The Las Vegas Aces won the WNBA Championship on Sunday after beating the Connecticut Sun 78-71, making them the first team from the desert city to clinch a title in professional sports.
The Aces have held themselves with conviction and intention from the beginning of the season. This franchise has dedicated players, and an adoring fan base, plus a coach who was voted the 2022 WNBA coach of the year.
This was Becky Hammon's first year coaching in the WNBA. Before joining the franchise in Las Vegas, Hammon was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs alongside NBA icon Tim Duncan. Both of these legends were under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich, arguably one of the best men to ever coach the game.
"The talent on the court was elite, and it was clear that [the players] worked incredibly hard, complemented each other well and all bought into the system by first-year head coach, Becky Hammon," says Lindsay Gibbs, noted sports writer and author of the Power Plays newsletter.
"In her debut year in the WNBA as a head coach, Hammon, who was made the highest-paid coach in the off-season, truly put all of the foundational pieces together and made them click."
Hammon a phenom
Hammon is a phenom in her own right. After playing basketball at Colorado State University, she went undrafted but played in the WNBA for 16 years with the New York Liberty. She retired and ended her career with the San Antonio Stars in 2014.
The Stars moved to Las Vegas to become the Aces in 2018. Hammon was the Stars' all-time leader in assists per game and had a points average of 15.6, and was the WNBA leader in free throw percentage at 89.7 per cent.
WATCH | Las Vegas Aces capture WNBA title:
She is a player and a coach I have long admired. And she made me think deeply about the ways that men can help build sports for everyone. I fell in love with men's basketball because of the San Antonio Spurs. I was always a hockey and soccer fan but my ex-husband loved basketball.
I watched some games with him but it wasn't until I watched Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker play together with such fluidity that I was mesmerized. When I learned more about Popovich (known everywhere as "Pop") I began to appreciate the game, his coaching and that team even more. The type of team culture with the Spurs was different and more aligned with what I wanted sports to be.
In 2015, my mentor and friend Dave Zirin went to San Antonio and took part in a private meeting hosted by the Spurs and Dr. John Carlos. At that time, it was not often that a sports journalist and an Olympian who faced the evils of systemic racism in sports hung out with NBA stars and talked about the famous protest of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics — or discussed social issues so candidly. But those are the types of conversations Popovich wanted to have with his players, his team and his staff. That's how you build a better culture in sports.
LISTEN: John Carlos reflects on his historic Black Power salute:
Hammon earns history
It wouldn't be a surprise that just a year before that, Pop hired Hammon as the second female assistant coach in the league and the first one to have a full-time position. On Dec. 30, 2021, Hammon became the first woman to be the head coach of an NBA team after Pop received a technical foul and was ejected. Hammon took over on the bench. Pop downplayed the incident by focusing on her skill and not her gender. He said very powerfully and very concisely: "I didn't hire Becky to make history. She earned it."
That support from a leader like Pop, a five-time championship-winning coach, changed the way people saw a woman on the bench. That matters. To have one of the greatest players (Duncan) flanking her, and a winner of the NBA coach of the year giving her the opportunity matters a lot. But no NBA team called her to take up the mantle and we watched and saw Hammon be passed over for other coaching jobs.
In early 2022, Las Vegas brought her to be the head coach of the Aces. She was ready. And she did exactly what we knew she would in a league with the best coaches and players in the world. Her precision and her focus are unyielding. As Hammon was on the verge of clinching her first title as head coach, Pop came to show how much he believes in her and always has. The pride on his face and the joy on hers are amazing.
In addition to Pop, another great example is Aces owner Mark Davis, who chose to attend Game 4 of the WNBA playoffs in Connecticut while his other team, the Las Vegas Raiders of the NFL, had their season opener at home. Davis was credited for valuing a women's sports team as highly as a professional men's team. Yes, his decision meant that he was presented with the league championship trophy. But a man choosing to support women's sports and be fully invested in their success is a sight we need to see.
I believe that women are powerful, strong and superb. I know that what they achieve is because of grit, sacrifice and a community of other women. It is also my own experience. As one of the few racialized women in sports media in this country, I know how men can support the careers of women colleagues.
I am lucky to have a few mentors and "work husbands," who have been nothing but encouraging. They trust my work and value my opinions. I am nowhere near as talented as a writer as Hammon is as a basketball player or coach, but having friends in my career who support me in a Pop-esque manner has bolstered my confidence and my drive to be better.
I count myself lucky to have people who have pumped me up when I have felt flat or frustrated. Hammon being passed over many times by NBA franchises must have felt discouraging.
But if we are going to start recognizing that women's sports are important, men need to start treating their colleagues with the respect they deserve. And that includes giving them the opportunities we know they deserve.