A Star Among Stars : Beck Hammon

At the San Antonio Silver Stars’ “media day” at the AT&T Center, just a few days beforethe start of the 2012 season, guard Becky Hammon is pretty much the center of attention. Though the event is open to outside media, it is mainly an opportunity forthe team to shoot publicity photos, record brief interviews with the players and produce a variety of PSA videos to be used later as needed. Hammon spends a good chunk of time recording the latter, patiently reading from ateleprompter a variety of messages, from acknowledgments of sponsors and a breast cancerawareness promo to holiday greetings, information about tickets and an almost poeticallyphrased message about the WNBA that starts with “We are professionals who play with passion, the best in the world at what we do. We are the children of Title IX; we are Team USA andOlympians of many nations, playing for America’s hometown …”

Then it’s back to the arena for more photographs, both by herself and with fellow star player Sophia Young. Hammon is a good sport through it all, smiling, clowning a bitand jumping gracefully when the photographer asks her to, while making a few light comments here and there. It’s all part of the job that she has gotten used to it after 14 yearsas a professional basketball player. “This is a fun day for us,” she tells us during a break. “We do it for the fans and the media. Each new seasonstarts with new energy and excitement and new challenges. I love challenges. If you are a professional athlete, you love challenges.”
One such challenge this summer is getting the newplayers integrated into the team, especially the rookieswho are still in their early 20s. “One of the rookies is thesame age as my nephew,” says Hammon, who is 35. “We have a lot of work to do; we still have to develop teamchemistry, and chemistry is something you can’t force. It takes time. It will come eventually.” As one of the Silver Stars’ leaders, she will try her best to build that team spirit because basketball playing — and winning — is all about collective strength, not individual success. “I have seen teams with a lot of talent not win games because their foundation has cracks, which start with the individual. You have to learn what it means to be a good teammate, to encourage others, to be a giver,” notes Hammon.

Hammon has been a giver since she joined the SilverStars in 2007. That very first season she brought higher visibility to the team by scoring an average of 18.8 ppg (pointsper game) coupled with an average of 5.0 apg (assists pergame). For her outstanding performance, she was showered with honors, including WNBA First Team honors andthe league’s Peak Performer designation for the highest assist average. In her second season here, she helped the SilverStars achieve their best WNBA record of 24-10, which also led to their first participation in the WNBA finals. And she continues to shine. A six-time All-Star, Hammon again led her team in scoring in 2011 and topped it all by being selected as one of the Top 15 players in the WNBA’s 15-year-history. The latter is an honor bestowed by fans, media and basketball professionals on the select few who excel in athletic performance, overall sportsmanship, leadership and community service. These accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that Hammon is only 5 feet 6 inches tall, practically petite by basketball standards. She says she has always had to outsmart her competition because she couldn’t compete in sheer strength and speed. “I do wonder why God did not give me a few more inches, but He has given me drive and a good work ethic and strong hands,” she says, waving her hands. “I have had to rely on my brain. I am going against bigger and faster people, elite athletes, so I had to become a student of the game and be creative.” Thanks to brains and determination, in 2008 she also realized every athlete’s dream toplay in the Olympics even if she had to do it by getting Russian citizenship and joining the Russian national team. She’ll play with the Russians again this summer at the 2012 Olympiad in London.

A native of Rapid City, S.D., Hammon grew up in a sports-oriented family that spent Sundaysgoing to church and playing basketballand softball. As a little girl, she would sneakup on the court and start shooting. “I was sogood at it, people thought I was a boy eventhough I had long hair,” she recalls. There was no WNBA back then, and heronly prospect was to play for a college team,but that did not deter her. As a high school senior,she was voted South Dakota Player of theYear, and her good looks probably helped securethe title of South Dakota Miss Basketballthe previous year. Then it was on to ColoradoState, where she set all sorts of records, includingthe school’s first All-American women’splayer. In 2004, Hammon was also inductedinto the university’s Sports Hall of Fame.Despite her obvious talent, however,throughout her early career Hammon had toprove herself again and again. Her height andthe relative obscurity of the schools she attendeddid not make her anybody’s firstchoice. She “was not heavily recruited” by colleges,and four years later, after graduationand a stellar college record, no pro teamdrafted her at first. Doubt started to creep in.In 1999, the league assigned her to the NewYork Liberty, where she spent grueling daysbeing tested by her heavyweight colleagues.They had no intention of keeping her, she says,but the gutsy, driven young pro eventuallywon everyone over, made the team and stayedthere for eight solid years. Still, USA Basketball failed to invite her to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in 2008. “In 2007 I probably had my best year ever, was anAll-Star, and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’teven considered for the national team,” she explains.“The Russians gave me an opportunity. I could sit on my couch and watch it all on TV, or I could participate. I chose to participate. People made a fuss about it because it was the Russian team, but it’s done all the time. Thereare other American girls playing for other countries.”

The fuss has largely died down, but she still gets questions like, “What would you do if Russia is playing against the U.S. for that final trophy and you are in the position to take the decisive last shot?” Her answer is straight forward and logical: “I would never wear (theRussian team’s) uniform if I had no intention towin. I’ll definitely take that shot.” Off season, Hammon also plays for Spartak, a Russianteam based in Vidnoje, near Moscow, that has won multiple EuroLeague championships. Wth her busy schedule that keeps her on the road for months at the time, it’s no wonderthat she cherishes time at home when she can retreat to the “sanctuary” of her backyard to read, think and enjoy the peace. She loves SanAntonio and bought a house her first year here, something she had never done in New York. When we bring up the subject of personal relationships and children, Hammon notes that she is married to her work at present. As for kids, sometimes she thinks she wants them and other times not. Although there are many mothers in the WNBA, she realistically estimates that she couldn’t take time off to have a child at this point without terminating her career. And she isn’t ready for that yet. The little girl-that-could has become a star who intends to enjoy her favorite game a few more years.

Before we part, we offer her a chance to send a message to our readers. And she does: “It’s important for women to support women’s sports. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, come and bring your daughters and granddaughters to see women who have made it as professionals in this field. There’s more to bedone, but it can’t be done if we don’t support each other. And it’s entertaining, too!”

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