be news. After all, women currently serve as generals and admirals in the United States Armed Forces. Women serve as governors of U.S. states and leaders of nations. Women also lead companies and universities. So in the 21st century, women leading is not news.At least, it shouldn't be. But Hammon getting this interview definitely has been news. In addition to Wojnarowski, the Hammon interview story has been covered by a number of journalists including Jasmine Baker of HighPostHoops, Amy Lieu of Fox News, Melissa Rohlin of The Mercury News, Chris Thompson of Deadspin, Matt Velazquez of USA Today, Tim Cato of SB Nation, Dan Devine of Yahoo and Chase Hughes of NBC Sports. Obviously, this is news because in the history of major professional sports a woman has never been selected as a head coach. In fact, Hammon is the first woman to even be interviewed. Yes, it seems clear men's professional sports teams practice gender discrimination.
Why are men's professional sports so different from every other organization? Perhaps it's because men in sports tend to agree with Mike Francesa, who last year argued that women can't coach men because they don't play professional sports with men. As Devine noted last year, Francesa's argument completely falls apart when we look at whom the NBA hires to lead its teams. Specifically, let's consider the background of the 33 men who led NBA teams in 2017-18 (Memphis, Phoenix and Milwaukee each had two coaches). Of these 33 coaches, 21 never played in the NBA. So 63.6% of coaches never suited up for an NBA team. And 17 never even played professional basketball. So 51.5% had no professional basketball experience. In sum, the numbers tell us that Francesa is quite wrong.
The list of those with no professional experience includes some of the top coaches in the NBA in 2017-18. For example:
- Gregg Popovich is the highest-paid coach in the NBA and has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA titles. Popovich never played professionally but did play for the Air Force Academy.
- Brad Stevens, who Al Horford says is a genius, last played basketball in 1999 at Division III DePauw College.
- Thom Thibodeau last played basketball at Division III Salem State and now is paid $8 million per year to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves.
- Stan Van Gundy was paid $7 million per season to coach the Detroit Pistons but last played basketball at Division III Suny Brockport (this afternoon, Van Gundy and the Pistons parted ways).
- Erik Spoelstra, who led the Miami Heat to two NBA titles, last played at the University of Portland in 1992.
Again, this is just a partial list. The majority of NBA head coaches in 2017-18 never played professionally, and nearly two-thirds never played in the NBA.
So how did they become head coaches? One key is being an assistant in the NBA. Of the 33 head coaches last year, 27 spent some time as an assistant coach.
Hammon has served as an assistant coach with the Spurs. Plus, unlike the majority of NBA coaches in 2017-18, Hammon has also played professionally. And she didn't just play; Hammon was a star in the WNBA.
There is, though, one thing missing from her résumé. NBA teams seem to love recycling their coaches. Of the 33 head coaches in 2017-18, 18 had already coached an NBA team before accepting the head coaching job they held in 2017-18. So one way to become an NBA head coach is to have prior experience as an NBA head coach.
The New York Knicks went that route with the hiring of David Fizdale. As my fellow Forbes contributor Tommy Beer relayed, Fizdale was offered the job in Phoenix and New York. Neither team interviewed any women for their opening. But both were impressed by a coach fired in midseason by the Memphis Grizzlies and whose all-time regular-season and postseason record is below 0.500. (In addition, like the majority of NBA head coaches, Fizdale never played professional basketball.)
Of course, it is possible that Fizdale is truly, as Erik Spoelstra argued, "a great fit anywhere. He's a brilliant basketball mind that has exceptional, gold-standard level communication skills."
Then again, he didn't seem to be a good fit in Memphis. But he did reportedly beat out 10 other men for the job in New York. So maybe Fizdale is as great as the Knicks and Suns seem to think.
As with Fizdale, people think highly of Hammon. As Popovich noted: “Becky can do anything she wants. … I just know how gifted she is, and she’s earned the respect of everybody in our program, from top to bottom. She’s a valued assistant, somebody that I depend on. I really respect her knowledge and her way of doing things. She’s a natural. So whatever she wants to do in her future, I think is her choice. She’s got it all.”
Despite Popovich's praise, no one else in the NBA has even bothered to interview Hammon. The Bucks, though, are taking a long-delayed first step in the NBA. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors — who never coached anyone before being hired in his current job — is glad Hammon is being interviewed and thinks a woman will be hired "at some point."
Again, outside sports, most organizations have already reached "some point." Hammon is not the only woman qualified to coach in the NBA. But she is the first to get an interview. The next step is to hire a woman. And then another. And another.
And maybe someday, as Kerr observes, “as we see more of that, it will become more normal."
When that happens, the NBA might finally join everyone else in the 21st century, where a woman being interviewed and hired for a job will no longer be news.