The San Antonio Spurs, who played the Heat on Friday night, are not exactly the most popular team in South Florida — not after defeating Miami in the 2014 NBA Finals.
But the Spurs hired Becky Hammon last summer, and that makes them a hit with anyone who believes in equal rights.
Hammon is in her first season as the first female paid assistant coach in NBA history.
“It’s long overdue,” said Cindy Russo, who began her career at FIU in 1977 and recently retired. “It will add another dimension to [the NBA] that is positive and necessary. Not that we are so different, but I think the mind of a female coach can add some things.”
Katie Meier, who coaches the University of Miami and also has directed Team USA’s Under-18 national team, said she had an immediate reaction to the Hammon news.
“I was really fired up,” Meier said.
Krystal Saunders was also thrilled. She completed her playing career last season at UM and has embarked on a career at her alma mater as a director of player development for women’s basketball. She hopes that eventually leads to her becoming a college head coach.
In the past, an aspiring female coach such as Saunders would be able to work only with females.
But now …
“Maybe this will give me more options,” Saunders said.
Hammon, 37, a native of Rapid City, South Dakota, is an experienced pro basketball guard who retired last year from the WNBA and has competed overseas and in the Olympics.
But she is a novice coach, and Meier said there will be pressure on Hammon.
“Any woman who is serious about the profession is hoping that Becky does a heck of a job for the Spurs,” said Meier, who, along with the other coaches, was interviewed shortly after the hire was made. “She better be great, and she knows it. She’s a competitor, and I’m not worried about it.”
LeAnn Freeland, who led Nova Southeastern University to the Division II Final Four last season, is another accomplished local coach who said she was “excited” about the Hammon hiring.
“It’s a great opportunity for women,” Freeland said. “Coaching men in professional sports has been one of the few areas where doors had remained closed for women.
“[Hammon] will serve as an inspiration for women who had hoped to coach basketball at the highest level possible, which is the NBA.”
Freeland had an opportunity to coach young men this past summer for a couple of weeks in an AAU tournament in Fort Myers, and she enjoyed the challenge.
“They respected me,” Freeland said. “I think the more we do this, the more it will give young men the chance to have confidence in women’s knowledge of the game.”
Meier and Freeland agree that the Spurs were the perfect team to make Hammon an NBA pioneer. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is known for his “all business” approach — he doesn’t do publicity stunts.
“Coach ‘Pop’ judges people by their ability and not their gender,” Freeland said.
Meier said Hammon’s experience as a big-time athlete will benefit the Spurs’ players.
But beyond that, Meier said, Hammon can help in a variety of ways.
“Team chemistry is so important,” Meier said. “I think a woman can have a certain instinct and a connection with a player in terms of caring about their families and them as people.
“Also, she brings a different voice and a different perspective. She can say some of the same things that ‘Pop’ says, but it will sound new because it comes from her.”