It's not even remotely unusual for a veteran basketball star to be hired by the owner she used to play for as an assistant coach. But what makes now-retired WNBA great Becky Hammon very unusual is that she's a woman, and the team she's been hired to assistant coach is not the San Antonio Silver Stars franchise she played for but the San Antonio Spurs.
This will not quite make her the first woman* to serve as an assistant coach in the NBA (there was Lisa Boyer on the Cavs over ten years ago) but it will bring the total number of women coaching in the big four men's pro sports leagues from zero to one. In addition, Hammon — unlike Boyer — is going to be a real full-time member of the coaching staff.
It's no coincidence that the NBA is the pioneering league in this regard. As Slate's Amanda Hess wrote in a well-timed piece published yesterday, the NBA is generally much more aggressive at promoting women into non-playing roles than the other sports leagues. One reason for that is that unlike football or baseball women do play basketball at very high levels of competition — Division I NCAA, pro leagues in the US and Russia, the Olympics — so women are networked in to the world of big time hoops in a bigger way. The NBA also has a more politically liberal fanbase than the other men's sports leagues (the WNBA is even more leftwing) and former commissioner David Stern had a personal commitment to the project.
The Spurs' coach, Gregg Popovich, is also a big liberal in general. He doesn't speak to the press much, but when he does it's sometimes to complain about SNAP cuts.
Last but by no means least, the hallmark of the Spurs' organization throughout an extremely successful 15-year run of NBA excellence has been an ability to identify underrated sources of talent. That's come most famously in their early recognition that it's possible to find talented perimeter players in Europe, but it has other dimensions as well. And perhaps with Hammond they've found the next iteration of inefficiently undervalued talent. The Spurs have done so well that many other teams have taken to poaching their assistant coaches. To gain an edge, you need to find talent that other teams won't use. America's substantial supply of women with extensive basketball experience seems like a smart place to look.
* Correction: An early version of this article incorrectly said Hammon would be the first woman to ever serve on an NBA coaching staff.